Generations of skaters gather for roller derby’s 82nd birthday

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Thomas Schultz delivers birthday cake to onlookers at roller derby’s 82nd birthday celebration. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

Roller derby turned 82 on Sunday, and Thomas Schultz got the first slice of cake.

The 8-year-old Joliet native then handed — well, skated — it over to Chicago roller derby legend Mary Lou Palermo.

Both skaters share a love of the Chicago-born sport, known for its bawdy nicknames and rough-and-tumble thrills. Thomas started competing in 2017. Palermo did in 1944.

Roller derby legends Sammy Skobel and Mary Lou Palermo reunite in Coliseum Park. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

Roller derby legends Sammy Skobel and Mary Lou Palermo reunite in Coliseum Park. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

“I liked the competition, the audience,” said Palermo, 88, who is one of Chicago’s oldest roller derby athletes. “And I wanted it bad enough.”

Thomas also aspires to roller derby greatness. His mother, Kate Schultz, said he showed no interest in other activities — “not Boy Scouts, not football. . . . This was all he wanted to do.”

“It’s fun because everybody’s bigger than me,” Thomas said. So far, his size has worked to his advantage: He’ll be an alternate in a bout this fall with the Northern Illinois Junior Roller Derby league.

From ages 8 to 88, generations of skaters gathered in Coliseum Park in the South Loop to celebrate the sport’s birthday. They shared stories, cake and new moves.

Karli Craig and Katie Baird skate out with a birthday cake at a roller derby celebration in Coliseum Park in the South Loop neighborhood. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

Karli Craig and Katie Baird skate out with a birthday cake at a roller derby celebration in Coliseum Park in the South Loop neighborhood. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

Leaders from Chicago area leagues honored Palermo and Sammy Skobel, a pioneer of the sport, before leading the crowd of about 50 people in a round of “Happy Birthday.”

Later, three skaters from the Osiris Initiative, a South Side nonprofit, skated freestyle to hip-hop music, encouraging some of the junior derby athletes to join in.

RELATED: Roller derby ready to jam on 82nd anniversary of Chicago-born sport

Elizabeth Gomez — skating name “Juanna Rumbel” — said the celebration felt “powerful.” She founded the Windy City Rollers in 2004 after a difficult divorce, because, as she told the crowd: “There’s nothing else to kill the pain than a sport that’s gonna kill you.”

Now, the Chicago league has more than 150 members.

“We were rebels, we were fighters, and we were unafraid,” Gomez said. “We decided we would lead this sport back from history.”

Myesha McCaskill, from the Osiris Initiative, freestyle skates at the roller derby birthday celebration. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

Myesha McCaskill, from the Osiris Initiative, freestyle skates at the roller derby birthday celebration. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

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