Either way, the Cleveland native is one caretaker who can take care of business in both her professional and athletic careers. It makes it all the more intriguing that the 42-year-old wife and mother of three teenagers has made a midlife transformation that requires a double take when seeing her a year later sporting red hair and being 73 pounds lighter.
“Someone on Facebook invited me to be a fan of the Chattanooga Roller Girls page and I had just seen the movie, ‘Whip it,’” Harwood recalled. “I also heard they were taking new skaters. So I took my three kids down to the skating rink to meet for what they call ‘fresh meat.’ I hadn’t skated in over 20 years at the time.”
In fact, Harwood said the first time she ever visited a skating rink was in her junior high school year and she ended up in a scuffle with another girl — never imagining it might foreshadow things to come later in life. Harwood, who played basketball at Cleveland High School from the seventh to the 11th grade, said her athleticism in high school, including playing softball for a summer recreational league out of school, was part of why she wanted to take up another physical sport.
No longer a scripted version of wrestling on wheels with dramatic subplots and “look away referees” who were helpless to stop the mayhem, roller derby is now a legitimate sport, governed by the rules and regulations of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association to make it authentic, athletic and revolutionary.
The “fresh meat” status that Harwood qualified for begins once a skater has passed initial tryouts, begun paying monthly dues per league policy and has submitted and been officially registered with the league’s required WFTDA insurance. The 5-foot-9 athlete met all their standards and was warmly accepted into the Chattanooga Roller Girls league. The popularity of the sport is increasing nationwide.
Reborn in Austin, Texas, in 2005, there were 50 women’s roller derby leagues worldwide. Today the number exceeds 1,480, according to www.derbyroster.com. The game is based on formation roller skating around an oval track by two teams. Points are scored as the designated scoring player — the “jammer” — of each team laps ahead of members of the opposing team, including its “blockers.” To prevent scoring, offense and defense occur simultaneously.
“I have a wonderful life, a wonderful family and a wonderful job,” Harwood said. “But when I’m skating I’m not thinking about anything but assisting my teammates and not letting the opposing team get through the pack. It’s a stress reducer. It’s similar to the way people like to work out or go running. It’s something for me. Being a mom, a wife and being in the profession I’m in — you give a lot of yourself. This is something I can enjoy and do for myself.”
Having worked for the past 24 years at Bradley Memorial Hospital, as it became SkyRidge Medical Center, Harwood said she was looking to try something new for fun and recreation.
“This was something different that I wanted to try. I started going to practices in Chattanooga three nights a week — two hours each night. The team was very accepting. There’s a wide range of ages from 18 and up. Some players are in their 50s. Some are going to school, there are professional people — girls in nursing schools, an accountant — just a wide variety. Everything we do for the team comes out of our pocket. We raise money. We volunteer time or donate items to the Humane Society in Chattanooga. It’s fun.”
Now that she is in her third full season as a Chattanooga Roller Girl, Harwood said she is better able to assess the benefits of being a roller girl as well as take responsibility for her health.
“I had a herniated disc last year and was out for two months. I have bursitis in my hip and some arthritis,” Harwood admits. “I think roller derby has helped me physically in some ways. When I move around I feel better, and it has helped me lose weight.”
Harwood said her husband, Donnie, came up with her roller derby name, ‘Shank Williams Jr.’
“I wanted to be Mallory Knox (Knocks) from “Natural Born Killers,” but her name was already taken,” Harwood explained. “I also like Hank Williams Jr. So my husband said, “Shank — Shank Williams Jr.” The name stuck.
Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Chattanooga Convention and Trade Center, Harwood and the Chattanooga Roller Girls play their last home game of the season, taking on the Greenville Derby Dames from South Carolina. She said she would love to have the support of her hometown of Cleveland cheering her on. Children under 5 get in free.
“Kids love it,” she said. “It’s a fun contact sport. We usually have between 600 and 1,200 people show up at the games. Chattanooga always has the biggest crowds. We usually have eight or nine games a season — at least one bout a month — but we practice year round. Our season starts February/March to October/November.”
According to Harwood, raising children, being a nurse, maintaining a marriage and being a ‘Roller Girl’ keeps her happy, active, healthy, excited and balanced in her work and recreation — a lifestyle she says she values.
“With the nursing I do right now I really get to know my patients,” she said. “They’re more like family than our patients. We’re teaching people to help exercise their heart safely and effectively. We want them to do well and succeed so they don’t have another heart event. Plus, I love the people I work with. I’m so blessed to have this job. I couldn’t do roller derby if I didn’t have this job, because I work Monday through Friday from 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 or 1 p.m. In the afternoons, I take care of my kids. Then I can go to roller derby and practice in the evenings. We have our games on Saturdays.”
Having been a certified nursing assistant, secretary, monitor tech then a registered nurse in 1999, Harwood said she has a strong desire to help others just as she cherishes her role as wife and mother. But her personal outlet in roller derby gives her another dimension, another perspective that makes her life more interesting than ever.
“You want to know what a fun day looks like for me? I meet with my friend Tamara Obscura, who is on our roller derby team, and we have scrimmage together. She lives in Cleveland also. We go and play an actual game against each other. It’s good preparation for the games. That’s a fun day!”
With Hannah, her 19-year-old daughter, working in the Hamptons in N.Y., Austin, her 17-year-old son, playing basketball as a senior at Walker Valley High School this year, and Lauren, her 11-year-old daughter and dancer enrolled at Ocoee Middle School this year, Harwood and her husband, Donnie, are poised to have an active lifestyle of sports and entertainment for years to come.