June 4, 2015
Starting her derby career in the infancy of roller derby, Helen Wheels not only contributed to the early growth of our sport, but is credited with inventing the modern-day can-opener hit! Learn more about Helen and her experience in the decade of derby behind us, as well as the decade of derby to come.
What is your derby name?
I currently skate as Helen Wheels. However, I have also taken the track as Janet Clarke with the Denver Roller Derby Mile High Club, and also Sheriff Shutyerpaio when I was with Arizona Roller Derby. I'm a Gemini, so there are always two of me somewhere!
Please explain the inspiration and story behind your derby name.
When my family traveled on road trips to skate meets, we would listen to 8-tracks of the Beatles and Paul McCartney and Wings while driving. Being an English teacher by trade, I appreciate the double entendre of word play with the name of the song "Helen Wheels, and it has sentimental meaning for me.
What is your number?
My number is 67, which is also my birthday, June 7. I was overdue and Mama Wheels selected the date to induce labor. I like to think she picked my derby number.
What is your home league?
I am honored to skate with Denver Roller Derby! DRD has so many great things going on with the league as a whole, and I am excited to be part of an incredibly supportive and progressive organization.
Which team(s) do you play on?
I've been around. My team resume consists of the following: Arizona Roller Derby--home team Bruisers and travel team Tent City Terrors; Tucson Roller Derby--home teams Vice Squad, Iron Curtain, Furious Truckstop Waitresses, Copper Queens, and travel team Saddletramps; Rocky Mountain Rollergirls--Red Ridin' Hoods home team, Contenders and Fight Club travel teams; Denver Roller Derby--home teams Green Barrettes and Bad Apples as well as Mile High Club travel team. I have also freelanced on the banked track with Team Bionic.
What is your skate gear of choice?
I use Pro-Designed, Inc for my protective pad gear. I especially like their knee pads. I'm not too fussy about helmets, and usually wear the Triple-8. For my skates, I currently wear Brooklyn Skates and I love how soft the leather feels on my feet - like I'm wearing slippers with wheels!
Do you have a pre-bout ritual?
Not really. I try to have a decent meal a few hours before and try to stay hydrated on game day.
What do you think about when you're lacing up your skates?
I'm simply grateful that I get to play! Any game day is a good day.
Do you have a favorite motivational quote?
“What defines us is how well we rise after falling.” – Unknown; followed by "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken." – Oscar Wilde
Do you have a theme song?
Helen Wheels by Paul McCartney and Wings ;)
What is your pre-derby sports/skating background?
Aside from artistic skating, I also ran cross country and track, was on swim team and skated outside as often as possible.
How did you get involved with roller derby?
I grew up in a skating rink. Literally. My parents owned the rink in Ottumwa, IA and we lived in the rink! My family traveled around the country to compete in artistic skate meets. I remember seeing roller derby on TV when I was little and always wished we had that opportunity at our rink. During my formative years, I would try to play roller derby in our skating rink, and usually got in trouble for it! I would skate fast, weaving in and out of skating rink patrons as quickly as possible. I can still remember my pops pulling me aside saying, "We don't knock people down in the rink." But man! It was so much fun! Then in 2003, fortune smiled upon me. I was at a coffee shop in Phoenix, AZ and saw a full-page Life Styles newspaper story about a roller derby event going on that night in Tempe. There was a great photo of Ivanna S. Pankin in her Bruiser uniform and I knew right then that I was going to have a chance to play roller derby! I signed up that night, and went to practice the next day. Ivanna asked me if I wanted to be a Bruiser, and I said yes! There weren't really "tryouts" back then. Sometimes we even wore helmets to practice!
Please tell us about your rookie year and how you learned to play roller derby.
My rookie year was a lot of fun! AZRD and TucsonRD had a good working relationship from the start, so our home teams frequently traveled back and forth between Phoenix and Tucson to play each other. Skating against Texas Rollergirls in October and November 2004 was pretty incredible too. Texas had enough skaters for two full rosters, which played AZRD and TucsonRD when TXRG came to Arizona. During our travel to Texas for a rematch, we played the opposite roster and used the TXRG house rules, which was an eyeopener. I think that was when the topic of a universal rule set became a necessary conversation!
