A couple years ago while running errands, Devon Kinney stumbled across a garage sale raising money for Alzheimer’s disease research.
She was looking for a pair of shorts for her son and dropped in to see if she could find them there.
“There were a bunch of these ladies who were just really nice,” said Kinney, project manager in Michigan Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine. “We were chatting, looking for the khaki shorts my son’s going to wear once, and one of them is like, ‘Have you ever thought of roller derby?’ And I’m like, ‘No, but tell me more.’”
It opened Kinney to a world she never imagined being in but now can’t imagine being without.
The garage sale was organized by Quad County Roller Derby, a league formed in 2017 representing Livingston, Oakland, Genesee and Wayne counties. They invited Kinney to give it a try and, despite not having roller skated since a birthday party or two when she was little, she brought a friend and a mouth guard and paid the $5 drop-in fee.
“They have equipment you can borrow, so I’m like, ‘What can I lose?’” she said. “I was terrible, but they were so good about it. ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re doing great.’ It was like the biggest cheerleading section.”
Roller derby is a contact sport during which five members of a team’s roster roller skate counterclockwise around a track. It has evolved from its banked-track, scripted outcomes of the past and is now under the governance of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
Bouts are competed on flat tracks and are an hour long with two 30-minute halves featuring multiple jams.
Each team designates a jammer, who scores points during each jam by lapping opposing team members. Jams can last only seconds but do not exceed 2 minutes. Another player is designated the pivot, or lead blocker who can become the jammer. The other three players are blockers who simultaneously attempt to keep the opposing jammer from passing, and create avenues for their own jammer to make passes.
Newcomers to the sport, Kinney included, are affectionately called “fresh meat.” Donned in helmet, wrist guards, knee pads and mouth guard, Kinney and her friend gave it a shot.
“I had the fresh meat trainer helping me and my friend, and the first thing they teach you is how to fall and how to stop,” she said. “It was so hard. But man, it was such a good challenge and I loved it even though I was terrible, so I just kept coming back.”
That was May 2018, and to say Kinney has improved since then would be an understatement. “Fresh meat” have to pass certain skills tests — such as skating 27 laps in 5 minutes — to be eligible for contact, and Kinney has participated in several bouts.
Her first competition was that October in the Mitten Kitten, which has several brackets including the Great Lakes Classic for new leagues.
“I didn’t know how scared I should be, but I did it and I survived and I kept it going,” Kinney said. “I passed the skills, I had protective equipment and I was having fun, which is sort of the general criteria Coach emphasizes.”
Kinney said she is more naturally suited for, and comfortable with, blocking, while her sister, Charlotte Fiorini, or Starfire, is also on the team and is “an amazing jammer.” Kinney’s derby name is Dark Ayn Stormy — Dark representing her initials, Ayn her middle name and the entire name a play on a rum drink. Kinney was a sailing instructor while in college, so the name struck a chord that way as well.
“I like adventure and I like to learn. I’ve got to follow where my passion is,” she said. “Sometimes I view myself as super safe and I like to consider all angles, but at the same time it does intrigue me to just go for it. There’s a little bit of that in my career and in my hobby.”
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Kinney, who received her bachelor’s degree in architecture from U-M in 1998 and her master’s degree in quality management from Eastern Michigan University in 2016, has been at U-M for 22 years. The last five have been with Family Medicine where she serves as a resource to faculty for special initiatives.
Being involved with health care makes Kinney appreciate WFTDA’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, which postponed Quad County’s season after its first match Feb. 22, a victory over the Bath City Roller Girls.
WFTDA’s reopening plan has been requested by other sports organizations as a model to follow. Quad County is not a WFTDA league, but Ann Arbor Roller Derby, which has several teams and has reached the world competition, is.
As much as Kinney loves the competitiveness roller derby offers, she’s more appreciative of the inclusiveness.
“Just the social consciousness of being inclusive, like at a tournament, ‘What are your pronouns you’d like the announcer to use?’” she said. “It’s very empathetic, and you can play on a WFTDA team if you identify as a woman, so it’s not trans-phobic. I really like how the community insists on being kind.”