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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Gainesville Roller Rebels stay afloat amid pandemic

Roller Rebels anxious to start practicing again

The Roller Rebels pose for a team picture.
The Roller Rebels pose for a team picture.

Marilee Griffin walked into the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center on Oct. 5, 2019, sat on the creaky, dark blue bleachers and buckled her shiny, dark red skateboard helmet.

The helmet matches everything about Griffin — especially her retro red lipstick and fiery-colored hair. 

She then strapped on her black-and-red-outlined knee pads and wrist guards. She slid on her rose-colored knee-high socks and her quad black skates with red laces. 

On the track, she’s night and day from the nine other skaters zipping around the 88-foot, oval-shaped roller derby. Mostly because she pairs her red accessories with her grass-colored Swamp City Sirens jersey. 

That’s why the Gainesville Roller Rebels call Griffin the “Red Daring.” Her derby name is a play off the literary fallacy — red herring. 

Marilee Griffin, right, skates in her traditional red gear during a bout.

For many Roller Rebels, roller derby is an aspect of who they are. 

Many of them formed long-lasting relationships through the team. President Chelsea “Queen Slayer’ Tobias has met some of her closest friends like Griffin — and even met her partner through the Roller Rebels. 

When their first bout in March was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they struggled to replace the void left behind and overcome the challenges the pandemic presented.

Roller Rebels' President Chelsea Tobias, center, talks to members of her team.

But for now, let’s recount when times were simpler. The Oct. 5, 2019 bout.

The Gold Coast Derby Grrls and the Roller Rebels’ affiliate team, the Sirens, were about to clash as Griffin hit the track.

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She and the team weren't confident her squad would emerge from the battle victorious because the Derby Grrls, a team repping Broward County, was undefeated. 

“We were all kind of intimidated,” Griffin said. “We weren’t expecting to win this game.”

Swamp City stayed within striking distance through the first 50 minutes of the bout, trailing by only a handful on the scoreboard. That’s when Griffin and her team started to believe in themselves. 

The Roller Rebels finally generated enough momentum through a massive run from their jammer Lily Jane Woodward, tilting the seesaw in their favor with 10 minutes left on the game clock. 

Woodward weaved through opposing defenders one by one, like navigating a crowded bar scene. She lapped the five Derby Grrls four times for a total of 20 points in a two-minute jam session. 

Woodward’s impeccable run catapulted Swamp City to its first lead. The Sirens never glanced in their rearview mirror. 

Lily Jane Woodward skates during a bout. Her massive run led to a win against the Broward County-based Derby Grrls.

In the midst of the sommotion, Griffin felt as if she were in a sports movie like “Hoosiers.” Swamp City was accomplishing the unthinkable. 

The crowd of 150 Sirens fans went into a frenzy when they realized their team pulled off the upset while the game clock slowly trickled to triple zeroes like sand in an hourglass. 

“They started stomping on the bleachers that I could feel it (on the track),” she said. 

The buzzer sound filled the rink, and the Sirens knocked off the Derby Grrls 147-138. Griffin immediately started jumping with her teammates and hugged each of them as if they won a roller derby world championship. 


Then, the new year came, and March skated by. The Roller Rebels were geared up for the 700-mile trek to Virginia Beach, Virginia, for their first bout of the season. 

It was one of the rare occasions where the team left the Sunshine State for a game. 

Training since January, they felt ready to make leaps on the track and build off their 2019 8-2 record. 

But as March 21 got closer, so did a tidal wave surging off the coasts of the U.S. After a few sparse COVID-19 cases, the U.S. had a full-blown pandemic on its hands by the start of the month. 

Griffin became the captain several months after the bout against the Derby Grrls. Tobias, the Roller Rebels’ board of directors and she were glued to the local and national news channels trying to reach a decision about whether their bout was feasible. 

Despite no confirmed cases in Alachua County, they still made the decision to cancel the match because of how many cases popped up throughout the state. 