What is your position of choice?
When I first started roller derby, I was always jamming and rarely got to block. Now that a few years have passed, I enjoy blocking the most. Those stars and stripe covers get really heavy! Still, the spandex covers we use today are a great improvement over those puffy stripes and stars we had to velcro to our helmets back in 2003!
What is your signature move?
Once upon a time, I would toss a sheriff over my shoulder and knock a girl clean off her feet by popping her in the sternum, but these days it tends to be more productive to not hit, and sit in a strong wall. I am comfortable on my skates backwards, and communicate well, so I tend to be a backwards facing bracer/blocker when appropriate.
Although you don't use it as much now, that move has become famous in the derby world, known as the "Sheriff Block" or "can opener." What is it like to have a legacy like that?
I don't know about a legacy! I suppose at some point, we are all infamous in our own lunchtime. Attending the first Dust Devil in 2006 was an incredible experience. There were so many skaters I had never seen before with unique skating styles of their own. Getting to skate against the unknown is a great thrill for me. Being a shorter skater, it made sense to leverage with my legs from in front of a skater to knock her down. It worked for me.
Tell us more about your derby playing style.
I have definitely adjusted my derby play style with the evolution of our game. In 2003, big hits and fighting was all the rage (I know. Fights?!) As roller derby grew up with a universal rule set, derby play followed the rules to exploit them. The game has definitely progressed, and I do think for the most part, for the better.
What are some of your greatest roller derby accomplishments on the track?
I am proud of many roller derby accomplishments. I skated in the first interleague game (AZRD vs TXRG in 2004), captaining AZRD's Tent City Terrors to 3rd place at the first multi-team tournament was pretty special, (Dust Devil in 2006) and traveling around the world with Certifiable Derby Training to mentor and coach other leagues in their pursuit of derby domination has been a wonderful opportunity.
Off the track?
My father had some health issues over the past several years and needed assistance. I resigned my teaching job and cared for Pops until he passed late last year. That was a tough, but special period of my life, and I wouldn't trade those years for anything. Papa Wheels was my biggest fan at derby. You can probably tell I miss him a lot.
Please share your best derby moment (or moments).
I'm a softie at heart. The best derby moments I had were the times that Pops came to my games and sat at the corner of turn #1 wearing his "I taught Helen Wheels to skate" t-shirt and his great big smile cheering me on. When we played at the first Wild West Shootout, Pops was sitting along the track and the opposing team had a team meeting in front of him. I can only assume they thought Pops was an unassuming old man, because they spoke openly about their game plans. Pops came over and said, "This is what they are planning..." and spilled the beans on their strategy! Still cracks me up! We won that game, too.
Who are your derby heroes?
Gol. There are so many people for a myriad of different reasons... I truly have met some of the most incredible people as a result of roller derby! I would have to say that my derby heroes tend to come from the first wave of roller derby. From TXRG, I would have to say that Hydra, 8-Track, Derringer, Electra Blue, Muffin Tumble, Sparkle Plenty, and Bloody Mary all were inspirations to me as a skater trying to "figure it all out". Their leadership on and off the track truly helped move our sport forward and for that, skaters everywhere should be thankful. I would be remiss to not mention Crackerjack, who I originally met on the track in Madison, WI. She was always great fun on the track! I think there is actually a picture of us fighting at the end of that game. Seriously! Roller Derby has changed so much.
You were fortunate to play in the first-ever inter-leauge bout between Texas Roller Girls and Arizona Roller Derby over a decade ago! Can you share a glimpse of what roller derby was in those early days?
Playing in the first-ever inter-league game against TXRG was nuts! Our two leagues each had our own "house rules", so when TXRG came to AZ, they played by our rules and when AZRD went to Austin, we played by their rules. There were three 20-minute periods then, and I distinctly recall asking a jam ref in Austin WHY we were LOSING points after certain jam periods. It turned out that they had certain penalties where a jammer could LOSE points when committing the foul and it was entirely possible to end a jam with negative points... It was a crazy, wonderful experience!!
You started your derby career as Sheriff Shutyerpaio and then changed your name to your current derby name, Helen Wheels. What prompted the change?
