The Steel Hurtin'
Photo of 'Snot Rocket Science courtesy Steel City Derby Demons
McShovin’ is a nursing student. Ally McKill is a lawyer. J-Bomb is a roadie. Betty Bonecrusher—the one missing a tooth—is a behavioral therapist. By day, some wear skirt suits while others wear hard hats. But by night, they all have one thing in common: They are roller derby rock stars.
Meet Natalie Gilchrist, the brains behind the Steel City Derby Demons. On the track, she wears number 36DD and goes by the nom de guerre “Busty Brawler,” but she also has a real job as a graphic designer in Wilkinsburg. In late 2005, she was pushing her mid-30s and getting bored of the South Side bar scene when a friend called from Los Angeles with exciting news: She discovered the L.A. Derby Dolls. “Roller derby teams still exist?” Gilchrist thought. “That’s awesome.”
The wheels in Gilchrist’s head started turning. Growing up in the ’70s in Lancaster, Pa., she loved watching roller derby on TV. Could it work in Pittsburgh? Gilchrist and a few friends started drawing up business plans. Within days, they submitted an editorial to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and flooded MySpace with a call to arms: Anyone who wants to be a derby girl, show up at (the now defunct) club Upstage in Oakland at high noon. “Women from all walks of life came waltzing in that day—rock and rollers, cheerleaders, mothers.” Gilchrist was stunned by the turnout. “By March 2006, we had 75 people ready to roll.”
Four years later, what was once a rag-tag gang of women looking for a new hobby has transformed into a national powerhouse, traveling across the country for road games against teams like the Mason Dixon Roller Vixens and the Philadelphia Liberty Belles. Pittsburgh’s “varsity” team, nicknamed The Steel Hurtin’, is currently ranked 16th in the U.S.
Forget everything you think you know about roller derby. The Derby Demons are athletes, not pro wrestlers. “There’s no fake fighting or staged stuff like the old days,” Gilchrist says. “We’re part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which has strict rules. It’s full-contact, but it’s more like the NFL than the WWF.” Win or lose, the Demons and their opponents grab a brew together after every bout and have brunch together the next morning. “Two hours after someone is trying to take your legs out, you’re singing karaoke with them.”
For Jamie “J-Bomb” Mulvihill, a 39-year-old mother of two from Bethel Park, it all started after watching The Bucket List. “After the movie, we were sitting around talking about things we wanted to do before we die,” Mulvihill says. “My friends said the typical stuff like skydiving, but I always wanted to be a derby girl.” The next day, she did a Google search and found the Derby Demons’ Web site. After her day job as a technician for the local Stagehand Union, she tried out for the team. Despite being nervous about her age, Mulvihill made The Steel Hurtin’.
Her son Aidan, 9, loves one thing in particular about his mom’s new hobby. “When I’m in the penalty box, he’s the first one to heckle me,” Mulvihill says. “He’ll say, ‘Stop throwing elbows, mommy!’” When J-Bomb is upset with a penalty, she can complain to the referee long into the night. Often, it’s her husband who sends her to the box. He took up refereeing a year after his wife made the squad. “He doesn’t get to yell at me at home, so he takes it out on me on the track.”
Derby Demon skaters don’t make a dime and actually spend thousands of dollars out of pocket each year on equipment and travel. However, their real reward is priceless. “I gained 40 new friends through this experience,” Mulvihill says. “I’ll play until I can’t walk anymore.”
Last season, Busty Brawler broke her leg in a freak accident in practice. Despite six months of intensive rehabilitation, she was dropped to the B-squad this season. “At my age, I could have retired,” she sighs. “But I love these women too much. If I quit, it would feel like I was divorcing them.”
The Demons play once a month at Romp n’ Roll in Glenshaw, Pa.