Sheila Gonty is 34 years old, a mother of four children aged 16, 13, 12, and nine. She does the books for Gontree Tree Service, a company she runs with her arborist husband, John. Originally from Spy Hill, Sask., she’s lived in Brandon for the past 12 years. Oh, and one other thing. She plays roller derby in the Wheat City Roller Derby League. Her derby name is Shakillya. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD)
What was it that turned you on to roller derby?
I was actually at one of the work-out stores in town buying some protein, and I saw it on the board, and I’m, ‘Oh my gosh! That’d be so great!’ And because I wanted to meet people and I wanted to do something really active, I thought, I’m going to go try it. So I went, and the first day, I just loved it — it was so fun — so I just had to keep at it.
Now being in a league infers that there’s more than one team.
Ha ha! We’re getting to that. We need to get a couple more recruits to make our second team. So right now we have Gang Green, which is our travelling team. And we just need a couple more girls and then we’ll have another team at home. So this is going to be the first year in the Wheat City Roller Derby League where we’re actually going to have to work — compete — for our positions on the team.
I read a book this summer called "Going in Circles" by Pamela Ribon — it’s about roller derby. And I can’t recall what the positions are, or what they’re called, but if I remember correctly, the point is essentially to get your person…
The jammer. She has two minutes to get around the track. She has to get through the girls, and on her second lap, that’s when she starts scoring points. So if you can imagine, the blockers — it’s called the pack — the blockers in the pack are playing offensively and defensively at the same time, the whole time. Because they’re trying to keep the other jammer out and help our jammer get through the other pack. And every girl the jammer passes, she gets a point.
Were you athletic as kid? And what was the draw for the derby? It’s rough-and-tumble — in that book I read, the lead character’s bruised up and her back hurts despite all the padding. So why did you want to do this?
There’s a whole bunch of different women out there — like, we’re all different people. I was always athletic. I grew up in a very tomboy way. I was out fixing cars with my dad — I was hunting with him and doing all those things. So I guess it’s my personality to be aggressive. And it’s the same as girls playing hockey or being in karate or ringette. They’re being competitive, and they’re fighting hard for what they want.
There seems to be a very definite element of pretty severe physical contact in this. Or is that just my perception?
I think it’s a perception of a lot of people. I feel that it’s no worse than hockey. We just have less equipment on.
And you do dress very sexily, if I may make that observation. Has the garb just sort of grown up around the sport?
It has. The nylons do serve a purpose, though. Because when you’re sliding across the floor on your bare legs, you’re going to feel it. You actually slide if you have nylons on, which is nice.
The girls — we skate really tight in a pack. I think if you had too much clothing, you would be getting pulled down it would be in the way.
At first, I thought it was just all sexy and fun, but now, to me, there is logic. And let me tell you, if we had any more clothes on, it’s so hot during the game, we would be dying. It’s warm.
I wonder if the sexy thing has been part of what turned a lot of people on to roller derby, along with maybe the notion of women being aggressive. There’ve been a lot of movies…
There have. I guess the latest one would be "Whip It" with Drew Barrymore. But it all comes across as so dramatic. Roller derby has the reputation of being rough and dramatic and sexy and all those things. But for us, it’s a sport. And so we really want to start getting across to the community that we train hard, and we work hard, and we ARE a sport. They’re working on making an Olympic team. There’s Team Canada, there are junior leagues popping up all over the place. This is a sport that doesn’t get enough credit, because it is very hard. But it is SO good for someone.
Despite all the injuries?
You know what? A bruised bottom every now and then is not that bad. Although sometimes it’s worse! But I guess people can sprain their ankles doing yoga. And you have to be physically strong to be in derby.
Do you have people who build up their strength over time? When novices come out and try this for the first time, do they get banged up pretty good?
Oh no. We don’t expect anyone to come out and start getting smacked around. When you come out, we start working on skating skills and you’re going to learn techniques to do everything. You’re going to learn how to hit, but you won’t BE hitting, if that makes sense. A new girl, I’d show her how to do the move, she would kind of bump me around a little bit, but I wouldn’t go and just smack her over — that’s just not the way it works. There’s a benchmarking program where you have to hit every skill, and you have to be able to do it to 100 per cent to be able to be on the track and skate in an actual bout. Roller derby is very legislated.
