Derby helps single mom rebound

‘She needed to be part of this team’

As this glimpse at a 2012 Victory Vixens bout shows, Kansas City Roller Warriors competition can get fierce.

When Mary Strafuss’ marriage fell apart last spring, she and her two daughters were left alone in their Shawnee home, where they entered what Strafuss described as some dark and confusing times.

Then, a few months ago, Strafuss’ 14-year-old daughter, Meara Roach, showed her mom a black-and-blue way out of the tunnel: roller derby.

Meara, an eighth-grader at Trailridge Middle School, had been competing in the Kansas City Roller Warriors Junior Derby program for three years and suggested that her 46-year-old mother, despite little skating experience, join the organization’s adult Wreck League.

“It’s by far the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Strafuss said of the sport, which is fraught with falls and high-speed collisions, “and I never would have done it if I hadn’t been forced out of my comfort zone.”

But her roller derby career didn’t stop with the Wreck League, which is for those not skilled enough for the Roller Warriors’ competitive teams, who aren’t interested in competitive roller derby or who have retired from it.

A few weeks ago, Strafuss would have included herself in the first two of those categories. But following a recent Wreck League boot camp, a competitive team member convinced Strafuss to take a shot at the Kansas City Roller Warriors tryouts, saying that it wasn’t up to Strafuss to decide whether she was skilled enough to become a Roller Warrior.

“That’s our call,” the team member said.

So Strafuss participated in two nights of intense drills and scrimmaging, banging around the track with other skaters. She left the final night of tryouts tired and bruised, with no thought of being selected to a team.

But at about 11:45 p.m. that night, she received a text telling her, “You made it.”

“I texted back, ‘You have the wrong person; this is Mary Strafuss,'” she said, but then she was advised there was no mistake; she was a Victory Vixen, one of four home teams that compete against each other during Kansas City Roller Warriors bout nights at Municipal Auditorium each spring through summer. She’ll skate with the team in its March 2 season opener.

Micah Downey, a co-captain with the Vixens who interviewed Strafuss as part of the tryout process, said she thought Strafuss had the right stuff.

“The Vixens are a family, and she kind of seemed like that motherly figure we needed,” Downey said. “Skating skills can be taught, but compassion can’t.”

Wait a minute — roller derby requires compassion?

“It’s give and take,” Downey responded. “We love each other very much, and we beat the crap out of each other.”

Strafuss had demonstrated an ability to take her lumps and a desire to keep improving, Downey added. And during the emotional interview, she said, something else became clear.

“It just felt like she needed to be part of this team,” Downey said, referring to Strafuss’ personal situation. “That’s the whole story of roller derby. Ninety percent of the people who join roller derby are going through some kind of crisis in their life, and roller derby changes them.”

According to Strafuss, being around the strong, supportive women involved with the Roller Warriors has made her more independent and confident in all aspects of her new life as a single mom.

A product manager for Nazdar SourceOne, a screen and digital ink supplier headquartered in Shawnee, Strafuss said she was happiest about the impact roller derby had made on her family.

“I’m showing my daughters that things can be really bad but that, if you dig deep and persevere through it, you can come to a new normal,” Strafuss said. “And my new normal is really cool.”

According to Meara, she never thought her mother would end up on a competitive roller derby team.

“She makes me a proud daughter,” said Meara, whose own involvement in roller derby wasn’t such a stretch.

Always more adventurous than her mother and 16-year-old sister, Molly Roach, Meara is a jazz guitarist, a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and a fire staff spinner. She also is studying aerial silk acrobatics at the Quixotic School of Performing Arts, and she’s in the process of applying to the National Circus School in Montreal.

Asked what she liked about roller derby, Meara said “hitting people.”

“It’s a nice way to get out anger,” she said. “It’s competitive and energetic.”

But none of that is to say that Kansas City Roller Warriors bouts are anything like the vicious competitions depicted in “Kansas City Bomber,” the 1972 roller derby movie starring Raquel Welch, Strafuss said.

The objective is the same. Each team places on the track four blockers, who try to help their team’s jammer score points by lapping opponents, while trying to keep the opposing jammer from getting past them. But in Roller Warriors bouts, the tracks aren’t banked “and we don’t throw elbows,” Strafuss said.

Meara decided to get involved in the sport — “it truly is a sport,” Strafuss said — after attending a roller derby bout with her mother a few years ago.

“In the back of my head, I secretly thought that would be really cool to do, too,” Strafuss added.

And now that she’s doing it, her goal is “longevity,” she said.

The second-oldest member of the Vixens, Strafuss said she had no desire to become a star jammer or graduate to the Roller Warriors’ more competitive Plan B or All-Stars teams. But she’d like to remain on a home team for at least four years so she can compete with Meara.

Meara, whose junior derby name is Abby Normal, will turn 18 in four years, allowing her to graduate to adult competition.

Her mother, whose new roller derby name is Stratus Fear, will be 50 by then.

“What an awesome 50th birthday gift that would be to skate by her side that year,” Strafuss said.