By Zameena Mejia
Every Monday and Thursday night, Eleanor Hugh drives from New Paltz to Hyde Park Roller Magic for roller derby practice. Wood-paneled walls and a brown-carpeted floor lead to the rink’s sitting and gaming area. She sits down at one of the long orange-colored benches and trades her oversized blue sweater, jeans and brown leather boots for a tank top, pink shorts and black leather skates. After securely strapping on knee and elbow pads, she fastens her helmet over her short pink hair and puts in her mouth guard. She stomps past a Ms. Pac Man arcade game and glides onto the glossy rink to join the rest of the Hudson Valley Horrors.
At 19, Hugh, a second-year student at SUNY New Paltz, is one of the youngest girls in the Hudson Valley Horrors Roller Derby league (HVHRD). Established in 2006, HVHRD is the world’s first non-urban, flat-track women’s roller derby league, and part of the grass-roots derby revival.
“Except for my friend Charlotte, no one there is my age,” Hugh said. “I told someone that I was born in ’93 and I thought she was about to start crying.”
Hugh said she doesn’t notice the difference while she’s skating, “It’s just when we’re done and they’re talking about going home to take care of their babies,” she said. “I’m like ‘I need to go do homework and pretend to write an essay.’”
As an English major with a concentration in creative writing, Hugh said she was really excited when she found out she could choose her own derby name. A self-proclaimed poet, she chose “Sylvia Flash,” in honor of Sylvia Plath, one of her favorite American poets and novelists.
In the summer of 2012, Hugh lived in an apartment in Binghamton with two other friends. One late June day, Hugh returned home to find one of her friends watching the film “Whip It,” starring Ellen Page. Page’s character, “Bliss,” lets go of her mother’s desire for her to be a beauty pageant queen when she realizes her fast skill in the rough game of roller derby. Bliss attends her first game, called a “bout,” and watches the Texas Roller Derby league teams face each other. She is immediately drawn to the sport.
Hugh was inspired to look for a local roller derby league. She found out there was a bout the coming weekend. Like Page’s character, Hugh quickly took a liking for derby. After watching countless roller derby videos on YouTube and speaking to the Binghamton league’s head coach, Hugh joined the league for their continuing practices. Upon returning to New Paltz for the fall semester, she made HVHRD her new home league.
“I think it’s a really good thing for girls to have because there aren’t really a lot of contact sports for girls,” Hugh said. “It’s cool because it’s a contact sport where you can be really, really tough but also wear lipstick and makeup, fishnets and glitter.”
In a bout there are 30 two-minute jams in which there are five people from each team on the track at a time. Each team consists of three of blockers, two pivots who keep the women together and control their speed and one jammer with a star on her helmet. The main goal is for the jammer to get through the opposite team’s pack first and become the lead jammer.
At a recent practice, the smell of rubber fills the rink as skaters practice stopping with the tip of their skates. Though some choose to shell out money for metal tips on their skates, Hugh and many other skaters wrap their tips with colorful duct tape.
“Get lower!” yell the trainers and coaches to the women as they skate around the rink. At their three-hour practices, the skaters do drills and practice proper derby form by skating low, extending their arms and staying in their blocks of skaters. One drill involves falling either on one knee, both knees or into a sprawl upon the blow of their trainer’s whistle. Hugh, still getting the hang of the quick stops and falls, intently executes the commands.
“After practice I’m always exhausted and can’t wait to shower and sleep, but it’s exhausting in a good way because [roller derby] is such a good workout,” Hugh said. “Roller derby is one of the few professional-grade sports where the athletes don’t get paid, but this just shows the passion that the players have for the sport.”
Though roller derby consumes most of her Monday and Thursday nights, Hugh works in the Campus Card Services office Tuesday and Friday mornings, cleans a house on Wednesday mornings and works weekends at the Rhinecliff Hotel, the only job that required her to return to her natural auburn hair and conceal her ear gauges as best possible.
“When I was younger, both of my parents had to go into jobs that they were really overqualified for,” Hugh said. “I guess I’ve seen firsthand that training in school doesn’t necessarily give you a job.”
When she was 16, Hugh found a job that would later become a pivotal part of her life. Hugh became a counselor and lifeguard at the Girl Scouts camp she had attended since she was eight years old. As a member of her mother’s troupe since she was 6, she not only sold cookies but also took part in camping trips and volunteered at literacy events where the girls dressed up like book characters.
Hugh said her friends who went to church and co-ed camps always asked her why she chose to go to Girl Scouts camp.
“I didn’t shave my legs all summer. We would jump in the lake and that would be half a shower,” she said. “We made a slip’n’slide out of old tarp and dish soap and counted it as a third of a shower. It was really fun hanging out with a bunch of strong women who were accepting of everyone.”
The sense of family and solidarity Hugh established at Girl Scouts camp prepared her for new bonds she would later find in roller derby.
“I replaced that group of women from Girl Scouts with those of roller derby,” she said. “Girl Scouts is really empowering and I’ve found the same thing in roller derby, transferring Girl Scouts’ hiking and camping trips to roller-skating and knocking each other over in derby.”