Meet Gotham’s Sarah McKemie, Roller Derby’s One-Woman Wall
She grew up in the state of Kentucky. Breathed the basketball air in Louisville. Lived under the same roof as a mom, sister and brother who all played college hoops. She was blessed with a 6-foot-1 frame.
But the roller derby track is where you can find Sarah McKemie doing her dominating.
McKemie, a 29-year-old blocker for New York City’s Gotham Girls Roller Derby who skates under the name Sexy Slaydie, is widely known as a one-woman wall. And feared for her soul-crushing hits. This weekend at the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association playoffs in Omaha, Nebraska, she’ll be trying to lead Gotham to its 10th straight appearance in the championships and a shot at a fifth straight title.
McKemie, who grew up playing basketball and soccer, says fundamentals she learned in those sports — both mental and physical — have helped her become one of the most feared roller derby players in the world. And she’s quick to give credit to one of her old basketball coaches, Evelyn McKemie, aka Mom.
“My mother taught us that it was good to be tenacious,” McKemie said. “She considered herself equal to men as an athlete, and taught us some of the same things boys in sports learn early on.”
McKemie describes her mother as “an original Title IX athlete” who played basketball in the late 1970s at Eastern Kentucky University. McKemie said her mother imparted ample wisdom to her and other young women in sports.
“My mother let us know it was OK — as girls in sports — to work hard, be aggressive and go for what you want. And not to be simply what people expect you to be.”
Forging her own path, McKemie turned down a handful of Division I basketball scholarships, she said, to seek out a new “scene.” She wound up at Belmont, where she played intramural basketball. She discovered roller derby when she was 22.
As for the physical side of McKemie’s game, she doesn’t deny that her timing and quick hits come from skills gained on the hardwood and the soccer pitch.
“When I’m one-on-one with a fast-approaching jammer, it’s a lot like defending a penalty kick,” said McKemie, a former goalkeeper. “When a ball is coming at you at top speed, there’s not much time to react and you have to make a snap judgment.”
But the restraint and teamwork she learned on the basketball court are important, too.
“Blocking in derby involves work with your teammates,” she said. “And you are constantly playing offense and defense together. Then, it’s about knowing when to make contact, when not to make contact, and the right time to make a hit.”
Other players know that McKemie, who has won two World Cups with Team USA, stands out for way more than her height.
Nicole Williams, better known as Bonnie Thunders and considered the best player in derby history, points out several X factors McKemie brings to the track.
“It’s not even Slaydie’s enormous hits,” Williams said. “It’s her calm, cool head on the track, and her versatility, that she can play with whatever lineup she might be thrown in with.”
Roxanne Rogers, another Gotham teammate, points to physics.
“She has amazing footwork and a fantastic center of gravity,” Rogers said. “She’s tall, and works that to her advantage. But you can’t second-guess her speed. You’ll find she’s way quicker than you think she is.”
Specifically, Rogers says McKemie has “a solid fulcrum,” using her hips both as a pivot point and a weapon against any jammer who might try to slide by. McKemie also is known for her “surfing stance,” lowering her upper body below her natural center of gravity, when blocking.
But, it’s not just teammates who dig McKemie’s style. Rivals also sing her praises.
“I see Slaydie as a huge threat to my jammers,” said Tiana McGuire, another well-known hard hitter who skates as Demanda Riot for B.ay A.rea D.erby, a West Coast powerhouse. “She uses her length from hip to shoulders as a very different kind of obstacle for opponents.”
With B.ay A.rea already set to compete at the WFTDA Championship tournament in Minneapolis next month, Gotham opens its postseason campaign as the No. 1 seed in the last leg of Division 1 playoffs in Omaha.
McKemie and her teammates know Gotham has big a target on its back. They haven’t lost since 2010. But McKemie insists the secret to Gotham’s success is simpler than people think.
“There’s no secret about Gotham. Our practices are brutal, and we work hard together to make each other better as a both a unit and individually,” McKemie said. “Other teams like Denver and London have brought new styles to the game. We introduce different styles in Gotham’s practices. But ultimately we try to play our own game, and skating fundamentals are the key.”
That said, McKemie thinks that just like with teams in professional sports, that intense camaraderie and having an organization full of players who have been together counts.
“We really have a deep bench, and have had a lot of good players ready to step up each time we’ve had others retire,” McKemie said. “It’s really all about work ethic of the women involved and tenacity.”
Still, Rogers underscores the impact of her teammate in big games.
“Slaydie is a fantastic communicator in the pack,” Rogers said. “She hits big, blocks big and makes clutch plays that help win big games.”