•• All photographs by Jena Cumbo ••
It was halftime at LeFrak Center at Lakeside, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn—Gotham Roller Derby’s first bout since the pandemic, and Suzy Hotrod’s first since turning the big 4-0. And she was feeling it.
“We had a really long halftime at the game, and it also included a ‘thank you’ awards thing,” Suzy told the Voice shortly after that June 4 game, which featured an “All-Boro Mash-Up” as opposed to the usual clash between two of the league’s four home teams. “And my back started to lock up because it was getting cold on the bench, and I had to lather myself up with Tiger Balm. I’m thinking, ‘Come on now, you can do this,’ and all my teammates were like, ‘What is that cinnamon smell?’ It’s the Tiger Balm that’s holding my back together right now.”
Suzy, real name Jean Schwarzwalder, gutted her way through the second half of that 60-minute bout. She also guided her home team, the Queens of Pain, to victory in two home-team games in the three-game season, putting the squad in the driver’s seat for a fifth Golden Skate championship, in October. It’s almost like the world wasn’t shut down for two-plus years.
Or is it?
“It’s hard feeling old,” Suzy, now 41, says, laughing. “I turned 40 over the pandemic. I still play well, but mentally, I remember I’m 41. I wish I could still be 23. It’s funny, when you’re young you don’t have any concept of age. I went back after being off for so long and I thought my body would be all rested and good, but as soon as I started playing, it was neck pain, back pain, knee pain, and I’m like, this is cumulative. This doesn’t go away.”
It doesn’t, but for the great players in any sport, neither does that desire to toe the line and still get after it, even when most have walked off (or in this case, rolled off) into the proverbial sunset. That never leaves, and luckily for Suzy, she’s still an elite player—long after all the skaters she entered the league with in 2004 have settled into retirement.
“With me, it’s challenging in the sense that my generation has passed now,” she says. “All of my teammates that I came up with are gone now. I’m kind of the last of that group. A couple of my home teammates are still around, so I don’t want to be extremist, but on the whole, most of the people that I had my best times with, they’ve moved on. So in a way, roller derby continues to grow and change, and I’m sort of still the same person. I liken it to a train ride. I bought my ticket and I’m on this train. Wherever it’s going, I’m a passenger on it, so I’m gonna do the things that I have to do to keep on board.”
The roller derby train, not just in New York but around the globe, was derailed when Covid-19 arrived full bore, in early 2020. There was no corporate structure to keep the nonprofits afloat when everything—particularly contact sports—shut down. In Gotham Roller Derby’s case, the league’s decision not to renew the lease on their 10,000-square-foot Bushwick practice space left the team without the chance to train, never mind losing the opportunity to play in front of fans and bring in revenue through ticket and merchandise sales at outside venues.
Roller derby in New York was dead, but skaters like Suzy and her longtime teammate Hyper Lynx, real name Jeannice Angela, were optimistic about a return, albeit on different levels. “Everything in the whole world kinda froze, but I don’t think anybody was thinking it wasn’t gonna, at some point, regain some form of normalcy,” says Suzy.
“I think another motivating factor is that there’s a common element in all of us somewhere, that we’re sort of from the Land of Misfit Toys, each in our own special way, and we found each other in New York City.”
“I was definitely worried,” Hyper Lynx tells the Voice. “We lost the [practice] space and we didn’t know how we were gonna come back. Losing the space was really hard, but there was no way we could have kept it when we have no income. I thought, I don’t want to fizzle out because of Covid. One way or another, there’s a bunch of people who will still try to make something work out.”That’s always been the way for the modern incarnation of roller derby—on a flat track like you would see in your typical roller rink, not a banked track familiar to old-school derby fans, the kind featured in films such as Kansas City Bomber and Whip It. Gotham loads up a truck with their flooring, gets a couple of hand trucks, some electrical tape, and a lot of help, and they can put down their floor in any venue and then pack it up again. Identify the problem, figure out a solution, and make it work: This was the punk/DIY ethos that epitomized a sport that had plenty to figure out when it tossed aside the theatrics, staged brawls, and pro-wrestling-esque schtick that roller derby was known for from the 1930s through the late ’80s, before becoming a legitimate sport in the early 2000s. Joining this rebranding, which began in Austin, Texas, were fans Karin “Chassis Crass” Bruce and David “Lefty” Leibowitz, who formed Gotham Girls Roller Derby in 2003. In 2004, Schwarzwalder, a graduate from the School of Visual Arts who had played guitar in the punk bands Lady Unluck and Kissy Kamikaze, decided to try out. “It was a part of my community and a piece of belonging during that time,” she says. “Everything was attached to a community of some sort. First, I had art school, then I had CBGBs and the Continental and playing with my band, and then after my band ended, I picked up roller derby.”
