Derby Doll Gaetz Shatters The Stereotypes

By Dave DeLand
St. Cloud Times, Minn.

The city of St. Cloud’s human resources director lowered a shoulder and knocked an adversary out of the way.

Minutes later, a similar conflict arose. The HR director’s response this time was a hip-check, followed by an elbow and a shove.
Personnel dispute?

Union contract negotiation?

Nope. Try roller derby.

Dede Balcom Gaetz did, and now she’s hooked.

“There’s times when you do something on the track and you go, ‘Gaaaah, I wish I could do THAT at work’ — kind of send somebody airborne,” Gaetz said.

“I love it. It’s a great sport.”

By day, Gaetz is a self-described introvert, an amenable but businesslike woman with an important job.

“A mild-mannered HR director, yeah,” St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said. “I would think it’s a safe bet she’s the only one (doing roller derby) in the country.”

“I’m not that interesting. I’m just not,” Gaetz said. “I spoon-feed my deaf dog, and I watch too much TV, and I skate a bit.”

But then it’s time for the St. Cloud Roller Derby — the SCAR Dolls — to have a practice or bout. Dede Gaetz turns into Mia Capricious, and everybody better look out.

“She’s very physical. She’s not afraid to hit,” said teammate Rilda The Riveter, aka Tamara Sankey of St. Cloud.
“You run into her, and you know you’ve run into her,” Sankey said. “She’s definitely a threat out there.”

At 55, Gaetz is easily the oldest player on the SCAR Dolls. She’s also very likely the fittest, and perhaps the most physically imposing.

All of this from a mother of three adult children who likes to watch TV and bake spectacular cakes, who is buttoned down at work and peaceful almost everywhere else.

“In my private life, in my derby life, in my work life, I do not like to do anything that calls any unnecessary attention to myself,” Gaetz said.

Then she gets on the track, and bodies start flying.

How did Gaetz get from there to here? Strap on your helmet and we’ll tell you.

A new passion

Gaetz will celebrate her 25th anniversary as St. Cloud’s HR director in April.

“Being the director of HR, being physically fit is a good way to lead by example,” Kleis said. “I’ve seen HR directors that don’t have that same example.”

“I don’t hit anybody here,” Gaetz said at her City Hall office, “but when I’m (at roller derby) I’m not interpreting contracts or resolving employment disputes.”

By her own design, details of her somewhat exotic hobbies — competitive bodybuilding, and then roller derby — don’t come up in work conversations.

“You have to understand something about me: I’m pretty private,” she said. “I don’t share a lot of my personal life. People here don’t necessarily know that I lift, that I was a bodybuilder.”

Gaetz competed as a bodybuilder (more than 25 years or so), and did so successfully. But by the spring of 2012, at age 52, she was looking for a new challenge. She saw a poster about roller derby at her gym and decided to check it out.
“And I was hooked.”

Auspicious debut

Gaetz was still training as a bodybuilder when she showed up at her first SCAR Dolls practice in April 2012.

Her arrival caused a bit of a stir at The Skatin’ Place.

“At that time she was still competing in bodybuilding, and she was in the peak of her physique,” said teammate Aries A. Fliktion, aka Nicole Bastian of St. Cloud. “It was like, ‘Wow, she’s going to murder us all.’ ”

“I don’t think they realized how old I was,” Gaetz said. “When I first started, that May I had a show. I was competing as a professional bodybuilder in six weeks.

“So I walked in all buff and ripped to shreds and tan, and they’re looking at me like, ‘Oooh, what is that?’ ”
Actually, the reaction among some skaters was considerably more wary.

“I’m in my late 30s walking in, have never done a sport in my life and looking at her … I was terrified,” said teammate Sybil Disobedience, who is Holdingford resident Nicky Lahr. “She’s coming right at me. She’s going to knock me down.”

