Skating the Smokies for a good cause

art frDon’t mess with a mountain girl, especially one on roller skates.

“We’re a tough bunch, and we stick together,” said Krista Robb.

Aka “Butternut Squash,” the 28-year-old Robb is a star player on the Smoky Mountain Roller Girls, a nonprofit sports organization rallying folks from all corners of Southern Appalachia. 


“We want to get everyone in the community together,” Robb said. “We want to be a positive influence on Western North Carolina, a place where everyone can get along and enjoy each other.”

The team will square off against the Upstate Roller Girl Evolution team (Easley, S.C.) during their “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’” event on Aug. 31 at the Birdtown Gym in Cherokee. The match will feature two bouts, with proceeds going to the Cherokee Children’s Home and Hawthorne Heights in Bryson City.

“We’re always giving back to the community. Every bout we’ve had, the funds went to another organization in the area,” said Lisa “Lisal Injection” Bernier. 

The 43-year-old Bernier is a physician’s assistant at the Cherokee Indian Hospital, hence the nickname. The skaters come from all walks of life, all backgrounds. From doctors to nurses, teachers to college students, each with a different personality and skill they bring to the team. Robb is a local farmer and calls herself “Butternut Squash” because “I’ll butter you up and squash you.”

“We all enjoy the fellowship and athletic side of doing this,” Robb said. “All of our girls work really hard, and we devote a lot of our time as a team to service projects in the community.”

Robb and a few female friends became interested in the sport when they would go to Asheville and watch the Blue Ridge Rollergirls in action. They went to one of the team’s boot camps and soon wanted to participate. But, due to driving logistics and time, it seemed a lost cause. Eventually, Robb and her crew started wrangling other girls in the region to do some workouts and skate practices in Franklin and Bryson City. And, with an unexpected amount of enthusiasm, the Smoky Mountain Roller Girls were born.

“We weren’t sure what the response would be, but there are now about 40 girls on our team, with about 25 consistently here at every practice and bout,” Robb said.

A contact sport consisting of two teams of five skaters, the game has origins back to the 1930s, with more than 1,250 clubs currently in existence worldwide. On each team at the starting line, there are four blockers who try and assist the fifth member, called a jammer, whose job it is to skate pass as many opposing players in each lap. For each player passed, the jammer is awarded a point, where five points would be the maximum per lap. Each bout is two periods of 30 minutes.

“It’s like a marathon where you’re thinking during the first mile, ‘how am I going to do this?’ But, you keep going, and it clicks, and you get ‘into the zone’ and just all about the focus,” said Coach Jennifer “Polly Pounder” Grabo.

The 36-year-old began her roller derby career with the San Diego Derby Dolls. After stints in Los Angeles and Savannah, Grabo found herself in Asheville, where she soon was coaching and refereeing for the Balsam Mountain Roller Girls. It’s a passion that hasn’t left her since the day she first laced up and stepped onto the track.

“We take it seriously, but we do have a lot of fun and fool around,” she said. “We hang out and have a good time beating each other up, then we go for a few beers afterwards.”

For her day job, Grabo is, ironically, a human resources officer for Sitel Contact Center Outsourcing in Asheville. Being a roller girl is “cheaper than therapy” Grabo feels. Once she hits the track, all bets are off.

“I love to get beat up, I say ‘thank you’ to that other player and then return the favor,” she said. “Being a roller girl has made me a more confident person and brought more positivity to my life.”

Off the track, the team is a band of sisters, helping out around the community and providing support in each other’s lives. It’s about finding the greater good amongst a group of tightly knit friends who were once once strangers.

“It’s a really great support system. Whether you’re the best skater or the worst, this group of women will always support you,” Grabo said. “We’ve been through divorces, broken bones and deaths within our own lives, and we all pull together.”

At a recent practice within the Birdtown Gym, Bernier scans the 1,200-seat capacity gym. The event will have a maximum of 800 occupants, and Bernier expects it to be a sold-out affair. It’s an exciting time to be a Smoky Mountain Roller Girl, with the only direction to go being fast and forward. 

“This team is getting bigger and bigger, and that’s great. Anyone interested, just come on out to a bout or practice and just talk to one of us,” she said. “We have every personality here, whether you’re shy and quiet or loud and gregarious – it’s all here.”



Want to go?

The Smoky Mountain Roller Girls will face off against the Upstate Roller Girl Evolution team (Easley, S.C.) during their “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’” event at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, at the Birdtown Gym in Cherokee. 

The match will feature two bouts, with a “Fresh Meat Invitational” at 5:30 p.m. and a SMRG match at 7 p.m. There will be a pre-bout car show in the parking lot. All proceeds from the bout will go to the Cherokee Children’s Home and Hawthorne Heights in Bryson City.

Volunteers, scorekeepers, timers, announcers, etc. are always needed, and anyone is welcome to join and help the team. Those interested in participating in the invitational or in joining the SMRG can come to their weekly practices from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday at the gym on Hwy 19. or 828.400.0809.

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