Life on skates: An interview with mom and roller derby queen

A member of Tampa’s Switchblade Sisters, Kelly Petrillo explains how transformed from wife and mom into a roller derby star. Photo: Kelly Petrillo with her husband, Kenny Petrillo, her biggest supporter Photo: S. Kayne

TAMPA, June 15, 2013 — Today’s column is a guest piece by roller derby aficionado, Sharon Kayne, who has loved the sport since a child.

By day, she’s the mom of four, a devoted wife of a Tampa police detective, and the owner of an in-home daycare center. Kelly Petrillo changes diapers, drives her daughters to endless dance classes and participates in book drives.  

But by night, Petrillo transforms into Tights N Sirens, a fearless defensive player for the Switchblade Sisters, clad in padding, a helmet, and sporting a teeth guard. At 41, she’s the oldest member of the Tampa Bay Roller Derby team.

Kelly Petrillo Photo: Photo: S. Kayne

At the recent home bout double header held at Downtown Skates, Petrillo demonstrated how to fall and how to hit someone legally while skating, all the while sharing a few anecdotes about her involvement in the sport, especially her suburban mom place in the hard-hitting world or roller derby.

Sharon Kayne: How did you first learn about roller derby and what made you decide you wanted to be a part of it?

Kelly Petrillo: I was researching woman’s sports on the internet and I found them. Around the same time, my husband who is a police officer with the Tampa Police Department did a traffic stop on a car that was driven by one of the derby skaters, no names mentioned.

He talked to her on the side of the road and learned she was coming home from derby practice still in her derby clothing. She gave him a flyer with the derby schedule and we went. I fell in love with it, thinking, “This is awesome.” My adrenaline was up the entire time and I wanted to be out there skating with them.

SK: What reactions did you get from friends and family when you told them of your decision?

KP:  When I told my husband that I wanted to do this, he was all for it. He knows my level of determination once I get something in my head, but he also knows that I rarely put myself in front of my family and that derby would be a huge commitment. He knew that I would find a way to make it work.

To kind of curb my anxiety about trying out, he bought me all my gear for Christmas that year. He knew that if he bought me the stuff, I wouldn’t back out. As for friends and other family, some said it was cool and others asked, “What are you thinking? Aren’t you afraid of getting hurt?” 

My in-laws asked me, “Couldn’t you find a league for Bunco or Mah Jong?” I didn’t even know what those things were, but I knew that they didn’t involve roller skates or hitting people so I wasn’t interested. The Mah Jong thing is still a running joke in my family with them buying me different types of board games for birthdays and Christmas. As for my parents, they come to all my home bouts to make sure I don’t get hurt.

SK: How did you come up with your derby name?

KP:  I am known in the derby world as Tights N Sirens and no one ever calls me by my real name at a derby event. You kind of get used to responding to “Tights!!” or “Sirens!!” when you are around the rink. It’s even kind of funny when you are looking to message others on Facebook and you can’t remember their real name because you have always called them by their derby names.

Petrillo celebrating a victory Photo: S. Kayne

Derby names are hard to come up with because you want something that is funny or has meaning. My husband and I came up with Tights N’ Sirens as a tribute to his job’s terminology of “Lights and Sirens.” My number is 10-18, which is the radio code used by many police agencies for Lights and Sirens.

SK: Seems likes it’s a bit physical, Kelly.  Have you ever gotten injured?

KP:  Early in my derby career I fell and bruised my tailbone. It took about four months for it to completely heal and feel normal again. And I just tore my right quad muscle during a travel bout to Tallahassee during warm ups and I skated the bout with it wrapped, which I am sure didn’t do me any good, but you have a team to fight with and minor injuries can’t slow you down or take you out. Like other team sports, people are depending on you to be there.
SK: Aren’t you a little scared you might break something major one day? 

KP:  Yes, of course I am, but the way I look at it is that you could break something just walking down the stairs or riding a bicycle, so why not have a cool derby story to tell when people ask what happened.

SK: Most folks think competitors are all tough broads, and definitely not at all feminine.  What would you tell them?

KP:  Not true at all, we all have a feminine side no matter how tough we seem. We like makeup, fashion and dressing up, and some of us cry after losses. We even have a “Derby Prom” just for this reason, so we can get all dressed up and look pretty while hanging out with our teammates.

For more information about the Tampa Bay Roller Derby, visit

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Catherine Poe

Catherine was named one of the top Progressives in Maryland along with Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She has been a guest of President Obama in the Rose Garden.

As past president of Long Island NOW, she worked to reform women's prisons in New York, open the construction trades to women, change laws to safeguard battered women, and protect the rights of rape victims. 

Long active in Democratic politics, she served as the presidentof the Talbot Democrats in Maryland for six years and fought to getthe Health Care Reform bill passed.

Catherine has been published in a diverse range of newspapers and magazines, including Newsday, Star Democrat, Rocky Mountain News, Yellowstone News, and the Massachusetts Review.

If Catherine has learned anything over the years it is that progressive change does not come easily, but in baby steps. 

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