When Danielle Nicolette and Tonya Vojtkofsky first met, they were sitting outside Arlington Elementary before heading in for a “Back to School” night. Five years later they were vacationing with their husbands in Seattle and walked into an airport hanger to watch a women's roller derby event.
“I just fell in love with the atmosphere of empowerment,” Vojtkofsky said. “It was very eye-opening for me.”
That's the short story of how the Fort Wayne Derby Girls were founded, and Saturday night, they'll finish their 12th season with a bout against Memphis Roller Derby starting at 6 p.m. More than 1,500 fans are expected in Memorial Coliseum.
“Honestly, I never thought it would get as big as it is, ever,” Nicolette said. “I thought it would be a fun little hobby for Tonya and I on the side with a cool group of women who met once a month and skated really hard. My goodness!”
First, they had to learn how to skate, and Roller Dome owners Kim and Marge Wall helped with that. Then they had to find equipment, starting with speed skating skates, skateboard helmets and pads. Almost every skater the first year suffered a concussion, according to Nicolette, before they understood there was proper equipment available and learned how to fall.
They also had to learn business, selling tickets, setting up a track, organizing an event and finding opponents willing to play them. They had to figure out parking, first at Roller Dome South and then The Plex. Programming the music, designing programs and organizing concessions also had to be figured out. They had to find coaches and bleachers and find ways to travel to road matches. Oh, they also had to train approximately 50 skaters who had never participated in roller derby before.
“My favorite thing to do is get a project up off the ground,” Vojtkofsky said. “I have done a lot of with it the Fort Wayne Museum of Art prior to starting the league and there were a lot of things we were doing. Had I not had that experience, I would have been completely lost as to how to develop a lot of the committees and sponsorship.”
But their enthusiasm was infectious, and people started to believe in what they were doing, particularly their charity work. From the beginning, the Derby Girls wanted to work with charities targeting women and children's causes.
One of their first charities was the Great Lakes Burn Camp, and the donation was $2,000, which was a huge amount when the Derby Girls were starting out and everyone was paying for everything. Some firefighters showed a video of them camp to the players in a back room at Roller Dome North, and there wasn't a dry eye in the place, Vojtkofsky said.
“That was our mission then,” she said. “From that point on it became our crusade.”
They raised $6,000 the first year, pushed that to $25,000 a year later and are closing in on $200,000 in donations. That's even more impressive considering the skaters pay for all their own equipment, practice time and insurance and volunteer their abilities for everything else that needs accomplished.
Practices were from 9-11 p.m.
“You try to go to sleep with your adrenaline going, and you try to go to work at 8 a.m. the next morning,” Nicolette said. “It's a fun schedule to try and maintain, and you're paying to do this. It was all volunteer effort from all of those women who created what is happening today.”
The team and organization grew far beyond what Vojtkofsky and Nicolette expected, but they grew along with them. It became their passion and their calling.
“Derby empowers women in so many ways,” Nicolette said. “You learn not only how to skate and the athleticism of the sport and build that physical strength, but because of the volunteer work it takes to run that type of company, you are learning about business, charity involvement, event planning and how to deal with your own strengths and insecurities and growing.
“I never would have guessed I would get from Derby what I did. The experiences hit every area.”
Somehow after the first year, which started with a $250 investment, they were making a small profit. Somehow, despite lots of skepticism and preconceptions, they had built something strong enough to have a future.
“I cried many times over different things,” Vojtkofsky. “You can't please everybody. You had to try to stay with the majority you were going to make happy. That was a common goal. You have to listen to everyone and see if the complaint is legitimate or good to be able to go forward with the decision. That's when we started the board.”
Eventually, both women left the Derby Girls, Nicolette in 2008 and Vojtkofsky in 2012. The work was all-consuming, and they had young families who needed them. With a board of directors and a dozen skaters who had been there since the first year whom they had trained, the Derby Girls were strong enough to survive without them.
That didn't make moving on easy.
“I've never been part of any organization that was so difficult to leave,” Nicolette said. “It was almost like a mourning period because I really had to shut it off to allow it to continue without any part of me in it. It felt like I was taking my baby and adopting that baby out and I had to watch parents raise my baby without any say in it.”
But what they had learned helped them be successful in their professions. Nicolette went to work for Lincoln Financial Group where she became director of Annuity Inforce Operations, and Vojtkofsky is an office manager at Pro Strip.
“All it was to me was a really cool opportunity to do something fun, and I gained a lot of out of it for my skating, my health,” Vojtkofsky said. “I have lifelong friends from it. I had a lot of time invested in it, but the return is forever.”
Nicolette came back to the Derby Girls in 2016 when she was asked to become a board member.
“I still get the occasional person who comes up and says, `You were a Roller Derby girl?' ” Nicolette said. “They automatically think I'm this tough beast, which is not my persona (at Lincoln). When they find out that Tonya and I are the ones who brought it to Fort Wayne, they are pretty blown away.
“I still have some of the older skaters come up, and even some of the younger skaters whom I've never met, who thank me because of the impact Derby Girls has had on their lives. That is the most humbling of all moments, to know we have impacted people we don't even know by starting something we had no idea was going to evolve into what it is.”
For more on the Derby Girls, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.
Derby Girls vs. Memphis
First bout: 6 p.m. Saturday