You don’t want any part of No. 5’s hips.
They’ll move you, control you and — if need be — send you sprawling to the ground like a drunk falling off a curb. In the world of Roller Derby, these hips are dangerous. No wonder Jennifer Adkins, the woman who wields them for the Kansas City Roller Warriors All Star team, is known as “Trauma.”
At a recent scrimmage at the Winnwood Skate Center in Kansas City, Adkins wears a navy blue tank top and tiny red shorts over black capri leggings, with a white helmet and pads for her knees, elbows and wrists. As she waits for her turn to go back in, her teammates with the Victory Vixens bunch up for a scrum start against members of the Dreadnought Dorothys. Players scream and jostle for position. A jammer for the Vixens tries to squeeze through, then sweep around, a four-woman wall of bodies.
“Move your feet!” Adkins screams over and over until her face turns red. “That’s it!Yeahhh!!”
Then it’s her turn again. She bolts from the sidelines as if shot from a cannon. As she races around the outside of the rink she’s a one-woman wrecking crew. Sweating and screaming, she moves like a dancer and a bouncer at the same time, pushing opponents around with her heavy-hitting hips and a sideways smile on her face.
Where ya think you’re goin’?
How’s the floor taste?
Go back to Kansas, Dorothy!
But then, Adkins has a good reason to smile. Last month the Independence skater became one of only 32 players — out of more than 10,000 in the country — to make it onto the Team USA national Roller Derby roster.
Wes Clarkson, coach of the Roller Warriors All Star team, knows why.
“She’s very intense,” he says. “A lot of people who don’t play as well tend to hit with their shoulders. The really talented ones do (it) with their hips.”
The hits are hard. And the bruises hurt.
“I just want to stress that it’s real,” says Adkins, whose playful skater name is a holdover from bygone days. “It’s no joke. It’s not theatrical or campy. I feel like people hear about it and they don’t (know) that.”
There’s a good reason why they don’t know that. Because that camp is exactly how the Roller Warriors started.
Two women working at the Kansas City, Kan., Public Library — Brooke Kunkel of Parkville and best friend Mandy Durham (who has since moved away from the area) — founded the Kansas City Roller Warriors in 2004. At the time it was only the fourth such league in the country.
“We had just gotten out of art school,” says Kunkel, known then as Dirty Britches. “We saw this as performance art.”
The pair founded the Roller Warriors with an emphasis on melodrama.
“I’m an amputee with only one arm,” Kunkel says. “The first bout we had, we made a fake prosthetic arm, and the first time around the track one of the girls ripped it off, and fake blood (and the arm itself) flew into the crowd and people just freaked out! They thought it was real. And that was what we were going for. It was party lifestyles, rock ’n’ roll, and how much could we get away with without getting arrested? We had superheroes, a zombie bride team and a ninja team.”
“It’s not like that anymore.”
In most leagues these days women’s Roller Derby is an intense and serious sport with fierce rivalries and committed athletes.
Born in Ashland, Ky., Adkins lived in Huntington, W.Va., before moving to Cincinnati. She grew up roller-skating with her mother, who performed artistic dances on skates. In 2008, she saw a billboard that read “Want to be a Cincinnati Roller Girl?”
She attended a boot camp to learn skills — such as how to fall correctly — then tried out. She had to skate five laps in a minute, and 25 in five minutes. Only five women, including Adkins, made the team.
“It was surprising how difficult it was to learn,” she says. “I played (basketball and softball) growing up, but it took me a year to completely learn the game. There’s a lot of nuances.”
Today Adkins knows all of them and more.
At 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds, with blue eyes and straight brown hair that falls to the middle of her back, the 31-year-old Adkins has a solid and athletic body. And by all accounts she is passionate about Roller Derby. She plays or practices six to eight hours a week. On her own time she plays even more Roller Derby and studies game tapes to plan strategy and gain an advantage in games.
As an amateur she is unpaid, playing only for the love of the game. Like many other skaters, she has a job to pay the bills. Adkins is a registered nurse who works in the cardiovascular intensive care unit of North Kansas City Hospital. In Cincinnati — where she lived from age 7 to 29, and skated for the Cincinnati Roller Girls — she worked as a trauma nurse.
Hence her scary skater name — one she takes pride in living up to.
It hasn’t been easy.
“Sometimes I’ll work a 12-hour shift, then go practice for two hours,” she says.
But it’s more than just the long hours. For Adkins, skating can be painful. She has Crohn’s disease, a bowel condition that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract. She often practices and plays with pain.
She has had several surgeries, including a partial colectomy and a small bowel resection. And she gets dehydrated very easily.
“Sometimes it’s a little rough,” she says.
Carolyn James (aka Ruth Canal), the captain of the Victory Vixens, appreciates Adkins’ dedication.
“She has to be the hardest worker I’ve ever been around when it comes to being a student of the game. She makes more goals than anyone I know. And it certainly has paid off.”
Adkins tried out for the national team in June, then waited anxiously for the results. Team USA announced its team last month when Adkins was at work. She was too nervous to look, so a co-worker named Melinda did it for her.
“Do you want to know?” Melinda asked.
Adkins wasn’t sure.
“I had a heart patient coming out (of surgery) soon, and I didn’t want to be upset if I wasn’t on the team. And I didn’t want to be distracted if I was.”
Melinda kept looking at her in an odd way.
“I was like ‘Just tell me because I’m not going to be able to sit here with you doing this all day,’ she says. Then she gave me a hug, and we cried … I just felt really accomplished.”
The next closest skater selected for the team lives in Minnesota.
Soon Adkins will start training in Milwaukee for the second ever Blood and Thunder World Cup in Dallas in December 2014. The U.S. team will defend its title — won over Canada in the first World Cup in 2011 — against teams from 20 nations, including Argentina, Australia, Germany, France and Finland.
Roller Derby is played in a rink and features marked lanes that skaters must stay inside. Teams have five members each: four blockers and a jammer.
The Kansas City Roller Warriors league features four home teams: the Victory Vixens, the Dreadnought Dorothys, the Knockouts and the Black Eye Susans, who won the league championship in 2013.
The league also has two travel teams: the Kansas City Roller Warriors All Star Team and Plan B. This year the All Stars chose Adkins as their captain.
As powerful as Adkins is, she’s agile, too. A swift and slippery skater, she is considered a “double threat,” adept at being both a jammer (a fast skater who tries to pass the other team’s blockers to score points) and a blocker (a player who tries to prevent an opponent’s jammer from passing her and scoring points). In her six years in the sport, she has gained a reputation as “one to watch.”
Justin Campoy, an assistant coach for Team USA, can’t say enough about her.
“With Trauma, what we were impressed with is her leadership ability,” he says. “One of the harder things to do at the tryouts is to lead people who don’t know who you are. It’s very different than being a leader on your team. That ability to bring people together and form a cohesive team quickly is very important.
“Also we heard from other very good Roller Derby players that ‘you should watch this Trauma person.’ That’s a compliment to her. And they were right.”
Clarkson has a theory about why she’s so good.
“As a nurse, she has to take command of things,” he says. “Now I’m interested to see what she can do at the international level.”