Suzy had played basketball and run track in her formative years, in Lindenwold, New Jersey (population 17,613), but when it came to skating, her experience consisted of the usual suburban birthday ritual of strapping the wheels on to go to her classmates’“five dollars in the card and brown skates parties.” That was the beauty of the league, though. It was new, inclusive to women of all shapes, sizes, and stages of athletic ability, and everyone started out on the same level playing field. As for the nuts and bolts of it all, becoming a flat track roller derby skater required learning a sport that is simple in concept but a lot more technical and complicated the more you dig into it. For the uninitiated, each team has five players on the track trying to score points during two-minute segments, called jams. The team’s primary scorer, aka the jammer, has to break through a pack of blockers; once through, that player will pick up one point for every blocker they subsequently pass. This goes on for two 30-minute halves, with penalties and particular team strategies all affecting the flow and outcome of the bout.
And though everyone started out at square one in 2003, soon enough, stars emerged, and Suzy Hotrod was one of them. Just like quarterbacks in the NFL get all the glory even though it takes the contributions of 10 other players on their side of the ball to win, blockers in roller derby don’t get the attention—but jammers do, and few did it better than Suzy. Add in her gameday face paint, tattoos, and the familiar No. 55 jersey, and she wasn’t just an elite skater but one with the charisma of a star, making it no surprise that fans flocked to her and derby-centric sponsors wanted to do business with her.
That was a big deal in a sport with no television contract, no blue-chip sponsors, no “home field,” and one in which the dues-paying skaters basically paid to play. Any money coming in went right back into the league and funded Gotham’s travel team, which won five championships in tournaments held by the sport’s international governing body, the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association). Soon, “international” took on a new meaning for the sport, as 2011 marked its first World Cup, held in Toronto. Team USA (of which Suzy was a member) blew out Canada 336-33 for the gold, and as the field jumped from 13 participating countries to 30 in 2014, the USA squad won again. And while Suzy wasn’t on Team USA in 2018, the squad picked up another world title that year.
That’s because for over two years, derby was nonexistent in lives that were once consumed by it. And when “real” life is the only option, some skaters realized that they could exist without the sport.
These were the boom years for the sport, as mainstream media coverage skyrocketed and took on a more serious tone than the usual pieces, which irked the skaters with the “normal person by day, derby superhero by night” angle. Now, the skaters were being treated like the athletes they were, even if they were juggling their work on the track with jobs, families, and personal lives. There was even speculation that a major television deal could be on the horizon, allowing the skaters to (gasp) actually make a living playing roller derby. But to the skaters, that always seemed to be someone else’s dream, not anything based in reality.
“I think we always would have been open to have been bigger and bigger, with things like more TV coverage,” says Suzy. “When we did get opportunities, it was always like the online version or the third or fourth version of that channel. Remember that movie Dodgeball, where they’re on ESPN 8, The Ocho [the fictional channel for unsung sports like air hockey and axe throwing]? It felt like we were always on The Ocho. [Laughs] It was still good. Anytime we got it, we loved it, but I didn’t know the magic answer to how to make it bigger. The WFTDA does have some paid staff, but there are still a lot of people just running this thing on love and free time. It’s difficult. I don’t think I ever felt like, ‘Oh man, we’re just never gonna get attention.’ In a lot of ways, roller derby is kind of its own self-encapsulated ecosystem. We like when we would get bites from the outside world, but we became self-sustained within our own little bubble, which isn’t great as a business model but it functioned. It would just be like trading our money in a circle between each other, but there was enough of us where it functioned.”
Suzy and her peers were okay with that, and there were some big bites, most notably Ms. Schwarzwalder’s appearance in ESPN The Magazine’s 2011 Body Issue, alongside the likes of Hope Solo, Apolo Anton Ohno, Blake Griffin, Hélio Castroneves, and Jon Jones. “When the ESPN magazine thing happened where I got to be in that magazine, I thought that was gonna be the biggest chance to get attention,” says Suzy. “But I never really thought it was gonna break big. I had fun, we had a couple of one-off things we did in Australia, with a banked track and a stage production, and that was cool, but I never thought that was gonna become a full-time thing. It always felt like a very serious hobby.”