“Holy exclamation point. Jaws dropped,” said teammate Harmaknee Scandal, aka Amy Opatz of St. Cloud. “She’s giant, and tan, and has all of these muscles, and looks like she’s going to kill us all.”

“She was amazing,” Sankey said. “She still is amazing. She’s still the most ripped on the team.”

And despite the dissimilarities, Gaetz immediately blended in.

“She’s a great teammate,” said Artemisia Brutaleschi, aka Alicia Peters of St. Joseph.

“She has laid me out a few times, but she’s one of the most caring people,” Opatz said. “She’s one of my trusted friends now.”

“It’s such an accepting community of these women,” Gaetz said. “Nobody says how old are you, and what do you do? Nobody cares. It’s wonderful. It’s very refreshing.”

Gaetz was president of the league last season. This season, she and Opatz are the HR directors.

“There’s issues,” Gaetz said. “There’s fights, and there’s attitudes, and there’s some behavior that needs to be addressed and straightened out.”

Not everybody on the SCAR Dolls always fits the mold. But in roller derby, there really isn’t a mold.

Player profiles

Other than Gaetz, players on the SCAR Dolls range in age from early-20s to mid-40s. But they share some commonalities.

“What’s nice about derby is we don’t come here and talk about our problems, or talk about our work, or our kids or husbands or whatever,” Opatz said. “We just come in, put our gear on and start to skate.”

Away from the track, many of the players have demanding jobs. Sankey plans radiation treatments for patients at the Coborn Cancer Center. Lahr is the operations manager at St. Cloud Metro Bus. Opatz is an independent contractor who works with moms in labor at St. Cloud Hospital.

And, of course, there’s Gaetz.

“Very rarely do people go to HR with exciting, good things. She kinda has to be that stable person all day,” Opatz said. “So it’s nice to come pound it out.”

“You take a penalty and you start muttering at the ref,” Gaetz said. “I can’t mutter at the mayor very often, or very loudly.”
She’s the oldest player on the SCAR Dolls, by roughly a decade, but that’s not an issue. At least not physically.

“I’m kind of a combination of very proud of it and kind of mortified by it,” Gaetz said, “all at the same time.”

Derby details

Roller derby is played on an oval flat track. The SCAR Dolls’ home bouts are at the River’s Edge Convention Center.
Each team uses five players at a time, in three different positions — jammer, pivot, blocker. They play in shifts, sort of like hockey. Points are scored when the jammer laps the pack.

“There’s skills, and there’s strategies — hitting, falling, how to score a point, when to be in front and when to be in back,” said Gaetz, who usually is a blocker.

“I would like to be a good jammer, but I can hit pretty hard,” she said. “Some of the bigger girls — if you hit ’em right, you can take ’em down or you can move ’em.”

And, in the process, players work off some steam.

“That’s the good thing about derby,” Bastian said. “I maintain that everybody who plays derby, or is involved in derby, has something socially off about them.”

“When I come to roller derby, I don’t want to think about my family and laundry and day care. I don’t want to think about my job and my deadlines,” Lahr said.

“When I’m Sybil Disobedience, I’m a different person. I don’t have to be Nicky Lahr during that time.”

Still a force

Gaetz is an imposing presence on the track — her muscular physique wrapped in a blank tank top and leopard-print tights, topped by a blue helmet with a skull-and-crossbones decal.

“When people say, ‘Oh, that’s something I could never do,’ I say, ‘We have a woman who’s over 50,’ ” Peters said.

“Every once in a while, I have to remind ’em — I’m older than your mother. Go gently on me,” Gaetz said. “And they laugh. That’s not going to happen.”

She wouldn’t want it to. She also has no plans to retire.

“If I can be any kind of inspiration or motivation to them,” Gaetz said, “I’m not sure why age is a big deal. If I can in any way smash that out of peoples’ heads, that you have to quit doing things when you get to a certain age … you don’t.”

“Take care of yourself. Stay involved. Stay active.

“There’s no limit.”

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