Emily Jean Smith, alumna of UMSL and member of the Arch Rival Roller Girls

Emily Jean Smith (foreground) is an alumna of UMSL and member of the Arch Rival Roller Girls, a St. Louis-area roller derby league. The league holds bouts at Midwest Sport Hockey in Queeny Park in Ballwin, Mo. (Photo by Bob Dunnell, bob@dunnell.net)

Emily Jean Smith is the nicest person you’ll ever meet who can knock you down and make you cry for your mommy. She’s a classic split-personality athlete. Away from the field of play – warm, charming, sweet. But on it – combative, tenacious, nasty.

Smith, 30, of Glen Carbon, Ill., is one of more than 50 skaters who make up the Arch Rival Roller Girls, the St. Louis area’s all-female, flat-track roller derby league. ARRG has four local teams – the M-80s, Rebel Skate Alliance, Smashinistas and Stunt Devils – and two travel teams – the ARRG All-Stars and Saint Lunachix. The ARRG All-Stars are the best skaters in the league, and Smith is co-captain of the team.

“I try to be a leader on the track and set an example for my team,” she says. “I bring it as hard as I can, but I also try to control my game.”

Controlled aggression is a big part of what makes roller derby exciting to watch. For the uninitiated, the sport may appear confusing, but basic game play is straightforward.

Each team puts five skaters on the track: one “jammer,” who can score points for the team, and four “blockers.” The eight blockers make up the “pack.” The first jammer to break from the pack is designated “lead jammer” and is now in the position to score points by re-passing members of the opposing team through the duration of the jam, which lasts up to two minutes.

Smith says jamming is her favorite part of the sport.

“It’s the rush you get when you break the pack,” she says. “You just got past four people who are trying to knock you down and keep you from getting where you need to be.”

Smith, who wears No. 7 for the Smashinistas and the all-star team, has skated in the league since 2005. At first glance, she doesn’t have the appearance of a rough-and-tumble roller derby skater. She’s only 5 feet 4 inches tall and has a welcoming, bright smile. But a closer look reveals the carved-wood shoulders of a gymnast and the powerful legs of a speed skater.

A reputation accompanies her physical tools. She was nominated for two league-wide awards this year – “Fearless Leader” and “Meanest Roller Girl.”

“There are two things I bring to the track – my aggression and my ability to push through,” she says. “I’m not a super, crazy agile jammer. But I can power through a whole lot, and it’s really tough to knock me down.”

The physical competition of roller derby is augmented by the sport’s distinct counterculture. Every bout gives fans a healthy dose of tattoos, fishnet stockings, vibrant colors and music with attitude. (Smith’s pre-game playlist includes the thrash metal of Slayer and rhymes of Easy-E and Jay-Z.)

The skater’s names add to the fun. Each athlete has a creative, often humorous moniker. Among them are Eli Wallop, May Require Stitches, Shimmy Hoffa and The Sound of Violence. Smith says her derby name, The Educator, means a lot to her.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2005 and was a member of The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi and Golden Key International Honour Society.

“Becoming a reflective practitioner was the biggest thing I took away from my education at UMSL,” Smith says. “You have to know what’s working, what’s not and how to adjust as you go.”

She began working for the Special School District of St. Louis County before she graduated from UMSL. She teaches reading, writing, math and social skills to students who receive special education services at Mason Ridge Elementary School and Carman Trails Elementary School.

“I’m one of those cliché teachers who always knew they wanted to be one,” Smith says. “There’s just no other job for me. The work that I’m able to do is beyond rewarding.”

Tom Hockett

Tom Hockett