Hit like a Girl
In the suburbs, hard-hitting contact sports such as football and hockey aren’t just for the boys
by Jocelyn Murray

After her husband passed away, Jocelyn Jenik found herself craving companionship and friendship. She didn’t join a book club, coffee klatch or support group for grieving widows. Instead, she became “The Cycrone.” Now she’s known exclusively by this alias to fans of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association’s Philly Roller Girls, of which she has been a member since 2007.

“No matter what kind of day I’ve had, by the end of a two-hour-long practice or game, whatever has been bothering me has been swept away,” she says. “I could have been completely absorbed into [my kids’] lives after my husband died and … I never envisioned that for myself, so roller derby fit very efficiently.”

Jenik is part of a quiet but growing revolution. For decades now, women such as her have been proving that they can “hang with the guys” when it comes to contact sports, including those that traditionally have been dominated by male athletes.

The most famous example might be tennis great Billie Jean King, who broke ground in 1973 when she rather famously bested former Wimbledon men’s singles champ Bobby Riggs in a Battle of the Sexes match. The prior year’s passing of Title IX, which created equal opportunities for both sexes in high school and college sports, ushered in an influx of opportunities that enabled women to participate in a wider range of sports at earlier ages.

Although sports such as basketball, tennis, lacrosse and soccer are widely accepted and wildly popular among women of all ages, more females are seeking sports with a harder edge. The “traditional” women’s sports, though physically demanding, are a far cry from the likes of roller derby, ice hockey or football, all of which now boast local teams exclusively for women. As Jenik suggests, the training and game-day physicality required of these high-impact sports improve one’s strength and cardiovascular health but also provide an emotional release and a way to forge strong connections with other women.

“It’s another whole set of girls I’ve added to my family that I have to spend time with,” says Jenne Massie, a defensive end for the Philadelphia Firebirds, a professional women’s football team that maintains its home stadium at Bensalem High School.
Julie Bernstein, a defenseman on the Warminster-based Hawks Hockey Club, part of the United Women’s Hockey League, agrees. “[Hockey] is great exercise and we have such a strong bond,” she says. “It’s a great team sport. We have a great time in the locker room and after the games.”

In Harm’s Way
Some traditionalists may consider aspects of these sports unnatural, unsafe or even unfeminine for women, but the challenge is often one of the most appealing aspects for women who are considering trying out. It’s certainly not a cakewalk, however. Although many leagues are recreational, the ability to compete effectively requires extensive training and preparation to reach the necessary skill and fitness levels.

“We go through a ‘Fresh Meat’ training period once we make the team,” says Jenik. “It’s compressed into three months of training with the coaching staff three nights a week, which fills them in from where they are with their skating skills to where they need to be as derby players.” During this period, new players learn everything from posture and protection to hitting legally and falling safely.

Fitness is expected for hockey as well, but “it’s different than other sports because you’re not running around on the ground,” says Bernstein. “You’re skating and handling a stick and shooting. It is very demanding; you go out and give your all for 45 seconds and then rest for a minute or two.”

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of many of the women’s contact-sports leagues is that they play by the same rules as the men’s professional sports—the National Hockey League, National Football League, etc.—with a few exceptions.

“We play full contact and wear full football pads—the whole nine,” says Massie. “We are as close as it gets to what American men’s football is.” A key difference between the Firebirds and the Philadelphia Eagles is that most of the Eagles have been playing the game since they were kids, while these women are learning the game at a later stage in life. Some of them have never played a “down” in their lives before showing up to try out for the team.

The Hawks ice hockey team also skates in stride with the rules of the National Hockey League, although the ladies are not allowed to check and have automatic icing. “The rules are the same; it’s just a no-check league,” says Bernstein. Even though skaters are not allowed to intentionally knock each other around and up against the boards, there is still plenty of contact. “It is a rough sport and we get hooked and tripped all the time,” she adds, “and once in a while there’s even a fight.”

And while there is no professional men’s league for the roller girls to model after, full-contact collisions are the norm. “You are intentionally putting your body against someone to impede their progress by throwing yourself at them,” says Jenik. There are, however, illegal target zones that are off-limits to the flailing limbs in the roller rink. As one might suspect, helmets, mouth guards, elbow pads, wrist guards and knee pads are required during bouts.

