OCEANSIDE — As far as contact sports go, there’s nothing quite like roller derby.
At Oceanside’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park, the whistle marking the start of a two-minute jam sets off a mad flurry of movement, a tangle of interlocked elbows and wheel-clad feet moving down the skate track.
Out of the jostling chaos, the North County Derby Alliance jammer Amberlee Johnson, aka Ambo, breaks free through the wall of Santa Barbara-based Brawlin’ Betties blockers and sails around the track, earning cheers from her blue-clad team as she completes her lap and rejoins the pack.
The May 20 derby bout was the second of the season for North County Derby Alliance, an Oceanside-based team that draws players from throughout North County, San Diego and even southern Orange County.
For its members, some of whom have competed for over a decade, the team and the sport have given them newfound confidence and a strong sense of family.
“Derby saved my soul. It’s changed my life — it’s literally been the highlight of my life,” said Candace Kanefsky/Candy Azzkicker, one of NCDA’s founding members and a full-time player and coach. “It made me believe I was capable of more than I thought I was.”
NCDA was formed in 2015 after a group of about 15 women split off from another Oceanside team in hopes of creating a league that would be more structured and fulfilling. According to Kanefsky, it started with the mission that everyone would have a voice and grew from there.
The team now has 28 active members, ranging in age from the 20s to 50s, who came to the sport for different reasons. Many came for their love of derby and stayed because of the sense of community.
Marcella Maynard, aka Sharky, started playing derby in 2014 while navigating difficulties in her personal life. After seeing a group of skaters practicing at a park one day, she decided to get involved and quickly found catharsis in the high-intensity, high-adrenaline sport.
“I was going through a terrible divorce, and it was a way to have an outlet for the stress. You have the teammates to get you through the hard days, and that’s what it did,” said Maynard, another NCDA founding member. “You’re a family, and you trust each other. That’s what’s kept me around — I wouldn’t have that support system in my life without derby.”
Anyone who watches a bout will see that derby is not for the faint of heart. During a bout, each team has a jammer and four blockers on the track, and points are scored when the jammer passes blockers on the opposing team. Bouts are split into two 30-minute halves containing multiple two-minute plays, or “jams.”
Blockers use their entire body to prevent the opposing jammer from getting past while also trying to help their own jammer, who has to be quick on their feet and creative to weave their way through the mayhem successfully.
“It’s a high-impact, intense game, and when you’re done with it, you’re just on a different kind of high. You feel empowered, you feel strong, you feel like nothing can conquer you,” said Maynard.
Players fight aggressively on the track, but when someone takes a brutal fall, everything stops to ensure that person is alright before continuing. Following any bout, NCDA and the opposing team will enjoy a meal together to bond and have fun.
Local team members also make plenty of time for their team bonding and have enjoyed traveling throughout California and to Nevada and Arizona for bouts.
Cheryl Ducar — derby alias Pepper — proudly holds the title of the team’s oldest player at 55. She said one of the best parts of NCDA and derby, generally, is the range of people of different ages and walks of life. The team is always focused on helping each other succeed, including new players and those just learning to skate.
“I’ve skated with a lot of teams, and some of them have a lot of drama, some of them have very strict rules, and some of them are just critical,” Ducar said. “And with NCDA, it’s been all supportive, and that’s why I’ve been with them for so long. They don’t criticize, but they try to guide you.”
More photos of the North County Derby Alliance