By Dani Nichols for The Bulletin Special Projects
It smells like sunscreen and sweat, crushed grass and High Desert dust. The parking lot is filled with SUVs, minivans, pickups, and eco-friendly cars, ranging from brand new to heavily loved, and most adorned with the signature cow skull of the Bend rugby community.
Walking up to the grass, the feeling is familial, like a neighborhood pickup game or backyard BBQ that has turned into an impromptu sporting event. But the stereotype would involve men playing this full-contact sport—in this instance it’s the ladies, with significant others and friends cheering from the sidelines, holding babies and dogs, cameras and koozies. The Bend Lady Roughriders Rugby Club spans a wide range of ages, life stages, body types, and professions. There’s a particularly welcoming, inspiring “come one, come all, have a beer” ethos that I thought was unique to this rugby team, until I was assigned this story.
After just a couple of conversations, it turns out that the women’s alternative sports community is incredibly open-armed and friendly, even though their sports require a high level of physical toughness and strength. I talked to people from roller derby, rugby, and ice hockey teams and found one thing in common—women are tough, competitive, and powerful, but they still manage to support and care for one another in remarkable ways through these sports.
“I think people are drawn to rugby because it is different. It is full contact and that isn’t common in women’s sports. Anyone can play rugby. Regardless of size or what your athletic strengths are, there is a place for you on the rugby field,” said Mara Burnell, past president of the Bend Lady Roughriders. “The attitude is one of respect in rugby. You may be enemies on the field, but after a game you are sharing a beer with the other team as friends. Most important, we are a community and I think that is why a lot of players stay beyond the love they grow for rugby. I have made great friends and have gotten some opportunities because I joined the rugby team that I would’ve missed otherwise.”
Greta Elston, the de facto leader of the Bend Women’s Hockey Players, shared that the feeling on the ice is similar. “Hockey is a fun and challenging sport,” she said. “Women here are supportive even when players’ skill levels are varied. I like the challenge and learning something new all the time. I also like that I get a great cardio workout every time I skate.”
She continued (as if she knew what I was thinking), “Even though hockey is perceived as tough, playing with women really isn’t. We wear full pads and helmet and it’s always non- checking, so even if you fall or collide, it really doesn’t hurt.”
Last season, the Bend Lady Roughriders had about 40 rostered players; they have been in the Pacific Northwest Rugby Football Union for scheduled games since 2010. Burnell shared that it took several years to get such a large roster, with only 12 to 16 players until the last three years (it takes 15 to field a side). There’s not a definite number of women hockey players, but Elston said that there is a lot of interest and it is a growing sport in Central Oregon.
Flat track roller derby is a sport that should be taken seriously, said Melissa Woodman, current co-president of the Lava City Roller Dolls and member since its founding in 2006. Woodman, who skates under the name Vola Tyle, says that the team, which has about 30 members now, is an incredible group of strong, inclusive women.
“It’s an empowering sport,” she said. “Vola Tyle is a very different person from Melissa. When I strap my skates on, I get to have an alter ego that’s truly powerful. I wouldn’t be as healthy as I am without it. I’ve built incredible friendships with great girls because we’re there to support each other.”
Women choose to spend their time investing in these sports and each other, making the teams close-knit and supportive. Minimum time for rugby players is twice-a-week practices and once-a-week games during the spring and fall seasons, but with fundraisers, traveling for games, and other team events it can be more. Because there isn’t an official women’s hockey team (yet), it’s mostly pickup games, scrimmages, and open play, but Greta said that many women snatch time to play during weekends, lunch breaks, and evenings. For roller derby players, the time commitment is typically three to four hours a week, with practices and scrimmages, and sometimes more when traveling for games.
“Even if playing derby isn’t for you, there’s ways to be a part of it,” said Woodman. “It takes about 10 people to help run a game and we welcome anyone to come and see what it’s all about.”
Each of these sports takes the summer off because of Bend’s get-outdoors culture and busy summer schedule. But as soon as fall returns for the Roughriders and the Roller Dolls, as soon as it gets cold enough for the ice rink (around November), the women are back at it, supporting each other, cheering each other on, and competing in a positive way.
“Women can be so competitive with each other, just in life, so it’s incredible to compete in a way that’s healthy and powerful. Let’s admit it,” Woodman said with a laugh, “nobody looks good in a helmet and pads. We’re moms, realtors, teachers, librarians, but on the track we get to be someone else. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you came from. All that matters is the game and supporting each other.”
The common thread among the Bend Lady Roughriders Rugby Club, Bend Women’s Hockey Players, and Lava City Roller Dolls seems to be empowerment and inclusivity. I was assured that there’s not a type required for any of these sports, that women of nearly any body type, athletic experience, or competitive style can participate.
“I usually do individual sports. I like the team aspect of rugby. I think it challenges me in different ways than other sports do. There’s something unique about being able to tackle someone twice your size during a game. It’s exciting, after you get past the nerves! Rugby shows you how strong you are and is a great confidence builder,” shared Burnell. “Also the community is great. There is such a wide range of personalities and different people on the team; I’ve made great connections from being here.”
“When I travel, I always call the local roller derby team and ask if I can drop in to a practice,” said Woodman. “It’s such a great sport because there’s such camaraderie and friendliness, no matter where or who you are.”
After talking to these women, I wanted not only to support each of these teams but send out a big thank you to the courageous women who pave the way in these untraditional sports. Central Oregon has no shortage of active opportunities and it’s incredible to see teams of women coming together in unique pursuits in our community.
See you on the ice . . . in the field . . . on the flat track—play on, ladies!