Story and Photos by Amber Porter
“I think that when people hear ‘roller derby’ they have that 1980’s viewpoint of a bunch of barbarian biker babes who are out to punch each other in the face and throw each other over the rails and all that crazy stuff,” says Sailor Alece Whitehead as we sit at the table in workcenter 110 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella. She is dressed in her Navy coveralls, which have been through countless P3-C Orion mechanical maintenance procedures. Her brown eyes peer out under thick eyelashes and winged liner. Her black hair is tied neatly into the standard Navy bun and she smiles as she says, “I mean, the people I play with are wives and mothers and educated women. It’s like, everybody has a dark side and sometimes you just want to put on skates and fishnets and hit somebody.”
Whitehead, nickname ‘Hemi’, is part of the Sigonella Ash Kickers, a women’s roller derby league here at NAS Sigonella and also a roller derby team at Marine Corps Base Hawaii (MCBH). She has been involved in the sport for three years, practicing twice a week on deployment in Sicily and three times or more during home cycle in Hawaii.
“I watched a documentary on Netflix and I was like, ‘why don’t’ we have that here, that would be so awesome’,” said Whitehead. “Not even a week later I saw a flyer for a roller derby league and I’ve been practicing ever since.”
Roller derby is played with ten people on the court at a time, five from each team. There are four blockers and one jammer. The goal of the game is to get the jammer to the other side of the opposing team while not allowing the component’s jammer to get through your side. Whitehead is mostly a blocker.
“You’re always playing offense and defense in the game,” said Whitehead. “You have to think about what you’re doing and why you are doing certain things.”
Whitehead explains that roller derby is a very dynamic game. Players have to be strong and also fast, both mentally and physically. At any one time during a game, a player could have three other people relying on them to communicate and that individual really has to focus in on what they’re doing.
“Due to the nature of the game, players will have someone knock the snot out of them,” said Whitehead. “It’s the mentally strong part of a person that can take it and then after be like, oh cool that happened, we can still be friends. “
Friends would describe Whitehead as a very strong individual, someone who can handle anything that life throws at them with ease and confidence. Jakki Soderman, a friend of Whitehead, explains that Whitehead is the type of person for the job, “She is the kind of woman you want on your team. She will work her ass off for you, she’s got so much heart and strength.”
Balancing the workload of deployment and juggling a team sport can get difficult, Whitehead admits, but well worth it.
“It helps keep you grounded, it’s a little taste of home,” said Aviation Mechanist’s Mate First Class Erik Swanson, Whitehead’s Leading Petty Officer. “She knows she can always go to a roller derby match and be with people who have the same interests as her. Since it’s outside work, it can help draw her attention away from the everyday stressors of being deployed and in P-3 maintenance.”
Even with her job responsibilities as a United States Sailor, Whitehead finds the motivation and drive to pursue her interests within her sport.
“This sport is tough,” said Whitehead. “You need to practice and commit yourself to getting better. But its fun too, I’ve never met a bad person in derby.”
Our interview is interrupted by the sound of engine starts and Whitehead gets up to leave, anticipating the engine work ahead of her. The day of a Sailor revolves around the next job to do, and Whitehead is no exception. She laughs and tells me that at least it’s Thursday and tonight she has practice, so there is at least something to look forward to.