Shea Backes (senior) is a sociology and French double major and a member of Zeta Tau Zeta, the gender-neutral Greek organization at Occidental College. Unbeknownst to many, Backes is also known as “Maid Murder’em,” a name she goes by when she is skating on the track at the Dollosseum, where she is a member the L.A. Derby Dolls FreshMeat team.
The L.A. Derby Dolls, an all-women roller derby league, is the third league that Backes has trained with during the year and three months she has been skating. Backes said that she first began roller derby during the summer before her junior year at Occidental, with the Sacred City Roller Girls league in her home city of Sacramento, Calif. She said that what first attracted her to the sport was how energetic, aggressive and brutal the players are, as well as her childhood love of skating. She continued to play during her fall semester abroad in Paris where she trained with Le Boucherie de Paris, known in English as “The Butchery of Paris.”
Her current league, the Derby Dolls, has four home teams and one all-star team. Athletes in the Derby Dolls’ “FreshMeat” program train to one day get drafted into one of the four home teams in the league. As a FreshMeat, Backes has the opportunity to try out for sub-pool where she will substitute for players on the home teams, eventually leading to one team choosing her as a player. Currently, she is learning the skills and positions of the sport and participates in inter-team scrimmages.
“I think roller derby is just a really unique space for women to have a community around doing something they love and something that makes you feel incredibly physically powerful,” Backes said. “It’s fun and delightful to have a space where you can skate fast and hit hard.”
Backes said that a rewarding part of her time training with the Derby Dolls is that she has been able to get out of the isolated campus environment known as the “Oxy bubble,” and explore the greater LA area with women of diverse ages and backgrounds.
“When you are at Oxy, everyone around you has the same experience to an extent. You’ve all come from different places, but you are all here to get a liberal arts education for your degree,” Backes said. “Whereas in roller derby, everyone has really different experiences and is going different places with their lives.”
Women who play roller derby are also from a wide age range, which Backes said means that she will have a group of friends who will remain in L.A. after she graduates. Backes also said that she has learned more about L.A. culture since she became friends with other Derby Doll skaters.
Kristen Orola, captain of the Varsity Brawlers team and skater for four years, said that her first impression of Backes was that she was sassy with the veteran trainers. She also said that Backes is calm on the track and is often chosen to be the pivot on her team. The pivot, Orola said, is the teammate who keeps the four other skaters on her team unified and creates a plan of action for the “bout,” or game.
“[The pivot] can communicate and skate at the same time, which is always really hard when you just start because you are really just concentrated on not dying,” Orola said. “It’s definitely uncommon to find someone in the fresh meat section who is willing to yell at four different other people but [Backes] does it well.”
Backes said that she loves the position of pivot because she enjoys being a leader and creating bout strategies while building her skills as a skater.
While Backes describes herself as an energetic and competitive person, she did not always identify as an athlete. Growing up as a self-proclaimed theater kid, Backes attended an arts high school without any sports teams. Her first encounter with roller derby was at the age of twelve when she watched a bout in Sacramento. She said a skater encouraged her to join the sport afterward.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I am the skinniest, girliest kid — I could never play roller derby,” Backes said. “And then, seven years later, still very skinny and very girly, I decided I wanted to try it.”
Eaven Backes, Shea’s 18-year-old sister and a first-year at Southern Oregon University, said that she never expected Shea to take up a contact sport, as she knew of her sister as a dancer. She said that growing up, Shea’s aggression and competitiveness usually came out during family board games.
“She was coming up with elaborate schemes to win at card games,” Eaven Backes said.
Every skater in roller derby has a team name, Shea Backes said, as part of the derby identity. Shea Backes chose “Maid Murder’Em” after Maid Marian, a character from her favorite morally inspirational movie growing up, “Robin Hood.” Shea Backes’ skater number, 1938, is also a reference to the film, since the Errol Flynn movie adaptation of “Robin Hood” was released in 1938.
In contrast to her competitiveness on the track, Shea Backes said that she plans to go into non-profit work in harm prevention. The work she hopes to do involves an approach to treating injection drugs which focuses on how to reduce illness people experience from injection drug use, such as HIV, without requiring that they stop using drugs first.
“[It’s] the idea that people deserve to live and be healthy, whether or not they are using drugs,” Shea Backes said.
She is also working on her senior comprehensive project which involves interviewing women on Skid Row who inject drugs.
“These women have really hard life experiences but are really interesting and resilient people,” Shea Backes said.
Eaven Backes said that Shea Backes has always had a strong sense of justice that stems from being very empathetic.
“Shea is always willing to lend an ear and jokes that she would fight your feelings for you or take on the system. She just cares about the downtrodden,” Eaven Backes said.
Shea Backes’ self-described focus on improvement encompasses her team identity and her intended work in public health policy. Both, she said, are different yet compatible worlds which involve mingling with people of different backgrounds.
“For most of my life I feel like I’ve been surrounded by people who mostly have similar experiences, but meeting people who have really different life experiences and goals has been a way to grow and shift expectations and get out of one way of thinking,” Shea Backes said.