Jorge Brondo (center) works on his blocking skills during a Night Mares roller derby practice. While roller derby is a fun sport, team members say the friendships they build is a big part of why they play it. Staff photos by Daniel Clifton
EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
The Marble Falls Night Mares wear their bruises as well-earned badges. A Highland Lakes-based flat track roller derby team, the Night Mares consider themselves family, despite their training to push, pull, and slam into each other as they practice their rather aggressive sport at the Boys & Girls Club of the Highland Lakes.
Flat track roller derby is rooted in the well-known banked track version, incorporating mental as well as physical skills and finesse. Although roller derby is a contact sport, throwing elbows, tripping, and head butting are against the flat track rules.
“There’s a lot of strategy that goes into it,” said Night Mares coach Mary Ulbricht. “It’s just a great sport, a great team sport.”
Roller derby began as a race on skates in 1932. The sport’s popularity exploded in the 1960s and early ’70s but waned for a number of years. Four women in Austin reinvigorated it in 2001 on the flat track. By 2003, roller derby took off nationwide and now boasts 2,000 leagues in 53 countries.
As played today, five members from each team take to the track for two 30-minute halves. The skaters with a big star on their helmets are the jammers. They earn the points for their teams. The rest are blockers, whose goal is to stop jammers from moving forward on the track and scoring points by lapping opposing players.
While historically a women’s sport, the Night Mares include both genders and almost all ages.
“It’s co-ed and family-friendly,” Ulbricht said.
Since the Marble Falls squad doesn’t have enough players — 15 — to compete, members link up with teams in the Austin-San Antonio areas.
Night Mares member Jorge Brondo competes on a men’s team in Austin. He learned the sport and developed his skills under Ulbricht’s tutelage, beginning about a year ago when he moved to Marble Falls.
The 26-year-old physical therapist doesn’t work in an office and found it difficult to make friends when he rolled into town. The roller derby track became a place to meet new people and form relationships.
“I still don’t have any friends,” he said with smile, “but I have my derby family.”
Several other Night Mares also compete on Austin-area teams, where Ulbricht’s coaching is well-known. Those training under Ulbricht are sought after on the circuit. Though some leave to compete elsewhere, many return to train with the skate master. Once you’re part of the Night Mares, you’re family, they explained.
“Yeah, I’d say it’s a family,” Ulbricht added.
The Night Mares family happily embraces new skaters of all levels, even those who haven’t strapped on a pair of wheels since junior high, or ever.
Kate Bravo, 33, is one of those new people. She didn’t join the Night Mares to bash into opponents or make friends.
“I just wanted to get into shape,” she said. “I had no interest in roller derby. None at all.”
Ulbricht doesn’t mind; she’ll teach anyone to skate. As Bravo got the feel of the wheels under her feet, however, she fell for the sport.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Bravo said.
Her son, Evan, 7, is also a regular, strapping on his skates and protective gear to join in the practice sessions. While the Night Mares compete in the adult leagues, they enjoy introducing the sport to kids as young as elementary age.
The youngsters practice with the adults, though Ulbricht often separates the two groups. When adults are on the track with the younger derby athletes, it’s to teach and assist the up-and-coming skaters. That kind of support thrives in roller derby culture, even beyond Night Mares practices.
Ulbricht explained that whenever they travel to roller derbies around Austin, San Marcos, and San Antonio, everyone is supportive. They’re all very competitive, she said, but when it comes to helping each other, it’s all about the roller derby family.
The game is inclusive. While other sports sometimes favor a certain body type, roller derby loves them all.
“It’s very body positive,” Ulbricht said. “You have skaters, especially women, of all sizes. They don’t have to look a certain way, you know.”
Roller derby goes beyond building a sense of camaraderie or even learning to skate or getting fit, Ulbricht added. One of the things she loves best about coaching is watching people who step on the track with little to no skating experience develop into solid athletes.
“It builds them up, their confidence,” she said. “I’ve seen them come in here, kind of shy, not sure of themselves, but after a few months of skating, they’re out there just getting aggressive on the track. And they’ll tell me how it’s changed them (outside of derby).”
The Night Mares practice 4-6PM on Sundays and 6:30-8:30PM on Tuesdays at the Boys & Girls Club of the Highland Lakes-Marble Falls unit, 1701 Broadway. Check out the Night Mares Facebook page for updates and more information.