When AZRD formed its first travel team in 2004, I was a teacher with a morality clause in my contract. At the time, many of my students attended roller derby bouts, and I was hesitant to skate as a "prisoner" role model. One of the skaters on my team suggested that every chain gang needs a sheriff, so why not play off Joe Arpaio (the toughest sheriff in Maricopa County) and skate as Sheriff Shutyerpaio. It worked and I adopted the Sheriff persona for travel, while maintaining Helen Wheels for home games. When we moved to Tucson, AZ in late 2008, the Sheriff moniker didn't quite fit - new town different sheriff, so I kept Helen Wheels moving forward.
You have been an active WFTDA rep since the very beginning: what has it been like to see the sport and organization evolve and develop in these past 10 years?
It has been a crazy ride and I am proud to be part of the WFTDA Training Committee as well as an Apprentice Program Area Coordinator who gets to mentor new leagues working toward full WFTDA membership. So much has changed. In 2003, big hits and fighting was all the rage (I know. Fights?!) As roller derby grew up with a universal rule set, derby play followed the rules in order to exploit them. There was the "tackle the jammer" tactic so that she can't score points, followed by the "run away pussy" game, where the goal was to stay in front of the jammer so she couldn't get your point. Timing of big hits to blow up the jammer was good fun, but let's not forget the "taking a knee" strategy to cause a no pack call at the first whistle. Oh yeah, remember when there were two whistles? The game has definitely progressed, and I do think for the most part, for the better. It keeps us all on our toe stops!
What is your day job? And how, if at all, has it contributed to your experience of roller derby?
For work, I have worn many hats as a massage therapist, a CNA/caregiver, and an English teacher. Understanding anatomy has been helpful with derby to understand balance, stretching, strains and sprains and general strength necessary for roller skating. I am CPR/First Aid certified and have been on hand for more tib/fib fractures due to roller derby injury than I care to recount. Ugh. As a life long roller skater (my parents put skates on my feet when I was 18 months old) I am more comfortable on skates than off. As an experienced teacher, I understand scaffolding instruction so that individuals learn. It made sense to combine those two backgrounds in coaching roller derby. I started out by coaching my team in AZRD. Then I expanded that concept by dropping in with leagues and guest coaching when I traveled. Eventually I started my own coaching business, called Certifiable Derby Training and I love the opportunity to meet new people and share my love for roller skating and derby.
How has your involvement in roller derby affected the way you live the rest of your life?
I grew up living in a skating rink. We skated every day, so roller skating has always been a huge part of my life. Including roller derby in my life was an easy adjustment for me to make. I do tend to plan "civilian" decisions around a global derby calendar - avoid scheduling things during derby events (Memorial Day for WFTDA Con, and Sept/Nov for the big WFTDA tourneys) and I do tend to take my skates more places than I might have if derby was not a factor in my life. When I visit my daughter in Austin, TX, I also get to catch up with great derby friends and skate the Veloway! I guess at a certain point you might take the girl out of derby, but you can't take the derby out of the girl.
How do you find a balance between your derby life and your “real” life?
What does this question mean?.. Isn't derby real life? :P
What advice do you have for people who want to join roller derby?
Do it! roller derby is the smartest game I have ever played. There is offense and defense going on - sometimes at the same time! Get some skates and go for it! At the end of the day, we are all just a bunch of girls on skates. We all fall down at some point. It's what you do when you get up that matters!
Do you have a special message to your fans?
I have fans? I am honored to share my thoughts, memories and experience for what it's worth, but I truly want to express my gratitude to all of the people who show up and make the derby-verse go round.
Is there anyone that you’d like to thank?
I would like to offer a tribute to Mama and Papa Wheels. To Mama Wheels, thank you for giving me my derby number and making such beautiful costumes for our skate meets! To Papa Wheels, I am so very grateful that you taught me how to roller skate and demonstrated through example how to face life's adversities with grace.
Do you have any upcoming bouts that you’re really excited for and why?
I'm excited any time that I get to play. I still find it incredible that we have forged this competitive game from what began much as spectacle on wheels (I won best fight two years in a row... Heh.).
Real. Strong. Athletic. Revolutionary.