Skater Profile: Hela Skelter of the Brooklyn Bombshells
by: Thomas GerbasiOctober 19, 2010
Watch Hela and the Bombshells vs. the Providence Pigeons on NYC life (Channel 25 / Cablevision 22) this Friday evening at 12:30am on NYC life (Channel 25), and thereafter at www.ggrd-nyclife.com.
Hela Skelter – Delivering the Hits with a Smile
by Thomas Gerbasi
While the term “Helter Skelter” gained worldwide notoriety (or infamy) as a Beatles song and in association with the Tate-LaBianca murders in the late 60’s, when it comes to the hits delivered by the Gotham Girls Roller Derby skater Hela Skelter, the phrase reverts to its original meaning as an amusement park ride that delivers a spiral slide from the top to the bottom of a tower.
However, Hela’s hits don’t usually end with a smile and a desire to take the ride again.
“I always say before the game that I’m gonna go explode people,” she said, and when asked to describe the perfect hit, she pauses for just a moment before saying, “When you feel the other person give up in the middle of the hit. You hit them and their body is just like ‘I’m done.’ And you can feel their muscles give up. They’ve resigned themselves to hitting the floor.”
Above: Hela delivers a surprise shot to Manhattan's GalXC. Photo: Chris Chin
As one of the hardest hitters in the league, the captain of the Brooklyn Bombshells has made a habit out of taking the heart out of opposing jammers since 2005. While you wouldn’t know it from talking to her off the track, when the whistle blows, it’s time for war, and Hela has developed an uncanny knack for finding herself in the middle of key plays throughout each bout, a trait that has earned her a spot on the GGRD All-Star team.
“I wouldn’t take too much credit for that, but I feel like I have pretty good pack awareness,” she said. “I’m always looking for the jammer and looking for a partner in the pack who I can work with, and I’ve become a lot more disciplined over the years of playing derby. I used to go in for a big hit and maybe I’d whiff or maybe I’d take someone way out, but now I try a lot harder to wait for the right moment, which I think really helps, and I’m always ready, whether I’m on the bench and only go in a couple jams in an All-Star game, or if I’m playing a bunch of jams in a Bombshell game. I’m always ready to make the right move and not worry about being a superstar.”
Above: Hela the All-Star in the thick of it against Charm City earlier this season. Photo: Brendan McMullen
Slowly but surely though, she’s become a star in the league, with presence that can either change the course of a game singlehandedly or quietly steer the ship and do the little things that allow her teammates to shine. Either way, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the ‘W’ for the Bombshells or the All-Stars.
“I feel like I’ve got a very different role on each team,” she said. “On Brooklyn, I’m trying to bring a lot of the things we learn on All-Stars to people who haven’t had a chance to play at that level, and I’m part of the management, whereas on the All-Stars I’m more of a cog in the machine. So the two roles are very separate for me and it’s a matter of pacing myself because I know that All-Stars is super-important, but the home team is also super-important and I want to make sure I’m paying attention to my team and making sure that they’re getting everything they need so that we can win the game.”
So which role does she prefer?
“It’s a lot more relaxing to be a cog in the machine but I also feel a slightly greater sense of pride when the Bombshells win a game or do something really awesome, because that was the first team that I was on, and I’m really involved in the new skaters developing, so I feel a really big sense of pride when we do well.”
Above: Hela and the GGRD All-Stars greet Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz before April's bout at LIU. Photo: Tom Igoe
In 2010, Hela has had plenty to get excited about. After a slow start to the Bombshells’ season, the squad finished strong with wins over Manhattan (125-80) and Providence (202-20), and the All-Stars are, well, the All-Stars. They’ve cruised through the regular season and the regionals to win the WFTDA's East Region and earn a first round bye in November’s WFTDA Championship tournament. Hela was particularly impressive in the Bombshells' victory over Providence on October 9th, as she delivered big hit after big hit in a victory that set the stage for what she hopes is a huge 2011 home campaign for Brooklyn.
“I feel like a lot of teams don’t expect us to be a hitting team, because we look like a speedy team,” she said. “I’ve definitely improved my speed over time, but speedy isn’t really my trademark. I don’t think that people expect it, and when you come in and slam into them, they do get a little surprised sometimes.”
It’s almost as surprising as Hela’s journey to the elite level of the derby game, a trip that began, like it does for many skaters, on a whim.
