Just five short years ago, Tonya Vojtkofsky was asking for something to come in to her life. A married mother of two with a stable job in her father’s business, she seemed to have it all, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.
Then, while vacationing with a friend in Seattle, the 38-year-old attended her first roller derby match. She knew instantly what the missing piece was, what she could do to complete the puzzle.
I told my friend, We have to start women’s roller derby in Fort Wayne,’ Vojtkofsky said. Something clicked, something spoke to me, and so we did it. It all began with a flier. We had no money, no anything, just a flier, and now here we are. It’s been an amazing ride.
Literally and figuratively. Literally because Vojtkofsky, who grew up roller skating, joins her fellow Fort Wayne Derby Girls on the flat track both at home and at rinks across the nation for months of bruising bouts with the likes of the Circle City Socialites of Indianapolis, Bleeding Heartland’s Code Blue Assassins of Bloomington, and the Nashville Rollergirls of Nashville, Tenn.
She’s also there sweating through the team’s thrice-a-week grueling practice sessions, at which the women learn everything from skating for speed and to how to fall properly.
Figuratively because Vojtkofsky has watched the Fort Wayne Derby Girls – the first Hoosier team to be accepted into the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association – grow from five women to 50.
They once competed against one other for friends and family at the Roller Dome and the Plex. Now they compete against other hard-core teams for a wide and varied fan base at their new home, Memorial Coliseum.
There were people who told Vojtkofsky she couldn’t do it. Little, conservative Fort Wayne would never embrace something as rebellious and out there as women’s roller derby, they said.
But Vojtkofsky, who goes by Minx in the rink, was undaunted. She believed her hometown would embrace her dream if she believed in it enough and worked hard to make it come true.
If your heart is really into something, you can do what to other people might seem like the impossible, she said.
Some might think it impossible to build a team from five to 50 in five years. They might also balk at another milestone the Derby Girls recently achieved – raising almost $50,000 for local charities such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Cancer Services of Northeastern Indiana.
The Fort Wayne Derby Girls are, on one hand, a serious, competitive organization. Don’t let the fishnets and pseudonyms fool you. Roller derby is a sport, and Vojtkofsky and her teammates work as hard as any other athletes, rubbing elbows (or throwing them, as the case may be) with major Fort Wayne franchises like the Komets and the Mad Ants.
On the other hand, they’re passionately dedicated to philanthropy. Their website proclaims them to be hard hittin’, charity driven, and they routinely sponsor bouts between their two teams – the SWAT Team and the Bomb Squad – to raise money for many good causes.
It was because of her philanthropic work with the Derby Girls that Vojtkofsky was nominated for a 2010 Athena Award, which recognizes those who demonstrate excellence, creativity and initiative in work while also giving back to the community and empowering women, and as a CNN Breakthrough Woman.
We want our community to support us, and we want to earn that support by supporting our community, Vojtkofsky said. We have a softer side, a side that cares about others, and we work hard to show it.
That softer side is also evident in the Fort Wayne Derby Brats, a junior league for girls age 9 to 17 that Vojtkofsky and her co-coach Kathy Roy (aka Enya Grave) founded two years ago.
As she did with the Fort Wayne Derby Girls, Vojtkofsky broke ground with the Brats. They have the distinction of being the first junior flat-track league in Indiana, and they’re also undefeated.
Minx’s greatest source of pride, however, is that all the Brats know they’re valued, regardless of how they choose to wear their hair or what their peers might say about them at school.
I wish I’d had something like this when I was a girl, she said. I was different. I didn’t fit in. The Brats is for girls who don’t necessarily fit a certain mold. They might feel like weirdos or misfits or outcasts a lot of the time, but that doesn’t matter when they’re on the track. They’re part of something positive. We reinforce the idea that different is good.
The same is true for the adult league. It’s a diverse group of women who embrace their differences and support each other no matter what.
I have made lifelong friends because of derby, Vojtkofsky said. I know that there are women who will drop everything to help me if I need them, who will give me the shirt off their back, and they know I would do the same for them.
Vojtkofsky also gets a lot of support at home, especially from her husband, Mike, who she says lets her do her own thing. They’ve been working on renovating their 155-year-old farmhouse, along with sons Damon, 16, and Levon, 18.
The derby doesn’t stop at competition, philanthropy and friendship. There’s also a heaping helping of empowerment. Vojtkofsky and her teammates spend many weekends racing around flat tracks and many weeknights serving on committees, organizing charitable events and taking part in the day-to-day operations of running a thriving business.
When she’s not working with the team or serving the community, Vojtkofsky makes bowls out of gourds, and likes to garden and work on art projects.
There are girls who change jobs because, through derby, they’ve discovered that they love something, that they’re good at something they’ve never tried before, Vojtkofsky said. That’s pretty cool.
Also pretty cool is how the sport has changed people. Wallflowers have blossomed into black dahlias. Anger management cases have transformed into rational, calm leaders. And Vojtkofsky, a self-proclaimed loudmouth whose personal motto is There’s no skinnin’ this cat, has learned when to talk and when to shut up and listen.
Derby is an aggressive, full-contact sport. It’s hard if you’re an aggressive person to begin with, which I am, to deal calmly with women throwing elbows in your face, but I’ve figured out that it’s better to talk things out than to just lash out or shut down. I’m a much calmer person thanks to roller derby. I’m much easier to get along with. I’ve learned to project a positive light, to think twice before I knock someone down.