Photo: D. Babao Photography

Photo: D. Babao Photography


By Kim Constantinesco

There’s a sport out there where you ruin your body in order to save your soul. “And for some reason, that makes perfect sense.”

So says Bonnie D. Stroir, a hard-hitting roller derby player.

Jessica “Crazy Diamond” Bateman of Flint, Michigan completely agrees. For the 39-year-old, who has played on the Flint City Derby Girls’ team for the past three years, the sport and her teammates have, indeed, been life-saving.

In an area that’s been knocked down, stomped on, and sucked dry by the water crisis, the team has had every reason to crumble. Instead, they’re out there not only competing, but serving their community with the limited resources that they have.

And for Bateman, who lost her 18-year-old son, Michael, in November, her sport and “the girls” are a source of light as she moves through the grieving process.

A Cool Mom

Bateman grew up at the roller rink. She learned how to skate when she was 4 years old. It wasn’t until her brother’s ex-girlfriend told her more about the sport in 2013 that she was motivated to dust off her eighth-grade skates, and look for a league to join.

She entered as “Fresh Meat,” or someone in training for the roster, and she looked every bit the part.

“I bought a mouthpiece, and put my borrowed helmet on backwards three times in a row even though they showed me how to do it,” Bateman chuckled.

Photo: Pixie Light Photography

Photo: Pixie Light Photography

Derby quickly grew on her, and although her two children supported her decision to play, they couldn’t bare to watch their mom take some ferocious hits.

“‘I can dish it out, too, you know?’ I would say to them.”

Skate, Jam, Repeat

Roller derby started in 1935 in Chicago. It’s a female-dominated contact sport in which two teams of five players roller skate in the same direction around a track. One player from each team, designated as a “jammer,” scores points by lapping members of the opposing team all while they play defense by body checking the jammer. Bones break, blood flies, eyes blacken, but for those who play, it’s worth every second.

There are over 1,300 amateur derby leagues worldwide. Nearly five million spectators watched the sport in the 1940’s, but since then, it has been viewed more as a theatrical event rather than a sporting event.

“When we promote near colleges, we get a new younger crowd who think it’s really cool,” Bateman said. “They say, ‘We thought it was like the staged pro wrestling.’ It’s not. When they figured that out, that’s when we got new people coming to the games and liking our Facebook page.”

The team in Flint has had crowds as large as 800 people at their games. More common, however, is a crowd of 100-300. The numbers don’t really matter. The women of this sport would play with the same amount of passion and intensity, even if no one were watching.

The Flint City Derby Girls are typically the underdogs, much like the city itself. However, they grind it out. Two years ago, they didn’t have money for a practice space and they were losing games by 200 points. Their city was trying to make a comeback as well after being named the most dangerous city in the U.S. (for its size) from 2010 to 2013.

“You live that life and have less money, and that’s just part of how your life goes,” Bateman said. “Everybody just had to get hard.”

It worked. Last year, they took second place in their big tournament with only nine skaters, which is unheard of considering a full roster has 14 players.

More than a Team

Photo: Pixie Light Photography

Photo: Pixie Light Photography

In order to play on the Flint City Derby Girls team, community service is a requirement. Along with paying dues, it’s part of their bylaws. Whether you’re Fresh Meat or a rostered player, whether you have one job or three jobs, there are no exemptions.

The team chooses a charity every year ranging from helping organizations who serve abused children to animal shelters. Last winter, they partnered with the Red Cross and huffed through the snow to deliver clean water to area residents.

“There are people in Flint who don’t have cars, and it’s very hard to carry water on the bus,” Bateman said. “Some just couldn’t get to it. We dropped off water, filters, and filter replacements. The people were super grateful. It wasn’t a promotional thing, either, saying ‘We’re from Flint City Roller Derby Girls. Come watch our game.’ It was just ‘Hi. Red Cross,’ because people don’t really want to answer their doors. It’s dangerous even in the middle of an afternoon on a Saturday.”

The team supports one another just as much as they back the community.

“We’re a family. Anything that anyone is going through, the team helps out,” Bateman said. “There was someone on the team who needed money for rent, and everybody put in what they could, and by no means is anyone independently wealthy. It made up most of her rent.”

There’s Comfort in Numbers

Bateman felt the team’s love first-hand when her son, Michael, passed away in his father’s apartment.

“Even though it’s been almost seven months, they don’t have the final death certificate with the cause of death,” Bateman said.

With family en route from out of state upon hearing the news, Bateman called her best friends on the team, who sped to sit  with her until her family arrived.

The team, consisting of women Bateman didn’t know at all before joining, started a Facebook page for her needs.

“They knew my family needed food. They knew I like ice coffee and diet cokes from McDonalds. All these things that I liked and needed and couldn’t go deal with myself,” Bateman said. “When my family left, they weren’t willing to let me be alone. Everyone was always there to talk or to help.”

It wasn’t just her team, either. Bateman got sympathy cards and funeral donations from opposing players; those in the derby community who felt her heartache.

Healing in the Small Circle

Jessica and Michael after one of his football games.

Jessica and Michael after one of his football games.

Michael was a three-sport athlete, who received scholarships to go to Michigan State.

“They weren’t scholarships you could apply for,” Bateman said. “He graduated in the top 10 of his class. He inspired his friends, teammates and people who barely knew him. He was a great example for me.”

Today, Michael’s number is her number. And before having her ACL and PCL replaced this spring, Bateman played for him and for the numerous healing properties of a sport known for leaving scars.

“Derby helps me get aggression and anger out, to calm down,” Bateman said. “It’s a place where I feel loved, and where we are all ‘in this’ together.”

In a way, the derby track is life in a small circle. There’s unpredictability and times when you’re tossed upside down, but if you constantly get back up, then you’re always moving forward.

And for those times when Bateman struggles to pick herself up, one of her teammates skates over, offers a hand, and then a shoulder. After all, they move forward as a team.