“I was like ‘they have fake names; I want a fake name,’” she laughs. “And I like roller skating. Then I got to practice and I was like ‘I can’t really roller skate.’ But I had good teachers. Suzy Hotrod and Ginger Snap and all of them, they taught me everything I know. So it was more like ‘it sounds like fun, and I would like to meet some people and everyone seems interesting.’ I had no intention of becoming an athlete on a nationally ranked roller derby team at the time.”
She became one though, and while it would be the perfect Hollywood tale to say that the moment her skates touched the track in competition she was a natural, in the real world, the road to the top was one filled with potholes, hard work, and a continuous determination to get better. And as she explains it, there was some luck involved too.
“The more you’re practicing and skating, the faster it will come,” she said, “but it helps a lot to watch games and see how other people are using the track and using their teammates, and sort of plan a step ahead because there are so many things going on at once that it can be overwhelming. But if you can find a way to tune out the other stuff and plan a step ahead or be ready for something unexpected to happen, I think that’s the key for me. It can be difficult now when people try out and join because I had a long learning curve and I’ve been playing for a long time while the game developed over that time. Now [new skaters] come in and there are all these intricacies everyone already knows about, and you’re sort of getting thrown in with the sharks, and it can be overwhelming. So I was lucky to get in when I did.”
Above: Hela seeks out the Gridlock jammer (May 2010). Photo: Brendan McMullen
Now that she’s here, Hela can also appreciate how far the sport has come in just the past six years, and while there’s still work to be done, she is enjoying the ride at the moment.
“It’s amazing and I’m really proud of it,” she said. “When I joined, I was 23 and it was sort of a punk rock thing. I feel like I’ve aged with the game at this point, and the game and I are reaching a certain maturity together. That people are treating it as a real sport is fantastic. It’s gone from a thing that people thought was a joke, and that it was about wearing fishnet stockings, and now we have uniforms and we talk about athletic gear. I’m really proud of where it’s gone and how much work everyone has put into it to turn it into something that’s becoming legitimate.”
Not everyone has been educated though; look at any number of ‘mainstream’ publications that spend 80% of their profiles talking about cool nicknames, the camp factor, and pro wrestling antics that haven’t been a part of derby for decades to realize that the sport. Its skaters still have an uphill climb when it comes to gaining the acceptance and respect they have earned.
Above: Captain Hela Skelter leads the Bombshells into battle in 2009. Photo: Brendan McMullen
“It’s really frustrating,” Hela admits. “It’s annoying just on the level that they can’t be bothered. If you watched a high level game or even a mid level game, you would see that there’s athleticism and that it’s not girls being cute and roller skating. It’s really frustrating because I feel like there’s nothing I can say that would change the mind of someone who can’t be bothered to even do the tiniest bit of research.”
Welcome to the land of lazy journalism. But as Hela points out, not all the issues can be pinned on the media.
“I think it’s gonna be difficult to make people 'get it' because even though at the high level we’re legitimizing, there are still a lot of groups or teams that are still interested in the burlesque-y cute skirts thing and I think that’s going to be holding us back a little,” she said. “The jumps forward get bigger and bigger, and three years ago I wouldn’t have really thought that we would be where we’re at today. So even though that image is going to cling and people are going to have their misinformed and outdated opinions, maybe – and it may take ten years – it will be legitimized to the point where there will be less disrespect to roller derby.”
If it takes ten years, that would be disappointing. If it takes ten more minutes, it’s also an insult to athletes who have given up huge chunks of their lives to this sport. And whether you like the sport or not, at the very least, you should respect what they’re doing and what it takes to do it. In Hela’s case, what started out as something fun to do after work slowly started to develop into something more.
“I can’t remember when I realized it was taking over my life, but it started out a couple nights a week, and now all my vacation days from my job are planned around regionals and the championships,” she said. “If I do freelance work, it’s to save up money for traveling, and I think around the time that we started doing interleague stuff is when it really started to take over.”
At that point, in 2006, the league had lost its practice facility when the Skate Key rink in the Bronx closed down, and typical days for Hela included lugging her gear to work for a full day in the office, then taking the equipment under the West Side Highway and to other non-typical locales to practice with her league mates.
“I think it was at that point where it was like ‘this is changing your lifestyle.’”
She laughs. But she wouldn’t change a thing either.
Above: Hela relishes a Bombshell victory (September 2010). Photo: Chris Chin