Fungalaxy skating rink, on Athens, Georgia’s East Side, is the home of the Classic City Roller Girls, Athens’ own flat track roller derby league. Last Saturday, at their usual practice time, 9 a.m., the latest group of new skaters took their first round of assessments, to test the skills they had learned over the past six weeks of “boot camp.” Their coach Gail Skateann was there to make them laugh and cheer them on, but it would be her last practice, at least for now.
“It’s been a year and a half of me hollering orders and torturing people every Saturday,” Gail said. “This rookie group was a good group for me to go out on. Almost every single person who started the boot camp is still doing it. Being the rookie coach, you know that people are going to come and go.”
Gail Skateann, aka Christa O’Neill, has been playing roller derby since May of 2015, when she entered her own boot camp. She knows exactly what she’s putting the newbies through. So to see so many of them stick around and see it through, she says, is enough to make a rookie coach proud.
“Derby’s a difficult sport to get into,” she said. “It’s hard, it’s hard on your body. It hurts at first. Learning how to fall is never easy. Derby stance is rough. It’s lower back pain for days. I’m just so proud of everyone who’s kept with it, who come and bust their asses. It requires a lot of time to get to get good, and the more you put into it the more you’ll get out of it.”
Gail competed for only one season, in 2016. That summer she began feeling sick, but she pushed through and played hard, until she played her last bout on a Saturday in August.
“I competed in a bout with appendicitis,” Gail said. “It was ready to pop. I just thought that I was sick, and I knew it was the last bout of the season, so I pushed through. I went to the doctor and they were like, you need to go to the hospital.”
Complications with the surgery took a toll on Gail’s body, and she knew that competing would be difficult for her. The old rookie coach, Hogan’s Zero, was about to retire, and Gail saw an opportunity for her to take on a new role in the league
“I decided to carry on in her footsteps,” she said. “I knew I could carry on her legacy of positivity in coaching and stay involved in derby.”
One of her first rookies, Ender’s Game, says Gail was both intimidating and encouraging.
“One Saturday shortly after I joined CCRG, I was the only rookie skater who came to practice,” Ender said. “One brand new skater, staring at Satan on skates, waiting to see if I was worth a whole practice by myself. Gail just grinned and started a series of drills targeting my weakest skills.”
At first she was embarrassed, Ender said, but that quickly faded.
“Gail was right next to me through every stumble, always with a suggestion or a compliment,” Ender said. “Gail is all about building people up—strength, skills, and confidence. If you’re there to work, she’s there to work with you.”
Now Gail’s stepping down because her work schedule is too demanding, but she says she is proud of the work she and her rookies have put in together.
“To see people coming back continuously and trying so hard is a really big deal,” she said. “I am so proud of the dedication and the effort that everyone puts in. That’s not anything that I did. But I am glad I get to be the person to see that, to inspire people to push through.”
Classic City’s B team, the Bad News B’s, will head to Taylors, South Carolina on Saturday April 21 to take on the Greenville Derby Dames at 7 p.m., while the Classic City All Stars head to Baton Rouge for back to back bouts against Assassination City (Dallas) on April 21 at noon and Baton Rouge’s own Red Stick All Stars on Sunday April 22 at 10 a.m. The Classic City Roller Girls’ next home bout is June 30 at Athens Arena.