Meet co-captain of the Minnesota RollerGirls roller derby team, Jessica Sawicki, or as fans and teammates call her, Hurtude Stein
Photos by Claire Noack
By Claire Noack
Three times a week, Minnesota RollerGirls co-captain Jessica Sawicki, or as teammates and fans refer to her, Hurtrude Stein, laces up a pair of scuffed quad roller skates and battles through arms and elbows to stop opponents in their tracks—and that’s just during practice. The Orono-native grew up playing Minnesota’s favorite sport, ice hockey, but after college she traded in her blades for roller skates for a fun way to exercise and meet new people. After eight years in the competitive and community-driven roller derby league, Sawicki is just as passionate about the rough-and-tumble sport as when she first rolled onto the rink.
What were your first experiences with roller derby?
I had never been to a bout before I tried out for the Minnesota RollerGirls, and I didn’t quite know what the sport was about. I knew that everyone skated in a circle on a track, but I was really looking to exercise and meet friends. I tried out sort of on a whim, and it was a good fit as a hobby. I loved all the people, the sport was really fun and engaging, and it has a sense of humor about itself.
What is your favorite part about being on the Minnesota RollerGirls?
I think what I like most about it is competing. And I like to hit people; I think I just enjoy doing that [laughs]. There’s just something about this sport that intrigues me beyond the game itself. I love the community we have here and the way that we run and control our own business; everything we do is skater-owned and run. It is satisfying and freeing to have so much control over what you are doing.
Roller derby is a very physically demanding sport. What does your training look like every week?
We usually train three times a week for two hours. It’s a time for us to get together, work on skating skills, talk about strategy, scrimmage and play out game scenarios.
Most roller derby players have nicknames with an intimidating twist, including your own, Hurtrude Stein. How does each player get her nickname?
Everyone gets to choose their own name, and I think it can be a very powerful thing for some people to rename themselves. Some people choose nicknames they’ve had for a long time. Other people do pun names like I did. Even our volunteers like the security people, EMTs and people who help with our merchandise have derby names. So I think it’s whenever you’re ready and part of the community, then you get to have a roller derby name.
I was reading Gertrude Stein at the time and thought it was funny, and no one else had taken it, so that was the name that I chose. If I had known that I would still be playing eight years later, and it would be my name in the newspaper, then I might have picked something different [laughs]. I even met my fiancé playing roller derby, and he knew me first as Trudy [short for Gertrude] rather than Jessica, so it extends into real life a little bit.
Each member volunteers to both play on the team and help run the organization. How does the extra work factor into your everyday life?
Everyone in our league has her own job, apart from skating, to help the organization function. I used to co-manage our PR, and I was on the board of directors for two years, so I had other operational duties to keep up with in addition my full-time job in my family real estate business. It’s a lot of work to keep everything running smoothly, but it is a lesson in developing balance. It is definitely a labor of love, and the end result is that we get to do this incredible thing. And it’s not so bad to work with your friends on something you are passionate about.
The Minnesota RollerGirls are also dedicated to philanthropy, including the Ann Bancroft Foundation Let Me Play grant which the team works with closely. Why is giving back to the community so important to your organization?
We donate our time to organizations around the Twin Cities because we certainly know how powerful volunteer power is. We wouldn’t be able to run if we didn’t have people who cared passionately about what we do, so we try to make sure that we are also giving back to organizations that align with our mission. The Let Me Play grant eliminates the cost barrier to girls who want to start playing youth sports. Everyone who plays roller derby knows the transformative power that athletics can have on your life and the valuable lessons you learn from playing a team sport, so that grant is really close to our hearts.
What is it like playing in the Legendary Roy Wilkins Auditorium in the heart of downtown St. Paul?
We’ve had teams come from all over the world, and I think people unanimously agree that it’s such a special space. And it’s great that it is right downtown. I love that people can come in from public transit, and after the game there are a bunch of places on West Seventh Street where people can go. I love playing in the venue. It is so dramatic and fun, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
The league has established a regular fan base over the years. How would you describe your fans?
They are very dedicated, loyal and enthusiastic. A part of what makes it so fun for us as skaters is that the people who come back over and over again really understand why we’re doing this. They support that we are women who are strong, competitive and have a sense of humor.
Does the team have any favorite hangout spots in downtown St. Paul?
We love Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub on West Seventh Street and going to Camp Bar—they’re a big favorite of ours over on Robert Street. Those are two of our sponsors who really support our league by giving us a space to meet and to host after parties after our games, so if we want to go out for a drink, we’ll go to those places and give them our business because they support us and believe in us.
What do you love most about living in the Twin Cities?
I’ve lived in St. Paul for five years now, and I like a lot of things about it, like the friendliness of the people in the city. It’s a really beautiful place to live. There are a lot of great outdoor spaces and everything is very accessible.