‘RUSTY NELL’: Blount County girl goes from the mundane to the fast lane with the Hard Knox Roller Girls
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Dec. 7, 2011: For Kasey-Nell Lawson, it was a day that will truly live in infamy.
It was her first practice with the Hard Knox Roller Girls. Although the Blount County girl — William Blount High School, class of 2000 — had spent a fair amount of her childhood at Smoky Mountain Skate Center on East Broadway Avenue (back then it was called Skatetown USA, however), it was her first time on quad-style skates. And with a pack of determined veterans bearing down on her, she couldn’t help but marvel at how she might very well be experiencing her own Pearl Harbor.
“Mid-way through, all I could think was, ‘What have I done?’” she told The Daily Times this week. “My legs were on fire, and all I could think was, ‘I’m going to die on this track, and they’re all going to run over me!’ But I also kept thinking, ‘I can’t quit.’”
She didn’t, and today Lawson is a full-fledged members of the HKRG, East Tennessee’s flat-track roller derby team. She skates as “Rusty Nell,” a play on a childhood nickname, and has become a member of an elite sisterhood of weekend warriors who subject themselves to the rigors of a sport as physically exacting as rugby.
In so doing, she’s found what might be considered a hobby but has turned into something more: an outlet, a stress reliever and a way to entertain herself and others.
“It all started because I realized how incredibly monotonous my life had become — work, gym, sleep, repeat,” Lawson said. “I was working as a legal assistant at the time, and my co-workers joked that I should try out. I was too scared to do anything about it for a long time, but then I ran into a couple of the Roller Girls out in Knoxville one night and asked them about it, and then I decided to give it a try, mainly just for the challenge and for something interesting to do.”
The daughter of Howard and Peggy Lawson (she has an older sister, Emily, who’s an officer with the Lenoir City Police Department), she’d grown up skating at the birthday parties of friends. Like most kids, she enjoyed it, and she remembers well the first time she was able to zip around the rink without clutching the wall for support.
“I remember thinking, ‘Look at all these workers; they’re gonna want me to be on their speed-skating team!’” she said with a laugh. “Yeah, that never happened.”
She got into in-line skating for a while, but by the time she grew to adulthood and joined the 9-to-5 rat race, she found herself craving something more. Hearing her tales of dealing with traffic on the way to the law office, her co-workers joked that she had road rage and needed an outlet. As she considered going out for the Hard Knox Roller Girls, she went to one of the matches.
“It was extremely intimidating, actually; that’s what took me so long to decide I wanted to even try it,” she said. “These girls are amazing athletes, and they were doing things on skates I couldn’t even do on tennis shoes. In all honesty, I wasn’t confident I was even going to be able to make the team, but then there was that little bit of, ‘Who says you can’t? What if?’ So I decided, ‘Let’s just see what happens. Let’s make an adventure out of this.’”
The Hard Knox Roller Girls began as a flat-track roller derby league for women in 2006. The league’s first practices were held at the Smoky Mountain Skate Center in Maryville before moving to the downtown Knoxville Convention Center and finally the Civic Coliseum, and along the way the skaters have improved as athletes, businesswomen and showgirls.
As a member of the nationally recognized Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which governs roughly 70 leagues around the country, the HKRG can compete in tournaments and for national rankings. On the surface, the sport seems like a relatively simple concept — the match begins when the first whistle blows and the pack, made up of four blockers from each team, takes off together. On the second whistle, each team sends out a jammer to catch up with the pack. The jammers try to get through the pack, and the first jammer to make it is the lead. After the first lap, jammers score points for each member of the opposing team they pass; the jam ends after 2 minutes, or when the lead jammer calls it off.
But with each bout consisting of three 20-minute periods, it takes stamina to keep going, especially when skates are banging and girls are throwing elbows and the track’s curves are approaching at break-neck speed. Lawson found that out the hard way when she decided to try out.
“They call the new skaters ‘fresh meat,’” she said. “They want to test you, to see if you can handle this, if you’re going to make a good teammate, what you can take, how you’re going to work together with the team. I was worried, because I knew how skilled the other girls were. I had seen the way these girls could hit, and a lot of people will come into derby with a friend, so they have the comfort of having someone to walk along this road with them. I wasn’t friends with any of them, so there was no reason for them not to say, ‘Why are you trying to play with us? and hit really hard.”
She survived the tryout, however, and passed her written test, which is required in order for certification as a member of the association. She had to take her skating test twice — skating five laps backward in a predetermined amount of time was her sole stumbling block — but in July 2012, she was officially a member of the team. The next step was coming up with her character — some aspect of her personality that gets played up when she’s in the rink. For some girls, their skating persona runs the gamut from cute to frightening; Lawson went with a childhood nickname that’s been with her ever since.
“My middle name is Nell, and back in grade school when the teacher would call my full name, the other kids would make fun — ‘Rusty Nell! Finger Nell! Toe Nell!’” she said. “When I told my friends that when I got older, they all thought it was hilarious, and everybody started calling me Rusty. In fact, when I tried out, that’s what they thought my name was, so I was talked into keeping ‘Rusty Nell.’”
Her first match as a Hard Knox Roller Girl took place July 28, 2012, in a bout against the 580 Rollergirls of Lawton, Okla. She recalls standing in the blinding spotlight with teammate “Battle Ready Betty” as the announcer called their names, and steeled herself for combat.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what if I fall down? I’m going to fall in front of all these people,’” she said. “Then my next thought was, ‘(The other team) is going to be able to see all over my face that this is my first game, and they’re going to murder me!’ So I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t fall; don’t look like you’re scared. Just have fun.’”
She survived, and to her surprise, she didn’t get beaten to a pulp. In fact, her teammates, she added, hit harder in practice than she experienced during her first match — a testament to the physical prowess of HKRG. (In fact, the worst hit she ever took resulted in a concussion, courtesy of Shamir “Hella Kitty” Peshewa.)
These days, she gives as good as she gets. Now a bookkeeper for the Blount County Probation office, she wears her bruises with pride and looks forward to quitting time on practice days and the weekends during the season. She’s in better shape than she’s ever been, and she wears her jersey with pride.
“So many people, the first thing they think of is the 1970s, blonde bombshell entertainment, theatrical style of roller derby,” she said. “Unless they come and see it, most everyone’s still kind of stuck with that image, or the idea that it’s all fake. But it’s evolved into such an athletic competition for women that I think people are really missing out on what it’s become. Now, roller derby is one of the sports being considered for the 2020 Olympics.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know anyone, and I remember thinking I wasn’t doing it to make friends, because I had my friend quota filled. But now I have this family of really amazing, athletic girls, and they will do anything for me. It’s such a versatile group of women, and we’re from all walks of life. And some of these ladies I would have never met had I not decided to get some guts and go try out for this sport.”