Local roller derby league is HARD to forget

The High Altitude Roller Derby league practices multiple times a week. They have two tournaments a year, which they work hard to prepare for. During practice Jan. 25, skaters work as a team to develop and fine-tune their skills in the rink.

High Altitude Roller Derby (HARD) players are undeniably powerful on the track, but according to league members, the love these women have for the Flagstaff community is just as strong as their roller derby game. Since its establishment in 2011, HARD has been successful in distinguishing itself from other leagues in Arizona and across the United States.

Within the world of roller derby, HARD is a relatively young league that has only been around for eight years. Keri Stiverson, known by members of the league as Skary Cheezus, was one of HARD’s original skaters and is the current head coach. Stiverson described what things were like for the founding members of HARD.

“We not only had to teach ourselves how to play derby, we had to teach ourselves how to skate,” Stiverson said. “We had to spend a lot of time on foundational skills before we could actually learn to play derby. But we’re really lucky that Arizona has so many leagues. We were able to get some skaters from those older leagues to come to Flagstaff and help show us some of the basics. We relied on lots of help from outside leagues to get to the point where we are now. Arizona has a really unique derby experience; we are one of the few states with enough leagues to have a state conference.”

Arizona State Flat Track Roller Derby Conference came about as a means for leagues across Arizona to network and compete. The conference allowed leagues throughout the state grow and improve.

Within the conference, HARD stands out for its member’s welcoming, friendly attitudes. Referee and retired skater Sarah Oman said she appreciates HARD because they’re not cliquey or hierarchical like other leagues she’s encountered. According to Oman, HARD members are friendly and supportive; to them, everyone is welcome.

“Derby is very affirming to all body types and personalities. It doesn’t matter what race you are, what sexual orientation you are, what gender you are and that’s what I love most about it,” Oman said. “If you’re gender nonconforming, if you’re gender queer, if you’re trans — there is a place for you in roller derby. All walks of life can join, and that’s what I appreciate most about derby.”

Along with welcoming everyone to participate in roller derby, HARD is also unique in the eyes of skater Monique Belanger (a.k.a. Mo’ U Down). Belanger said HARD is a friendly league compared to others.

“I think that we have a reputation around the state and around the country,” Belanger said. “People tend to like us wherever we go. They think we’re the friendly league, and they know we’re really competitive on the track and that we hit hard. But off the track we’re nice, we’re friendly, we’re really supportive of each other and I think that’s not always the case. What we have here in this community is really special.”

Belanger said participating in the sport requires an extraordinary time commitment: multiple practices each week, matches (known within the league as bouts), physical training and more. It seems HARD demands a lot from it’s skaters and officials — devotion to the league is crucial for acting members.

“Derby can be sort of life-consuming. Some people say it’s like a cult, and they’re not that far off from the truth,” Belanger said. “I skate for our charter team, which means we’re internationally ranked, and that takes a lot of time. We practice two or three times a week, we work out, we volunteer. I’m actually one of the captains of that team, so there’s a lot of extra work that goes along with that. It’s a labor of love.”

Stiverson echoed the heavy time commitment, but said that the rewards of this commitment have been well worth the time.

“Derby definitely takes a lot of time and effort, so it’s really easy for it to consume all of your time,” Stiverson said. “There isn’t a single person involved in derby who is not highly involved. We have to take care of all of our venues. We have to secure new venues all of the time because that’s just how derby goes. It really takes a village. It takes a whole community.”

On top of all the practice and competition, members of HARD are required to complete volunteer hours each month in order to remain eligible for participation in bouts. The higher level a team, the more volunteer hours are required of its skaters.

Requiring volunteer hours from skaters is crucial to maintaining the league. HARD is a self-sustaining organization, which means that players pay dues and run the league themselves. Many of these volunteer hours translate to working for the league in various ways. In order for each bout to run, seven skating officials and several non-skating officials are required. Non-skating officials keep score, run the scoreboard, guard the penalty box and keep time for the bout. These positions are filled by community members who volunteer as well.

Volunteer hours are also accrued by skaters who help out around Flagstaff. Community is important to HARD, and giving back is ingrained in the league’s bylaws. Running food drives at bouts and cleaning nearby trails are just a few ways that HARD takes care of the city. The league also chooses a charity each year to fund raise for and work with.

“We’re all about our local community. We give back to the community, we invite everybody to all of our social gatherings, we’re always out there trying to get more people to join and have fun with us,” HARD skater Keyra Powell said. “We’re just a really accepting and welcoming group. There’s so much that we do at all of our bouts. We donate portions of our profits to go to a different charity each year. Our league is just a really awesome thing to have in the community.”

While HARD contributes in substantial ways to the community, the community itself is what keeps the local roller derby league alive. Without residents attending the bouts and supporting the skaters, the league might struggle.

HARD also utilizes practice spaces provided by the community. The league currently practices at the National Guard Armory in Flagstaff and although skaters are grateful to have this space, it is too small to fit a full-sized derby track. Belanger said the league is currently seeking to branch out.

“We do have a lot of community support which we need and love. Yet we still have people who ask, ‘There’s roller derby in Flagstaff?’” Belanger said. “We’re still trying to reach out and get people more involved. I think it’s a super fun, family-friendly sport to watch.”

HARD and the presence of roller derby in Flagstaff has had lasting effects on skaters like Belanger, who made lifelong connections through participation in the league.

“It’s amazing being able to help your teammates rise up and do an amazing thing. It’s just incredible to see,” Belanger said. “There are days when you’re just having a bad day and you’re like, ‘maybe I just shouldn’t go [to practice] today because it’s been crappy.’ But it turns out that it doesn’t matter what kind of mood I walk in the door with, I always I walk out in a better mood because [derby] is so much fun. It’s challenging and rewarding. These people are amazing and I couldn’t ever leave these people. I think that derby is an amazing outlet. It allows people to shine in a way they may not have been able to in the past.”