Commencement for UC Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business is usually a staid affair, with tastefully attired graduates in traditional gowns comporting themselves with dignity.
Not this year. When Bethany Semeiks rose to collect her M.B.A., she zipped across the Bren Events Center stage on roller skates. Security guards tried to intercept the grad-on-wheels, but there was no stopping her. B-Train, Semeiks’ alter ego in the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby, had pulled into the Bren.
“You could see the look of shock and terror on the administrators’ faces,” she recalls. “They were all like, ‘Who let her in?'”
Beneath her gown, which she whipped off after the ceremony, Semeiks sported full roller derby regalia, complete with hot pants, electric-green leg warmers and knee pads. It was the kind of eye-popping ensemble she wears when skating with her roller derby league, the Orange County Roller Girls, which includes teams with names like Pulp Friction, Wheel Housewives of OC and the A-level travel team Semeiks skates on, Blockwork Orange.
Whether she’s blowing past the competition or pursuing her career as co-owner of a roller derby apparel company called Wicked Skatewear, Semeiks is on the fast track to success.
On bout nights at The Rinks in Huntington Beach, you can’t miss B-Train. Even in an arena filled with outlandish outfits and fishnets, she stands out — a statuesque skater with the Wicked logo emblazoned on her shorts and helmet. And she’s fast, zooming through and around the others in a blur of blond hair and lithe limbs.
“I get a rush from this,” Semeiks says during a break in the action. “I’m an adrenaline junkie.” She’s usually the “jammer” — the only player on a team of five who can score points, by jockeying past four opposing blockers.
“They’re like a pack of wolves,” she says. “To get through them, you have to be a little crazy. You have to go fast, anticipate what they’re going to do and do the opposite. I look at their feet and hips to see where they’re going. Then I go around or jump over them.”
On and off the track, Semeiks means business. When fans and fellow derby players learn she has an M.B.A. and a skatewear company, she reports, they look shocked. She’s even joined the ranks of high-powered professionals who belong to the business school’s Dean’s Leadership Circle.
“Bethany is smart, innovative and engaged,” says Philip Bromiley, dean’s professor of strategic management at the business school. “And she’s totally committed to the roller derby community and the sport.”
Semeiks launched Wicked two years ago with her business partner and fellow roller derby skater, Suzy Dancisin, a.k.a. Strychnine. To help build the company, she enrolled at UCI to study marketing and finance.
“In class, when we needed a business model, we’d use Wicked instead of a big, boring corporation,” Semeiks says. “We’d break out my finances, and group members would offer advice on what we should do.”
Operating out of a Huntington Beach warehouse, Wicked is anything but a big, boring corporation. Customers are greeted at the door by Gracie, a friendly, three-legged pit bull. The shelves and displays are crammed with merchandise, including gold lamé hot pants, tanks, T-shirts and knee socks festooned with skulls, stripes and skates.
The official company motto? “Doing the least we can do.” Instead of office happy hours, there are “crappy hours.” “A lot of really good ideas come from champagne,” Semeiks notes.
Wicked is riding on roller derby’s revival, which has grown to 400 leagues worldwide, each with 20 to 40 players. The company created uniforms for roller derby segments on “Oprah” and “Ellen” (when staff and volunteers tried the sport) and for the movie “Whip It,” which stars Ellen Page as a jammer — Semeiks’ position.
Roller derby’s a changed sport since its heyday in the 1970s. “We’re not staged. We’re not giving these flying punches to the neck,” Semeiks says. “We’re actually trying to win this game.” She honed her skating skills playing ice hockey while pursuing her bachelor’s in environmental science from the University of Maryland, but her career took a different path. “It’s not like I heard a voice saying, ‘You’re going to grow up and make T-shirts,'” she jokes.
With names like Dirty Deborah Harry and Hell Toro, derby players cultivate a bad-girl image, but their off-rink personas are much tamer.
“We’re literally mothers, CEOs, executive assistants, teachers and doctors. It’s a wide demographic,” Semeiks says. She even volunteers to train girls 10 to 17 in roller derby. “It helps them come out of their shell,” she says.
Though not traditional role models, the Orange County Roller Girls have a worthwhile mission: to make a positive difference in the lives of women. Proceeds from every bout support breast cancer research, women’s shelters and other such causes.
“Roller Girls are my family,” Semeiks says.
Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 3, Iss. 1