Liberty Sports Magazine November 4, 2011
Your Local Guide to Cycling, Running, Swimming and Triathlons
Paying Tribute to one of Roller Derby’s Greatest stars: Judy Sowinski
Liberty Sports Magazine is dedicated to reporting on the disciplines of swimming, biking, running, and multisport racing and training. And as the multisport editor I have an obligation to hold true to that mission and I take pride in doing so. But I also realize that in the midst of all of the swimming, biking, and running, “real life” happens. And every once in a while a story will reach me that I feel should be shared, even though there may be no obvious multisport reference. This is one such story. And I use the word “obvious” because in this story, there is a personal multisport reference that would be invisible to everyone but me. The story below remembers a remarkable woman. Its author, David Block does a wonderful job capturing the memories and accomplishments of a pioneer in women’s sports. The personal connection for me is that Judy Sowinski and I were friends and neighbors in our little vacation community outside of Ocean City New Jersey where I do so much of my racing and training. Many, many times Judy would see me come back from a long ride or run and just shake her head and look at me like I was the crazy one. When David Block approached me about doing this article, I thought it would be a great opportunity to share with our readers a great story of a true local legend…
Paying Tribute to one of Roller Derby’s Greatest stars: Judy Sowinski
By David Block
(Note to Readers: The Judy Sowinski quotes in this article are quotes I gathered from interviewing her over the years.)
The Polish Ace Judy Sowinski, AKA the Queen of Mean, was one of my all time favorite roller derby stars. As a reporter, I had the honor of interviewing her half a dozen times from 2005 until the year of her death in 2011. She died of lLung Cancer this past July 27, at the young age of 71.
I thought back to when I first became a roller derby/roller game fan; August 1973, thanks in part to Judy Sowinski.
At the time, she skated with the New York Bombers, one of the Philadelphia Warriors’ chief rivals. I’ll never forget watching her in a half time interview as she warned the Warriors’ ladies’ captain, Judy Arnold, that she was going to maim her in their upcoming match races that week. She reminded Judy Arnold that she (Judy Arnold) was still recovering from her broken ankle and that the doctors hadn’t cleared her to skate. Judy Sowinski boasted that she was going to have fun that week. (In roller derby and roller games – an offshoot of roller derby- if certain skaters “hated each other,” like Judy Arnold and Judy Sowinski pretended to, they would have match races at half time, in which they would fight each other while skating five laps around the banked track.) The first time I interviewed Judy Sowinski, she told me that match races were a ploy to draw fans to the games. She told me that match race participants earned, “one percent of the gate. That’s extra money in your pocket.”
Whether Judy portrayed a villain or a hero on the track, her athleticism and love of the sport made her an exciting skater to watch.
The First time I interviewed Her
The first time I interviewed Judy Sowinski, Thursday, May 19, 2005, at a South Philly diner, was one of the most exciting nights of my life. When I shared that experience at her second memorial service, I said, “to give you an idea of how excited I was, imagine that you love the Phillies and then you’re talking to your favorite player over dinner, just the two of you.” The younger audience now understood why I was excited about having dinner with her.
At dinner that night, Judy told me she grew up in Chicago. Members of her family introduced her to roller derby.
“My aunt was a big fan,” said Judy. “She took us to the games. I thought, ‘when I get older, that’s what I want to do.’ I never thought that I actually would do something like that. For a female child to join the roller derby, that wasn’t prim and proper. My family didn’t think I’d actually get into roller derby, so they didn’t take it too seriously at first. Then they found out I was serious.”
After she finished high school, she and a group of friends saw a live roller derby game together. One of them told her that a roller derby training school was opening up in Chicago.
“This was 1957 and I was just 17,” said Judy. “It became a challenge when I couldn’t stand up on the banked track with skates on.”
She practiced diligently and soon learned how to skate around the banked track. In 1959, she began competing. To her surprise, she won Rookie of the Year.
She knew that she had a promising future, but her family was not happy about it, because she chose skating instead college. Even though she was Rookie of the year and a dominant force on the banked track at the young age of 19, her family thought that she could “do more with her life.”
“My father kept saying, ‘you got to go to college.’ I wouldn’t budge, so he tried to bribe me. He offered me a car, something that any young lady would want. I turned him down.” And she never regretted it.
Judy said that when she began skating, roller derby was the only contact sport where women could compete and make a living at it. In that respect, the sport was ahead of its time. Unlike other sports, men and women competed on the same teams, where they skated alternate periods. Roller Derby also accepted people of all minorities.
“When you become a skater, regardless of color or minority, you’re a family member,” said Judy. She remembered that when restaurants in the south refused to serve fellow African American roller derby/roller game skaters, all the other skaters would leave with them.
