By Diana Vasquez, March 8, 2021
The Prison City Roller Derby league in nearby Chino Hills inspires women to give back to their community and provides a space for them to roll off steam despite the COVID-19 pandemic taking a toll on most sports.
Roller skating and roller derby, a roller-skating contact sport played by two teams on a roller rink, allow the Prison City team and the CPP community to express their identity outside their homes and routinary schedules.
Robyn Brewer, the team’s marketing coordinator, helps organize events like charities and fundraisers for the team. Brewer said derby nicknames play a large role in their identity outside of home. Brewer, nicknamed Brewsin Barbie for wearing a Barbie t-shirt on her first day of practice, joined without knowing how to skate. Yet despite difficulty learning, Brewer found a community among the team that inspired her to be more confident in herself.
“We have nurses, stay-at-home moms, full-time students on the team, but then they come to practice and they’re this completely different person that nobody would ever think that’s what they did for their day job,” said Brewer. “When people choose their own names, it’s like, well, who do I want to be here? Because I have the ability to write my own path right now. It’s an interesting thing seeing how members get to become their own name and identity on the track.”
Fionna Espana, a former CPP kitchen operations supervisor, chose the roller derby name Betty Clock-Her, inspired by her profession as a pastry chef, but with a twist of roughness for what the sport represents. Espana played seven years for the Los Angeles Renegades Rollergirls league and said her experience was disciplinary, physically and mentally challenging but made her feel stronger after learning how to play and finding a family within the team.
“We were all coming from different aspects of life, some moms, single people and even older, but a lot of people I thought I would never talk to in my regular life setting,” said Espana. “We would have barbecues, do escape rooms, dinners and come together with our family and spouses. It became a very empowering community to be a part of.”
Melvin Gutierrez, a first-year landscape architecture student, has been skating for almost a year with his friends and father. His experience learning was an intimidating process for him, one which brought a lot of bruising but also joy.
“I really wanted to try roller derby but by the time I learned about roller skating, there was no way I could join it,” said Gutierrez. “Roller skating is an escape especially with school and life stress and because I found out I might be bipolar. It’s my way to get out in the world and breathe.”
The Prison City Roller Derby league has built community both on and off the rink since its founding in 2007, aiming not only to strengthen team bonds, but to strengthen the communal
bonds in its hometown of Chino Hills. The team has volunteered at animal rescues, collected essentials for the homeless and is working to adopt a highway, a program that allows volunteers to conduct litter pick-ups. In October 2020, the team donated toiletries to Life Bear Necessities, a non-profit organization in Pomona. The team is currently working to become a non-profit.
Maria Free, Prison City’s head coach and original founder, meets with the team once a week on Zoom and is initiating in-person practice at an outdoor rink.
“We average five to eight people at a practice, out of a potential 20 to 30,” said Free “The facilities are unavailable, and still closed due to COVID-19, so we’re finding cement surfaces that have lights where we can go practice at.”
Free is teaching single skills that could be accomplished in a small surface area through instructional videos recorded on Zoom; there are members who skate in their kitchen while others in the backyard. Their bond continues to grow strong even in an online setting as they clean their gear together and catch up on life.
Free said teaching roller derby differs from other sports because no other sport teaches its players how to run. In the game roller derby, the objective is for a player of the team called the jammer to overlap as many opposing skaters as they can; the jammer is prevented from scoring by being blocked. With the sport requiring such contact, members learn to skate and fall appropriately before learning how to play the game.
The team is composed of 30 members with seven members joining in 2020 through a Zoom recruit night held in August.
“There are a lot of teams that have just gone on pause and are not doing anything right now because the world is just too crazy. All of us just weren’t ready to give that up yet because roller skating is that kind of glue that keeps us together,” said Brewer.
For more information on the team students can visit https://prisoncityrollerderby.com/.
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