Deep in the heart of Amish country, Lancaster, Pennsylvania is probably not the first place you would look to find a roller derby league. But when Queens of Pain blocker Bunny McBones stumbled upon the Dutchland Rollers in 2006, it was just what she needed at that time in her life.
“I had moved to Lancaster after finishing college in Virginia and I didn’t know many people there,” she recalled. “I had maybe two or three friends, and if you don’t know people there, it’s not really a very exciting place to be. So for almost a year I was pretty unhappy there, and then I met a girl at a party who said she played roller derby and that I should come to practice.”
She did, and considering that four years later she’s not only still skating, but skating with the internationally recognized and respected Gotham Girls Roller Derby league, it’s pretty safe to say that the sport hit a chord in her.
“It opened a whole new world,” she said of that first practice with the Rollers. “That town was completely different for me from then on. I had all kinds of cool new friends and we did really cool things together – we played roller derby, we had events out in the community, and it just opened up this whole other subculture that I didn’t know was there.”
Born in Illinois, but raised in Northern Virginia, McBones played soccer and volleyball during her junior high years, but admits that, “I wasn’t very good at either. I went to a private school and it was a small school, so I didn’t have to be very good to make the team. I could still play, be part of the team, practice really hard, and eventually, after my third year of playing volleyball, I was kind of okay. I never had a natural talent for sports, but I did have some experience being on a team.”
It was experience that she never thought would come in handy, but after graduating college with a BFA degree and then settling in with the Rollers in Lancaster, everything came together as she began her new journey as a roller derby skater.
“It did help me because I was used to being in practice, knowing that this is the coach and I’m gonna do whatever they tell me to,” she said. “And for a lot of people who have never played a sport before, they find that abrasive. They don’t like being yelled at, they don’t like being told what to do, and they take it personally. I knew it was nothing personal; I was just gonna do whatever my coach told me to, and I actually learn better that way.”
Awards in 2006 and 2007 for Most Improved followed, and she capped off her career in Pennsylvania with a 2008 league title with the Barn Razors. But there were more mountains for her to climb, and with the encouragement of her teammate (and current Philly Roller Girls skater) Mary that Motha OH GOD!, who she describes as her “housemate, best friend, derby wife,” she switched jobs to begin working with adults with developmental disabilities, and soon made the decision to tackle New York City in more ways than one.
“She (Mary) worked with an organization that provided services for group homes,” McBones explains. “I had been working retail, I hated it, and I was ready for a new line of work. She told me about her job and I said I’d give it a try. It was nothing I had ever done before and I didn’t know what it was gonna be like, but I ended up really loving it.”
“Then I applied for this job at a day program where I could combine that experience working with people with disabilities with my background in art, which is really exciting for me,” she continues. “I feel like art is my calling, but it’s really hard to make a living as an artist, and I don’t even know that I’m interested in being an artist where I have to depend on my art for food because it kinda takes the fun out of it. But this is really exciting for me, and I really love my job right now.”
In July of 2009, she made the move to NYC to work as a Day Habilitation Specialist while pursuing her Masters degree in Art Therapy. There was also another endeavor waiting for her – to skate with the Gotham Girls. Unfortunately, she missed the league transfer date by a month, forcing her to try out for the league with the rest of the rookies. And while there were some tough parts of that process to deal with, she took them with grace.
“I moved to New York in July, so I had to wait until December and try out with all the other fresh meat, and I had to go through the fresh meat training,” she said, admitting that her three years of competitive derby experience gave her an edge during that training period. “There were plenty of other skaters who had played in other leagues before, but I think I did have the most experience of everyone who tried out. I wasn’t really worried going into it; I pretty much knew that I would make tryouts. It was more of a patience-building exercise for me.”
“I no longer had a league to practice with,” she said. “I could visit a few of Gotham’s practices as a visiting skater, but the policy at the time wouldn’t allow me to visit regularly. I couldn’t come to every practice because I wasn’t a part of the league yet, so it was a challenge not being able to play, but still finding a way to keep up my endurance level, and it was frustrating that I couldn’t be working on my skill and continuing to improve. It wasn’t as fun going to the gym. But luckily, New York’s men’s league – the New York Shock Exchange – allowed me to practice with them once a week in the meantime.”
Needless to say, McBones earned a spot in the league and was drafted by the Queens of Pain. You could say it was going from the frying pan to the fire for her, but while she appreciates the amped up level of play, she’s also learned to hold her own in the league.
“One of the most exciting things about skating with Gotham this year is that I had to step up my own level of play,” she said. “I’m learning from the best skaters in the country. My team captain is Suzy Hotrod and she’s amazing. It’s really exciting to be skating with girls who are such great athletes. As far as intensity, there was not much difference. Even though with Dutchland it wasn’t quite the same advanced level of play, it doesn’t mean that the heart and spirit wasn’t still there. Our home team games with Dutchland were still some of the most exciting games that I’ve ever played.”
“Plus, people move to New York from all over the place, so we have influences from leagues from all over the country,” she continues. “We have skaters and coaches who have skated in west coast leagues and brought things back, and it’s more of a cultured team, you might say. Whereas with Dutchland, it was girls who lived in central Pennsylvania and a lot of us had never even seen roller derby before we started playing it.”
But in addition to stoking her competitive fires, McBones has also found out one striking similarity: that derby in NYC is just like derby in PA in terms of building lasting friendships.
“Roller derby for me is the best way to make friends because it takes so much of your time that you really don’t have time to have friends outside of roller derby,” she smiles. “I knew that was gonna be where a lot of my social life came from. And even before I started skating with the league, I was making friends with some of the girls I had met through different bouts and other events, like the East Cost Extravaganza in Philly.”
That doesn’t mean number 703 is taking it easy on her friends, new or old. In fact, being friends with Bunny McBones should come with a disclaimer – because you may be the one she hits the hardest.
“Sometimes for me, it’s my closest friends who are also my biggest rivals,” she said. “For some reason I get more competitive when I’m skating against someone that I know really well. That’s the only way you get better. I think it’s kind of understood in the sport of roller derby that if you’re someone’s friend, you’re gonna help them out by giving them a harder time. That’s the only way you get better. And you want to win, so it comes pretty easily.”
To win in derby though, you have to be a team player and have patience and selflessness on the track. For Bunny McBones, that’s a part of her daily life off the track, so when she’s on it, she’s certainly not one to put herself above her squad mates.
“Roller derby is definitely a team sport, and if you’re caught up in how much am I gonna get to skate in the bout, or getting upset that you had to sit because somebody else was in the box, you’re not gonna have any fun and you’re not gonna skate well and you’re not gonna be any help to your team. You really do have to put your team before yourself.”