Devastation spread throughout the team like a wildfire. But they all understood it was the right decision. 

To Griffin, it was a hard pill to swallow.

“It’s like you don’t know what you’re gonna do with your time,” she said. “We had invested an incredible amount of energy and time into getting prepared for our season.”

The three months’ worth of blood, sweat and tears evolved into pain over a season that never happened.

The Roller Rebels are an official member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. The association has been more proactive and conservative in its approach to resume play compared to other leagues. Teams’ cities must meet a low COVID-19 positivity rate before they can return to normal playing conditions without fans. 

At first glance, not many would guess that Cat “Bootyvicious” Clifford, an aggressive blocker who usually flaunts her faded black eyeshadow and goth-like lipstick, is a nurse manager at North Florida Regional Medical Center. 

Despite her rugged exterior, her tattoos tell a kinder story. She has a nightingale on her right arm to represent her passion for nursing and a larger one on her left arm with double meaning: it shows her appreciation for space and constellations and being the mother to her two children.


Cat Clifford skates at a bout, donning her faded black eyeshadow and goth-like lipstick.

Cat witnessed first-hand how deadly the pandemic was day in and day out. It’s why coming to terms with the season’s termination came easily. 

Her husband Thomas “Mr. Vicious” Clifford is also on the frontlines of the pandemic in the Alachua County 911 Call Center. The league’s decision to close until positivity rates were low was a good one, he said, because they have manned the pandemic’s battlefront. 

For the Roller Rebels to conduct an outdoor practice, the 14-day positive infection rate in Alachua County needs to dip below 5%. In that no-contact practice, only five players are allowed and social distancing must be respected. The county currently has a 5.3% rate as of Feb. 3. 

While the Roller Rebels hope they can return to the track soon, Griffin and Tobias urged the team to stay active by skating in their neighborhood or a nearby park. They also used Zoom and social media like Florida teams did this offseason

As captain of the squad, Griffin sent players workouts to complete. The Roller Rebels share what they call “sweaty selfies” after drenched in sweat as if they just went swimming. They use it as pressure, encouraging teammates to stay in shape until whenever practices resume. 

They analyzed old roller derby championships on YouTube. Their captains stopped the tape like a professor in class to emphasize a lesson. They also relaxed completing Zoom yoga and belted out their favorite songs on karaoke night like performing a concert. 

At the height of the shutdown, the team picked up a staple in Gainesville — a college-style drinking game. 

They started “icing” each other. A team member would drive to another player’s home and drop off a cold bottle of Smirnoff Ice. 

The player who dropped it off would send a picture of the bottle on the front porch. The player who was given the bottle would take a video of themselves getting down on one knee and chugging the whole bottle like if they were drinking from a beer bong funnel.

Thomas was pleasantly surprised a teammate drove to their home because they live 15 minutes away from everyone else.

“It was such a cool team-building type thing. When they couldn’t be together, they were still together,” Thomas said. 


Other teams scuffle with expenses because they lease or own their own practice spaces. The Roller Rebels lost their primary practice space at the Alachua County Fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds announced its move to Newberry and is scheduled to open this year. The South Carolina-based U.S. Army 81st Readiness division wants to put an “equipment concentration site” on the old fairgrounds property, according to The Gainesville Sun.

However, the Roller Rebels are still above water financially during the pandemic. The non-profit organization doesn’t have many expenses, Tobias said.

The team, made up of about 40 members, pales compared to the ones in other cities like Jacksonville, which have hundreds on their team. 

However, the moment the Roller Rebels are cleared to practice again — or have their first bout — will be surreal. Tobias believes when they are skating again she’ll drop to her knees in disbelief because it’s been almost a year since they’ve been together.

“I’ll probably cry when we’re able to practice and play together (again.),” she said.

Griffin, on the other hand, can’t wait to blaze around the track, leaving behind sunset-like hues while joined by her closest friends again.

Contact Zachary Huber at or follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber

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