AUGUSTA — Meredith Cohen had found her activity. And then, suddenly, it was gone.

The coronavirus pandemic that shut down all reaches of the country also took with it the fledgling Kennebec Valley Roller Derby league, leaving many, including Cohen, without a sport that was quickly turning into a passion.

“The break was tough,” the Hallowell resident said. “I was like ‘I finally found this thing I was looking for, and here we are, we’re dead in the water.'”

It took more than a year to return. But finally, a few weeks back in July, the league was back in action.

“It’s a huge relief,” Cohen said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until coming back.”

Rebounding from the COVID-19 shutdowns hasn’t been easy for the KVRD, which has had to essentially start from scratch since its inception in July of 2019. But president Renae Snow likes the direction the league is heading in now; the KVRD is at 20 members, it’s back practicing two days a week, and there’s an early plan to start competing in bouts by December. The league even has sponsors, with a list including Cushnoc Brewing Company, Evergreen Dental and Merkaba Sol.

“We have a really dedicated group of skaters right now,” Snow said. “I think once everything opens back up again and all the leagues in the area are back to functioning and bouting again, it’ll take off pretty quickly.”

Snow was part of a group of nine members that started the KVRD two summers ago, and success came quickly. By March, the team had drawn between 45 and 50 members, and had a mix of both new and experienced skaters. The early practices had been to prepare the team for competition, and the players had just passed the assessments to be cleared for contact.

During a drill to practice pack skating, Katie ‘War Witch’ Johnson takes a fall when the pack stopped during Kennebec Valley Roller Derby practice July 29 in the gym of the Buker Community Center in Augusta. Players who fell had to go to the middle of track and do five pushups before rejoining the pack. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“It was going awesome,” said Snow, whose roller derby name is Ann T. Social. “Way better than any of us could have expected.”

COVID brought that progress to a screeching halt a few days later, however, as the league was out of action entirely for 16 months.

“It’s definitely been challenging,” said trainer Kathryn Ference, who goes by Dinah Fire. “We were just taking off when 2020 hit, so it was definitely like the worst possible time.”

Since returning, membership hasn’t been a problem — KVRD’s team is currently locked where it is, as the team isn’t accepting new members yet. The challenge has been bringing the team back to the form it was at before the shutdown occurred.

“We’re doing it slowly,” Ference said. “We’re starting to do a little bit of light, baby contact, touching each other, not getting up into people’s business right now. We’re going to have to kind of play it by ear.”

For the players who are on the roster, though, just being back is enough.

“There were definitely tears (during COVID), I was like ‘Is this a sign that I’m not supposed to do this?'” said Skowhegan’s Reagan Hovasse, or Roxi El Boa on the rink. “I pulled into the parking lot (in July) and it was almost the anxiety of like your first day of school. … But it was amazing to be back with everybody.”

The sport offers plenty to the skaters who pursue it. One is the physical component, as roller derby’s physical nature offers both plenty of conditioning and a chance to blow off some steam.

Meredith Cohen, left, pushes teammate Vanessa ‘Necessary Roughness’ Glazier, who is practicing a blocking technique, during Kennebec Valley Roller Derby practice July 29 in the gym of the Buker Community Center in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“It’s an amazing workout, and it’s a really good release,” Ference said. “I think a lot of times, women are sort of taught (that) you’re not allowed to be physical, you can’t be aggressive like that. We kind of give people permission.”

“It’s physically challenging and mentally challenging,” Cohen said. “The game is very complicated, so there’s a lot to think about mentally about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and who’s coming up behind you.”

It’s physical, but the players said they often hear people getting the wrong impression.

“It is a full contact sport, but when people sometimes think of roller derby, especially older people, they kind of picture the ’70s and people throwing punches,” Ference said. “It’s not like that. You’re not allowed to hit anybody from the shoulders up, or below the knees. You’re not allowed to pound people in the back, you’re not allowed to punch people.”

Instead, it’s a sport that rewards body contact — think of a check in hockey — and one that has a place for skaters of all sizes and abilities.

“Some people are going to be jammers because they’re really fast off the line,” said Waterville’s Vanessa Glazier, or Necessary Rough-Ness on skates. “And then you’ve got other people who get in their stance and they’re blocking, and that’s where you’re strong. … Everybody finds their little strong point at some point.”

The sport has a physical draw, but its social pull is just as strong.

“A lot of women that join the league are looking for something to really push themselves,” Snow said. “Or they’re looking for friendship and camaraderie, or they’re looking for something just to do out of the house.”

That social aspect has only flourished as the league has survived its biggest challenge.

“We check in with each other constantly,” Hovasse said. “Throughout COVID, when we weren’t able to practice, we had online practices with each other. We made music videos. Anything to stay connected.”

“There’s no judgement,” Glazier said. “They’re very inclusive. … I feel completely supported. I’ve never had a place where I’ve felt like I fit in, and this has been the place where I just fit in.”

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