Master Planner by Day, Pain Train by Night
To her Materion coworkers around the world, Jeanni Fichthorn is the highly competent, mild-mannered Master Planner for rod and wire at the Reading, Pa., plant. But when she leaves work and heads over to Skateaway roller rink, she transforms into her alter ego: the Reading Derby Girls’ hard-charging jammer and blocker, No. 2702, Pain Train!
It was 2011, and Fichthorn was at Skateaway watching her children play roller hockey when the rink manager told her they were starting a roller derby team and would she want to play. Fichthorn had skated a bit in her teens, but was not a regular skater. She knew next to nothing about roller derby and had never played a contact sport. She was overweight, out of shape, and pregnant with her fourth child. Nevertheless, eight weeks after her C-section delivery, she signed up.
“I did a little research and it sounded like something fun,” she said. “I knew I was done having children, and I wanted to pursue being in better health and better physical condition.”
In roller derby, two five-player teams skate around a flat track in the same direction while the designated “jammer” from each side fights to get past the pack of opposing “blockers” without being knocked out of bounds. The action gets chaotic, as everyone plays offense and defense simultaneously.
Right away, she knew she loved the sport. “I realized if I’m going to do this, I have to take it seriously,” she said. “It took me some time, but I liked the challenge of it, and being part of the group kept me returning.”
It would be a full year before she was ready to skate in an actual bout. “I went from not being able to complete a two-hour practice and cracking my chin on the rink floor my first time to sharing the track with skaters who play at a state level and even some who play for Team USA,” she said.
“Roller derby is so fun and is a fantastic workout,” she said. “It can be life-changing”—which it has been for her. Over the course of 2013 to 2015, she lost 80 pounds. “I can’t say it was 100% from roller derby, because it started me doing other things: walking, running, and exercising. But it was definitely the start for me. I will be forever grateful for every person and experience skating has brought into my life.”
Fichthorn did not know it back in 2011, but she is part of a roller derby renaissance sweeping the country. Roller derby emerged as a team sport in the 1930s and was quite popular through the 1960s. In 1950, the National Roller Derby League playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for a week.
The sport began its modern revival in the early 2000s as an all-female amateur activity. A 2008 USA Today article called it “the fastest growing sport in the United States.” Today, there are estimated to be more than 2,000 amateur leagues worldwide, including 420 officially sanctioned World Flat Track Derby Association leagues. There was even a Hollywood movie starring Ellen Page in 2009.
And what’s with Pain Train name? Creative “derby names” are a tradition going back to the early days of the sport. “I grew up in the city of Reading,” Fichthorn explained. “The trains have always been a familiar part of life for me. Old Reading engine number 2702 is where my number comes from. I moved out of the city many years ago but even now I still hear the train daily.”