“It is for the love of the sport, but I think another motivating factor is that there’s a common element in all of us somewhere, that we’re sort of from the Land of Misfit Toys, each in our own special way, and we found each other in New York City,” says retired Gotham skater Wendy Jo Martling, aka Raggedy Animal.
That hobby ground to a halt soon after the 2019 season, won by the Bronx Gridlock, longtime rivals of the Queens, who saw their 2018 season chronicled in a documentary film simply titled Queens of Pain, which is now airing on Hulu. That film might have been the final documented word on the derby career of Suzy Hotrod, but she wasn’t ready to go out like that. Or was she? Was she simply the great athlete who insists she has one more season, one more fight left in her?
“I don’t know, I might have been happy to be retired before the pandemic,” she says. “I could have easily been thinking about 2019 being my last season, but to have it end on that note doesn’t feel right because it’s supposed to be up to me when it ends, not because there was a global pandemic. But then again, some of my teammates sort of quietly stepped away and left after the pandemic, because it was over for them, and I think I understand that because what’s happening right now is a semblance of what we had. We’re trying really hard to get back into it, so it’s tough to find the balance. It’s tricky.”
That’s because for over two years, derby was nonexistent in lives that were once consumed by it. And when “real” life is the only option, some skaters realized that they could exist without the sport.
“For me, it’s really difficult,” Suzy admits. “I don’t feel the same way I did before. The sacrifice now is feeling really unsustainable. I don’t mean to be a bummer about it, but it’s more of a struggle than it’s ever been, because I got used to not having it. I think for a lot of people, we were struggling with the idea of, ‘What would life be without this?’ It’s so ingrained in the person that I am. And then after we lived without it for so long, it’s been really challenging to get back into it. I don’t know if I have the bug anymore, or if it’s just like I have Covid meltdown, but it’s been really hard. Skating attendance has been, for a lot of people, it’s a challenge to make that. It’s been really hard for a lot of people to get the groove back. The first game that we had, that was a mash-up of whoever could even make the attendance. Which meant a lot of the league didn’t even make the minimum requirements to be considered ready to play again.”
That’s not surprising, given how everything has changed in the world over the past two years, including the world of roller derby. There will be no WFTDA championship tournament in 2022, but leagues are back up and running, including the one in New York, which has been rebranded Gotham Roller Derby, dropping “Girls” from the name. According to a league statement, released in April 2021, the name change was made “to better reflect our community and the evolution of our sport.” The statement continues, “In the time since our league was created, we have aspired to create a more inclusive culture for non-binary and gender expansive participants and want our name to represent our membership. The decision to change the name was made in 2019 and we are excited to be formally making this shift to ensure that our name is reflective of our community as it is and as we wish it to be.”
The familiar league logo was also changed, something that didn’t go over well with everyone.
“Our biggest fight in the league is the logo. I never had an issue with the logo, and then some people think it’s a skinny, white, CIS female who’s able-bodied,” says Hyper Lynx. “Fine, get rid of the ‘Girls’ because you want to be more inclusive, I get it, although I still want a safe space for girls because I felt like that was the biggest draw for me to derby. It’s a safe space for women. I wish I had this when I was a kid. I’m all for change, but don’t just throw out what worked before and what we worked so hard for.”
“It’s changed, sure,” says Suzy. “There’s new people and new ideas and that’s how things always go. Things are always changing and evolving, so it’s definitely a challenge to keep engaged with it, for sure. It’s weird being a person that’s been around as long as I’ve been. There’s not a lot of people that have been. People come and go, and I’ve been the constant, and nothing’s changed with me but everything around me has changed.”
Change can be good, and differences of opinion and healthy debate are never bad things, but the big fight now is simply getting the product on the track and getting the skaters to produce that product on a regular basis in a new sporting landscape. Case in point, with no home facility of their own, Gotham skaters are forced to pick up practice time where they can. And when someone catches Covid, as one skater did in June, that means no practice for five days and plenty of testing in order to return.