Gang Green practises in Shilo. There’s a rink out there and we don’t have one in town here anymore — is that a problem?
That’s a problem. And there’s no team in Shilo. But we called the league ‘Wheat City’ because we hope to get teams popping up through the area. We’re getting our feet under us pretty well now — we’re playing a lot, and we’re going away to games. Our next season is already booked up, so we have a lot of games. We have a bunch of home games that’ll be in Shilo. And we’re excited because the teams that have come to this area have really expressed that we’re great hosts and they love coming here and being with us and playing here.
That’s nice! And being sociable and friendly after the games really seems to be the case for you folks. You feel very strongly that it’s a game, and then afterwards you all go out and there’s no hard feelings that somebody took a nasty hit or something like that.
Right. Through the game, you’ll be glaring at someone just to freak them out a little bit just so maybe they’re off their game, and then you’re dancing with them and buying them drinks when it comes down to the evening.
You showed me your glare before, and your derby name is ‘Shakillya’ — but all this intimidation stuff is more of a fun thing, isn’t it, rather than just evil and mean and tough?
Yeah. It’s not like you want to be mean. You’re there to play the game. You’re there to strategize, you’re there to win, just like any other game. So you’re going to do it however you can. And this works!
When you’re out there playing and you’re getting ready and everyone’s waiting for the whistle to blow and someone’s staring you down, you’re like, ‘She’s gonna smack me!’ And you’re watching for her and you’re not watching other things. It’s strategy.
If you had to say what it is about roller derby you like, what would that be?
The camaraderie is fabulous. The game is really fascinating and there’s a lot of strategy involved. Like I said, it’s a hard-hitting game — you need to be in shape. And these girls keep you in shape. Our training team is fantastic! They’re always coming up with innovative things for us. I could call any of them and say, ‘I want to work on this,’ and they’re going to figure out the best way for me to do it.
Have you ever been criticized because of the pseudo-sexy or aggressive nature of the sport? Have you taken any heat from other parents who might not understand or approve of what you do?
(laugh) I don’t think MY mom approves of what I do! I think she finds it hard because I get hurt. But I’ve never had anybody come up to me and say, "Oh — I can’t believe you do that — that’s tacky." No one’s been negative. People ask questions. But I think it’s important just to be who you are and do what you do. I think everyone’s very different. And it’s a place for people like me to go. I love roller derby. I know girls who’ve come from hockey to roller derby and they’re not going back to hockey at all.
The thing is, we all have a lot of things in common. We’re mothers, business owners — we all have busy lives, and we all help each other out with them.
Does your husband — do your kids — come and watch?
Yes, definitely. My husband, he watches, and he refs for us when he has time. My kids LOVE it! They just love it SO much!
It doesn’t bother them, seeing mom take hits?
No. The first game I played, I was very conscious about falling and getting up and looking at them so they knew I was OK. Because when you fall, it sounds so bad, but it’s really not. You’re falling on your equipment, which makes a lot of noise and racket, and then you get up and go.
With the music and lights, it’s almost a theatrical production, isn’t it?
It is, which is great, but it’s not, too, because the sport’s not really taken as seriously as I think we’d like it to be. We were talking about having to skate out in Shilo. There are people here who won’t even talk to us about skate space — they have no interest in that.
But you look at our team, especially our girl who looks for facilities. She’s a very well-educated woman, she’s very intelligent, and if someone would sit down and talk to her and realize, ‘You know what? I could have this league of responsible parents running this space.’ And we could be facilitating the soccer kids who don’t have space in the wintertime, or the skateboarders, or whomever — there are tons of clubs that need space. We’re not the only ones. So it would be a good investment to take a look at us.
For more information, check out Wheat City Roller Derby League on Facebook. The group is hoping to form a junior league for girls aged seven to 17. Membership in the regular league is for those 18 and older.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 17, 2012