Jam Session

An Austin attorney trades the courtroom for the world of roller derby.

Interview by Eric Quitugua

In Recess Major
Jessica Johnson, aka Legal Knievel (center), waits for the start of a jam at the Austin Sports Center South on May 20, 2017. Photograph by Eric Quitugua.

Inside Austin Sports Center South on a Saturday night in late May, Jessica Johnson, clad in her team colors of black and pink, put a star cover over her helmet. The 5-foot-11 Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney, who rolls at night with the Hotrod Honeys of the Texas Rollergirls league, stoically sized up her opponents, the Hustlers. As the referee blasted a whistle, Johnson darted from the back of the pack to the front, right into a human wall determined to stop her from passing. But she broke through.

The sport is roller derby, where two teams skate counterclockwise on either a banked or flat track. “Jammers,” who are the scorers for their teams, win points by lapping their opponents. The game is played in two half-hour periods consisting of several bouts of action, or jams, of up to two minutes each. It’s an endurance check of trucking through or finessing around “blockers”—business as usual for 27-year-old Johnson, known on her team as Legal Knievel.

How did you get started with roller derby?
I moved back to my hometown in Virginia after I finished school, and I was searching for a new hobby. I saw an ad looking for people interested in roller derby to go to an information session. I went. I’d never seen it before. I used rollerblades when I was little but that was the extent of my skating experience. I saw the girls playing roller derby, and I thought, That looks a little rough, but you know what, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll give it a try. I started skating there in Richmond with a league called River City Rollergirls.

What was it like the first time you played?

Step one was picking up skating skills. There was no contact, there was no blocking, there was no hitting. Just learning how to stop and how to fall. Many of the moves are awkward because they use tiny muscles that you didn’t know existed and you’ve never had a reason to use before. It was difficult, but the strong group of intelligent, diverse, interesting people was absolutely wonderful. That I happened to stumble upon a really supportive, uplifting community definitely kept me coming back.

Where does “Legal Knievel” come from?
I was about to head to law school—I knew I wanted to become an attorney—and was trying to think of a play on words that fit my interests and my future career.

Does your roller derby persona ever show through in your approach to the courtroom?

I would say yes. I primarily work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and when I go to court, I never want to show an ounce of doubt because that can make my clients even more nervous about what’s happening. I think to a certain extent I use my confident roller derby persona when I’m in court too. That confidence—the client can feel it and I think opposing counsel and the judge can too. When I’m confident, I’m functioning as the best that I can.

In Recess Minor
Johnson, who played roller derby in her hometown in Virginia, became an attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in Austin, where she soon joined the Texas Rollergirls league. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Johnson.

Does Jessica Johnson the attorney show up to the track?

I wouldn’t say the lawyer shows up on the track. However, outside of the time when we’re actually playing, there’s a lot of diplomacy, team dynamics, and problem solving. On top of that, Texas Rollergirls is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, and I’m serving on the board. Legal training is helpful because occasionally we need to read contracts and make business decisions. The attorney side of me definitely comes out when helping the league and the organization move smoothly.

What’s next?

After I’m done serving on the board, it might be more feasible for me to try out for a travel team. Right now we’re really focused on winning Champs this year.

What are three essential tips you’d give to someone new to the sport?

Get fit. Anyone with any body type can excel at roller derby. However, I’ve seen many people get injured because they didn’t have a baseline level of fitness.

Be patient. Roller derby involves many unnatural movements as well as extreme multitasking. For example, during a game skaters have to play offense and defense at the same time as well as calculate distances between skaters, be aware of where other players are on the track, avoid committing penalties, and communicate with their teammates among other tasks. It takes a while to be able to do all of these things effectively at the same time—and it can be incredibly frustrating when someone is first learning.

Be bold. Often skaters stifle their own potential by underestimating themselves. I always encourage newbies to push beyond their comfort zone, whether it’s a different kind of stop or jumping on their skates for the first time. When I’m training newer skaters and they are falling frequently, I always praise them because it usually means they’re pushing themselves to where they’re a bit uncomfortable. The discomfort zone is where the most growth occurs.TBJ

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