Victoria Usherwood Gailinas was in an airplane, an hour from Manchester, N.H., on Sept. 11, 2001 when the pilot’s voice came over the speaker and said they would have to make an emergency landing. He did not give a reason, only that they had to land.
Gailinas immediately feared there was a bomb on board the plane. She started worrying about how to protect the mother and infant in the seat next to her, and visualized throwing the mother over her baby, and lying on top of them should something explode because then at least one of them would survive.
When the plane touched down in Indianapolis, the passengers learned the truth – it was not their plane that was the problem; two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City.
Gailinas watched the footage in horror and realized she had no way to let her family know that she was all right, and no way to get to California where her mother was dying by degrees.
She waited in the airport for five days, making friends with pilots and flight attendants in the hopes that one of them would help her get to California to see her mother before her death.
“I was looking to make best friends,” says Gailinas.
She succeeded, hopping on a plane as the only passenger when one of her pilot friends flew to Fort Worth and then helped her find a ride to California.
Six weeks later, her mother succumbed to cancer and Gailinas felt so overwhelmed with grief at her mother’s death and at the president’s reaction to Sept. 11 that she began to drink. It didn’t help that around the same time, she had to put her dog to sleep, her husband’s cousin was dying, and her husband lost his job.
“I was so resentful and angry,” says Gailinas. “My life went all the way downhill.”
She didn’t stay down for long, though.
“You have to climb out enough to live. You don’t have to be on top,” she says. “Life goes on. You have to keep moving.”
Today, Gailinas literally keeps moving – with roller derby.
She and her husband, Phil, started an online roller skating store in 2005. They would spend every weekend skating and sold merchandise to roller derby girls, many in Texas.
There were no roller derby teams in New Hampshire, however, so Gailinas decided to start a team. She founded “Skate Free or Die” and the “ManchVegas Roller Girls,” who became the first official league of Manchester, N.H. She also started “Monadnock Roller Derby” in New Hampshire, and tried to start a men’s league as well.
When her father asked her to move back home to Oswego, Gailinas decided to start a league there as well. The “Oz Roller Girls” officially became a team on May 8, 2010.
“We’re not even a year old yet,” Gailinas says. “But we already had the structure built from starting four other derbies. It runs like a corporation.”
The Oz Roller Girls began with a Facebook post.
“I actually helped [Gailinas] start it here,” says Jamie Leszczynski, or “J Rock-It” in the derby world.
Leszczynski saw Gailinas’ Facebook post and helped her create enough publicity to get the league started.
“I think it’s about time that Oswego has something different,” says Leszczynski .
“Finding derby actually allowed me to help a lot more people,” says Gailinas. “It’s kind of like my own private charitable organization.”
Gailinas added that derby does not pay – about 80 percent of her time is donated. She has also started many charitable funds and skateboarding teams.
“We really have a solid belief in community,” she says.
Many of the girls on the Oz Roller Girls team volunteer as well. Leszczynski organized Oswego State’s first “Out of the Darkness” suicide prevention walk, which the roller girls helped out in by leading the participants along the route.
“Derby allows me to have a lot of good girls around me,” says Gailinas. “I have the very best support. It makes all of our lives better.”
Because she does not make money with all of her derby teams, Gailinas also opened her own skate shop in Oswego in Sept. 2010, called “Wicked Evil Skate Merch.” The name is a play off her derby name, “Wicked Evil Step Mom.” It started only as a convenience, to bring the girls their equipment faster.
“We didn’t realize there were a bunch of skateboarders down the street,” she says. They asked her to get skateboarding supplies as well as derby supplies, and the store has taken off.
“Like I need another freaking job!” Gailinas jokes, motioning to the zebra patterned lights and disco ball hanging from the store’s ceiling.
“I think this is the last thing I’m doing,” says Gailinas. “I’m over 50. I coach – I’m the new skater coach. I have so many companies that I forget about them until I have to do work for them.”
Looking at her, it’s hard to believe she is over 50. She has the humor and energy of a young woman and fits right in with the young roller girls.
She says she feels lucky to have ended up where she is and adds, “I’ll take being lucky over being smart any f*cking day of the week. I’d like to live long enough to do it all again – I wish derby had been around when I was younger.”
The Oz Roller Girls are grateful to have derby in their lives because of Gailinas.
“We all had nothing, but then she came along and now we have derby,” says Mallory Taber, aka “Abby Cadaver.” “It’s pretty amazing, in a year, where we’ve come from.” The team, which started with five people, has grown to almost 40.
“I love it,” says Leszczynski. “[Gailinas] is great – she’s a great leader.”
Girls of all shapes and sizes have come together because of Gailinas, and really have come a long way in a short time. They practice at the old Dollar General store, above Joann Fabrics in Oswego, where Gailinas and her husband set up a track, complete with mattresses covering the support beams in case of a crash. The girls skate around the track in their fishnets and duct tape covered skates so fast it creates a cold wind that whips anyone watching.
The venue, although not ideal, works, says Tim Nekritz, aka “Professor Plutonium,” head of media for the derby girls. The aisle markers still hang from the ceiling, providing comic relief for anyone who falls down.
“We can say ‘Clean up on aisle nine!’” says Nekritz.
Everyone on the team agrees that derby is a way of life. “Most girls will tell you that derby saved their soul,” says Gailinas. “Anybody can play; it’s so accepting.”
The Oz Roller Girls will continue to improve and grow with the help of Gailinas.
“Derby doesn’t care if you’re nuts,” she says with a large and generous smile. “Having derby means no matter what your damage is, we’re still going to love you… unless you’re a felon.”