HELENA — A set of skates, pads, a helmet, and a good attitude are the mainstays of any roller derby skater as they get set for a practice or a bout.
Helena's flat-track roller derby team, the Hel'z Belles, has all of those things covered, but there's one thing that has the team knocked out of the oval, as they're without a place to practice for the foreseeable future.
Previously, the Hel'z Belles used the Helena Salvation Army's facility, the Helena Ice Arena, and the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds for bouts and practices. With the Salvation Army trading out their 'sport court' for hardwood, the Helena Ice Arena choosing to keep ice in the rink year-round, and the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds being cost-prohibitive, the Hel'z Belles are left to try and figure out what's next.
"We've contacted just about everyone, and people are just busy, and they have too much going on in their spaces already. Or they're concerned about their floor, which is all legitimate things," said Paige O'Neill. "It's been a lot of reaching out and having people say sorry, but no, which is okay. And I'm just hoping that there's a space out there that it's a little more hidden a little gemstone that we can find."
According to the Women's Flat Track Roller Derby Association website, a competition derby track requires a space of, at minimum, 98 feet by 65 feet not including space for benches for teams, a scorer's table, and penalty boxes, which narrowly limits the Hel'z Belles options for locations to practice and host bouts.
"It's just trying to find a spot that will be big enough to allow us to do the things that we need to. Ideally, we'd like to find a space where we could maybe even have bouts and practice at, but that's kind of like — that's a dream," said Greta Dige.
From the outside looking in, roller derby may seem like a rough and tumble sport with women on roller blades duking it out in an oval, but according to the Hel'z Belles, once you’re in the community it’s not as rough as many think.
"People think about Derby as this like really intense contact sport where we're angry and we're hitting people, and it's so not that. Especially with some of the other teams in Montana, like we love each other so much and it's so striking to like be playing a game and you're pretty intense because you want to win, but like you always help the person up that you just hit down. You always make sure they're not hurt, that they're okay," said O'Neill.
For many skaters, their teammates are like an extended family, but due to the challenges the Hel'z Belles face following the pandemic and losing their practice space, it's been hard to recruit and retain skaters.
Pam Hakala started skating with the team after attending a 'Fresh Meat' boot camp, shortly before the pandemic shut down most parts of many people's lives, including adult recreational sports like roller derby. Now that the Belles are without a place to practice, Hakala says it's unfortunate that she's one of the few that have stuck with the program as they search for a facility.
"It is crummy to see that. I think I'm, I'm the only person," said Hakala. "It's hard to see the people that I started with not come to practice."