CINCINNATI -- When redemption comes, it doesn’t always look like you would expect. Sometimes it comes on four wheels, wearing a protective helmet and elbow pads.
That’s how it happened for Miranda Maszk. About eight years ago, she found herself with an alcohol problem. She was hanging out in bars too often and smoking, out of shape and spinning her wheels, metaphorically speaking.
"I realized that I was not going to be able to have any of the things I wanted or achieve any of my goals in life if I didn't make some big changes," Maszk said.
Then redemption came in the form of the Cincinnati Rollergirls. The roller derby team has been instrumental in helping Maszk reshape her life, building her up mentally and physically, and providing a framework of community, teamwork and good old-fashioned competition that has helped her get her life on track.
The Rollergirls are celebrating their 10-year anniversary, and the team itself is no stranger to the idea of redemption. Indeed, it has undergone a bit of a transformation, with a newly unveiled rebranding that includes a new logo and look; a just-announced new rec league that should help it build the players of the future; a renewed focus on getting players into peak physical condition and taking their strategy and skills to the next level; and a challenging schedule that gives the team a shot at placing higher in the rankings than it has in years.
“Roller derby is a much more serious sport these days, and we’ve grown to be way more competitive,” said Lauren Bishop, one of the coaches of the junior team of 8- to 18-year-olds and a founding team member who retired from play a few years back.
That’s not to say the original team that Bishop and Maszk – one of only three current teammates who have played all 10 years – joined in 2006 wasn’t talented. But the skill and strength required, as well as the level of competition, have grown exponentially, said head coach Steve Haldeman, who has been involved with the team since 2008.
When the Rollergirls joined the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association in 2008, for example, the sanctioning organization had 32 teams. Today, it has more than 250 ranked teams and 400 teams altogether.
“There’s so much more strategy, so many more derby-specific skills,” said Haldeman, whose derby name is Quad Almighty. “The athleticism and artisanship, the footwork is unworldly these days – and everyone has to have it.”
While the team did in its early years attract some former high school and college athletes as well as experienced speed skaters, much of its appeal was the theatrics and showmanship, said Bishop. And frankly, the tough-girl vibe was appealing to many women in those days, including Maszk.
"For sure I was a rough-and-tumble person, one who would wrestle with the boys and needed a hobby besides hanging out in bars," she said.
Christa Zielke co-founded the team with Paula Estes after seeing a TV show about roller derby and researching the sport online. While the bad-girl vibe wasn't a key factor, the opportunity to be ferocious certainly was.
“Women got to be tough and aggressive and fierce and fit. They got to cut loose and be celebrated for these qualities that were not always embraced in women,” she said.
Just because the team has outgrown some of its over-the-top campiness, that doesn’t mean there’s no room at all for it in the sport these days. Most players, referees and coaches still perform under wild names, for example; Maszk, whose derby name is Mirderher, still takes the floor during player introductions at each game wearing her trademark Hannibal Lecter mask, to fierce applause from the 1,000 to 1,500 fans the team averages at its home games at the Cincinnati Gardens. (The home opener is March 12.)
But when the mask comes off, she and the other players show off the skills they’ve worked so hard to transform over the last couple of seasons. The Rollergirls – both the top-level Black Sheep and the up-and-coming Violent Lambs teams – practice at least three times a week; in addition, they attend conditioning and endurance training, skill-specific workshops and other extra sessions, and many of the women are heavily involved in CrossFit and other extreme training. It’s a big commitment for an unpaid gig, but players routinely describe roller derby as an obsession and a labor of love.
A turning point for the Rollergirls came in 2013, said Haldeman, when the travel team lost every single game of the season.
“To say it was heartbreaking is a massive understatement,” he said. “We determined to work harder and smarter and get our wheels back under us. The team has really fought and clawed its way up 30 spots in the rankings.”
To go along with its new determination, the team decided it was time to freshen up its image, said Bishop. Over-the-Rhine-based agency Paperplane Creative took the team through a full rebranding pro bono.
“We took a hard look at who we are,” she said.
Among other changes, the rebranding resulted in a new logo, a stylized crown that gives a nod to the Queen City and better represents what the team has become than its longtime logo – a casual silhouette of a squatting skater that almost had the vibe of a mud-flap silhouette on a semi-truck.
The new image seems a fitting one for Maszk. From her early days of hard partying, missing practices and being too out of shape to be truly competitive, she has transformed into a team leader who recently made the elite Ohio All-Stars team. She’s also a newlywed with a successful business as a Paleo diet and clean-eating caterer, not to mention seven years of sobriety. Really digging in and committing to the Rollergirls was foundational to achieving all of those things, Maszk said.
Haldeman is not surprised. He has seen countless team members undergo transformations, along with the team itself.
“Empowerment is huge in derby,” he said. “People find an inner strength they didn’t know they had.”
Check ‘em out … maybe even play?
The Cincinnati Rollergirls will open their 10th anniversary season 6-9:30 p.m. March 12 at the Cincinnati Gardens against Roc City Roller Derby of Rochester, New York. Parking is free, tailgating is encouraged, and beer is $1 during happy hour. Visit cincinnatirollergirls.com/tickets. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at the Gardens box office.
The Rollergirls and their affiliated men’s derby team, the Cincinnati Battering Rams, have created a new recreation team, the ‘Nati Lites, that is open to women and men 18 and up of all skill levels. An informational meeting will be held at 2 p.m. March 20 at the Cincinnati Gardens, and practices and scrimmages will start in April on Sundays at Skatin’ Place in Colerain Township. For details visit cincinnatirollergirls.com/recruiting.