One thing I’ll always remember about our dinner was that Judy had my back. After the waitress brought us the check, Judy agreed to let me pick up the entire tab. Then she read the bill, and called the waitress over.
Judy pointed to me and said, “You charged him seventeen dollars for a hamburger.” Judy then pointed to the menu and said that the burger cost seven dollars, not seventeen. The waitress apologized and adjusted the bill. Because I am partially blind, I did not spot the waitress’s mistake. I was ready to pay it. I was grateful that Judy watched my back. I learned from interviewing some of her fellow skaters that she watched their backs, too.
Peers Share Memories
Former skater Sally Vega remembered: “As a rookie skater in ‘63 Jude (Judy Sowinski) protected me and defended me against worthy opponents such as Little Iodine (Loretta Behrens). When I sidestepped Loretta Behrens as a rookie, she came after me and knocked me to the track and I broke my collarbone. Jude went after her and all hell broke loose with the two of them. She invested herself in the younger skaters and brought them along until they could hold their own. I will never forget when Jude stood by my side after my beloved Auntie went to heaven.”
Judy Arnold remembered: “Judy (Sowinski) was on the San Francisco Bay Bombers when I went to my first Roller Derby game and I was very impressed with her skating style and aspired to skate like her some day. She was a great competitor and because of her abilities, I became a better skater. She challenged me every time we skated against each other.”
Joe Nardone, Publicity Director of Old School Derby Association Pro, OSDAPRO, based in Philadelphia, remembered Judy Arnold and Judy Sowinski’s “feuds.”
“Her match races against Warriors’ captain Pretty Judy Arnold were the best of Roller Games,” said Nardone.
Judy Sowinski told me that before she joined the Warriors in 1974, security guards had to escort her to her car after every game she skated at the now defunct Philadelphia Arena at 46th and Market. She then had to speed away because certain fans always threw rocks at her car the second they’d see her enter her vehicle.
Gary Powers, Executive Director of the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, based in Brooklyn, New York, added: “Judy’s promotional interviews were classic, expertly tailored with a spontaneous performance filled with hyperbole and gusto that guaranteed fans would fill the arena. And she always had the expertise to back up what she promised. She was larger-than-life, but introspective and shy off the track.”
Powers remembered when she was inducted into the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, back in 2004. That night, one of her all time Roller Derby idols, Sammy Skobel phoned to congratulate her.
“Judy ran from the room with tears in her eyes since here on the phone was the skater she had idolized and emulated as a new trainee,” said Powers. “She had never spoken with him previously. Judy was reduced to tears, but that was the true Sowinski. She was the total professional, always doing whatever was asked of her for the good of the game and whatever came her way was icing on the cake.”
Teaching The Next Generation
In 2005, Judy Sowinski trained the Penn Jersey She Devils and then OSDAPRO skaters five years later.
Members of the Penn Jersey She Devils emailed me the following statement when I asked them to share a Judy Sowinski memory:
“Back in 2005 Judy took a group of everyday girls and turned them into hard working fierce competitors. Her love for the game and ‘her Kids’ made us want to do our best for her! We are so glad we got to give her the dream we all shared of a Banked Track in Philly and will never forget the look on her face when she saw it up in the warehouse (1801 W. Indiana Ave. Philadelphia) for the first time. Judy will forever be missed!”
In January 2011, I asked Judy why she was extremely committed to teaching the next generation. She responded: ““How can I not? It’s part of my life. I’m interested in these kids and the people who love it. I try to help them.”
Joe Nardone said that when OSDAPRO was launched in September 2010, he had the privilege of working with her and former skater Arnold Skip Schoen. He also worked with two people who never competed, Ken Sykes and Rose Columbo, yet who were both determined to bring back professional roller derby.
Nardone looked forward to his weekly chats with Judy. “Judy was a prankster and loved to laugh and we loved to laugh with her,” said Nardone. “She made the world a better place. Along the way, she stole our hearts and left her mark on all of us. It has been my honor to call Judy a close friend and confidant.”
The Week Before Judy Passed Away
OSDAPRO skater, Debbie Carney, recalled that “Judy always said: ‘I may not know all your names, but I know your faces and what you are capable of.’” The last time that Carney visited with Judy, one week before Judy passed away, she was still lucid: “Judy looked up at me,” said Carney, “paused a second, smiled and said, ‘Debbie,’ with joy. She not only knew my face, but my name as well. It meant a lot to me.”
About the Author
David Block is a legally blind journalist and documentary producer. He has produced several documentaries, which illuminate the talents, strengths, and challenges of the blind athlete, the injured hero, and the forgotten veteran.
To learn more about David Block, log onto his website, www.blindfilmmaker.com