Considering the contact and the intensity, it’s no surprise that women suffer the same injuries as their male counterparts—scrapes, burns, strains, broken bones, torn ligaments, etc. And because of the dedication required, there are other “casualties”: infringements to one’s work, family and social lives. Although teams try to cater to players by having practice at night and games on weekends, women must still sacrifice somewhere for the sake of sport.

“It’s a sacrifice of your body and your family and friends’ time as well,” says Massie. “You are going to spend time practicing and at games and just bonding with your team. As a player, you have to decide how committed you have to be, and you have to make that choice.”

Luckily, Massie (a doctoral student at Drexel), Bernstein (a full-time nurse) and Jenik (a mother of two) have found time in their schedules to pursue these unconventional passions. The hope, at least in part, is that young girls—the next generation—will be inspired to do the same.

“It would not be full contact when they’re younger, but taking them and showing them how to be assertive and aggressive, it’s an incredible resource for self-esteem and confidence building,” says Jenik. “The hope is to bring this to [girls] who might not see themselves in standard sports and are looking for something with sort of an edge.” 

One local teen, 14-year-old Madison Billingsley, is part of this younger generation of athletes. Last season she was the kicker for the Lenape Middle School boys’ football team in Doylestown. She had managed the team in seventh grade but decided to try out for a roster spot in eighth grade after she and her coach recognized her knack for punting a field goal with precision from the 40-yard line.

“It was hard at first,” she says. “There were a few guys on the team that didn’t accept me very much because I kind of took one of their spots and they couldn’t really goof around a lot with a girl around.”

Eventually, though, her teammates came around and supported her and her contributions. Most of them, she says, thought it was “pretty cool I had the guts to join the team.” She didn’t receive any special treatment either, as she was required to participate in all practices and conditioning drills, from sprints and core workouts to strength training and kicking practice. She even had to take part in some of the tackling drills.

Billingsley has chosen to pursue her sports career as a ninth grader, but she will play soccer instead of seeking a spot on the football team. Regardless, she looks back fondly on her gridiron experience. “It got me in a lot better shape,” she says, “and helped me with my workouts and how to keep on improving on everything.”

Girls in elementary and middle school may still hear their male peers teasing each other by saying that they “hit like a girl,” but such an uttering is becoming less of an insult and more of a compliment. Truly, as contact sports continue to make their way to the forefront of women’s athletics, boys may one day find themselves surprised at what a girl’s hit is really like. In the meantime, more women will make the likes of football, ice hockey and roller derby, among other sports, a part of their identity.

“I’ll be glad when [football] is another women’s sport,” says Massie, “not a men’s sport that women can play.”

Photograph by Tyler Shaw

Sidebar: Join the Club

For many years golf was strictly a man’s game … but no longer. 

Buckingham’s Lookaway Golf Club is one of the premier golf facilities in the Philadelphia area that, since its first round in May of 1999, has strongly supported female membership. Chuck Rininger, head golf professional and a PGA member who has been with Lookaway since its opening, realizes the importance of providing such opportunities.

“Coming out of the gates a new club, we didn’t have preexisting things that were already there in place like an old established club where certain things are so deep set in their situations,” he says. Being “gender friendly” has allowed Lookaway to host member events—tournaments held on holiday weekends, typically, in which male and female golfers are grouped together according to skill rather than gender in foursomes, lesson clinics and family days at which golf among all is promoted.

Most clubs, however, still see significantly higher numbers of male members than female, a potential side effect of obligations in other aspects of life, such as work and motherhood.

“The challenge, I think, for women as opposed to men is that when you get five free hours to play 18 holes there is so much else we need to do and something always isn’t getting done,” says Lillian Stephano, who plays at Lookaway. Fortunately, for those trying to raise a family, the popularity of junior leagues is increasing at a rapid pace, opening a gateway for golf to expand as a family sport.

The “purple elephant” of junior leagues, as Rininger refers to it, represents a tremendous, largely untapped resource for golf. Historically, women were not exposed to the sports as young girls. Stephano recalls being introduced to golf during high school gym class before she picked up the sport more seriously in 2005.

“The junior programs that exist in golf have allowed younger females to get better quicker and, therefore, to not only take their skills to the high school and college level but also to the pro ranks,” says Rininger.

The purple elephant, it seems, is not only crucial to the growth of women’s golf but also for the sport of golf in general. With more and more girls and young women interested in golf and, consequently, more involvement in the pro leagues, they are bringing a whole new set of possibilities.

“The women’s PGA, they make golf sexy,” says Stephano. “The clothes are better, the girls are great looking, and they’re not afraid to be out there.”