“We’ll skate outside in a hockey rink in Ridgewood once in a while, and then we’ve been practicing at the Lakeside roller rink in Prospect Park, which is where the [first post-pandemic] game was,” says Suzy, who has a 90-minute commute from her apartment in Queens to Prospect Park. Add in her day job as a photographer for the DEP and her gig as a DJ for WFMU and it’s a hectic schedule, to say the least.
“I bought an apartment, now I need to worry about renovating my kitchen,” Suzy continues. “I have a pet now. I had a really big breakup during Covid. A lot of stuff’s changed in my life. It’s tough to balance it all sometimes. It was real easy to do derby when everything was just easy for me. But then when I had all these things change that required time and effort and attention and money, all of a sudden it wasn’t so easy to just have derby be all those things.”
Not to mention that, after all of this, the league still has to find a place to play. The bouts that regularly sold out 1,000-seat venues, such as John Jay College and the gym at LIU Brooklyn, are now in Prospect Park, but at half the capacity. That’s not good for pulling in the funds required to lease a new practice space in a city where rents are out of control on a good day, let alone in the post-pandemic world. Still, though, the 500 available tickets for each event in 2022 have sold out.
“A bunch of the places that we used to play at don’t want us back because they renovated their floors, probably because of the money [we paid them], and now they won’t let us skate there anymore,” says Hyper Lynx, referring to the fact that league members had to lay down plastic squares of Sport Court to create their track on top of hardwood basketball courts on each game night and remove it when the game was over, creating a lot more traffic on the venue’s floors than usual. “This is ridiculous. We’ve been around so long in New York City, obviously all of us paying taxes—how can we get the city to help us out?”
“We’re looking for a large space and we need help finding it,” adds Suzy. “New York is tough, space in New York is tough. The lease [on our practice space] was running out before Covid and the landlord was basically like, you want to leave early, I’m totally planning on doubling the rent. And he didn’t care. Then Covid happened, and he still didn’t care. And we moved out and he significantly raised the rent and he got a new tenant. Now we pay to use the Lakeside rink and the attendance number is capped really low. Capacity is half of what our other venues [were]. That’s a big blow to our business because our ticket prices are the same but the seating is half. We need a space big enough to practice and host our own events.”
Right about now, you might be thinking, This is a lot of hassle for something these skaters don’t get paid for. But when the whistle blows, Suzy Hotrod, Hyper Lynx, and their league mates will be on the track and ready to roll.
“A lot of people don’t have such a nice outlet for physical energy,” says Suzy. “Not a lot of people get to feel that feeling of playing a sport. If I’d go to take a fitness class, I’d pay my money, take my class for an hour, and I’m done. But it isn’t the same. It also ties into community and being social and getting that adrenaline rush of playing sports and getting sweaty. I think if I didn’t play roller derby, I would still have to find some kind of physical outlet. I don’t think I could, mental-health-wise, get along without a proper sweat.”
“When I play the game, I love it, and I can always get lost in the game,” she explains. “And I have fun and, in that moment, it’s great. But it’s a lot of work outside of the game. You don’t just get to have that one great moment. It’s a lot of work and a lot of things happening behind the scenes to get that.”
Come on, Suzy, isn’t part of it showing the young kids how an OG gets down?
“It sounds so silly, but I’m still good at it,” she says with a laugh. “I can still hold my own. There’s also a side of me that’s a little bit disappointed because some of my really high-level league mates aren’t there right now. So that’s a bummer. But there’s a lot of opportunity for new people, which is really cool too. To see people be so excited and having those feelings that I would have when I first joined, that’s a really great energy. It’s the same way with coaching the juniors or the new rec league skaters. They’re just at the beginning, and you’re like, this might seem really familiar and old to me, but to all these people, this is the hottest shit they’ve ever seen. How awesome that I can share that with them. So that’s also cool. It’s just different.” ❖
A 20-hour flight to Sydney, in 2010, introduced Thomas Gerbasi to roller derby through the Drew Barrymore film Whip It. Once back in the U.S.A., he sought out a Gotham Girls Roller Derby game and was hooked, eventually writing about the sport for various outlets over the next decade. Despite this, as well as getting an invite to try out for the men’s derby team, the New York Shock Exchange, Gerbasi can’t roller skate.
– • –
NOTE: The advertising disclaimer below does not apply to this article, nor any originating from the Village Voice editorial department, which does not accept paid links.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.