Meet ... the LeBron James of roller derby?

May, 1, 2013
5/01/13
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Bonnie Thunders of roller derbyManish Gosala PhotographyNicole Williams, aka Bonnie Thunders, left, is downright Jordanesque in derby.

If you’ve never heard of Bonnie Thunders, born Nicole Williams, anyone up to speed on the game of roller derby might call her the LeBron James of the world’s fastest-growing sport. But once you’ve seen Thunders in action, you might decide LeBron James is really the Bonnie Thunders of the NBA.

Thunders, a jammer and member of New York City’s Gotham Girls Roller Derby, came to the sport in 2006 after spending four years at Syracuse University in competitive synchronized ice skating. Since then, her career has been nothing short of Jordanesque, and she is widely regarded as the most dominant player in the game.

“When I started, I was scrawny and I wasn’t a great player. The game was more about big hits back then,” she said. “But being in love with the sport and a control freak, I wanted to improve.”

Improve she did.

Since, Thunders and Gotham have won three national championships, the first in 2008, for which she was named the tournament MVP. Gotham won two more back-to-back titles, in 2011 and 2012, and have been undefeated since 2011 on the flat-track -- essentially untouchable in the sport.

Jackie Daniels, a fellow competitor who skates for Chicago’s Windy City Rollers, has faced Thunders in competition. Daniels points out that anyone playing Thunders and Gotham has their work cut out for them.

“Gotham is amazing, top to bottom,” Daniels said. “Statistically, the points that Bonnie puts up for them destroy scoreboards.”

One stark example is the 2012 WFTDA Championship final versus the Olympia (Wash.) powerhouse Oly Rollers. After helping Gotham go up 51-0 in the opening 10 minutes, Thunders scored 178 of Gotham’s 233 points to lead the New York team to a crushing 233-130 victory and its third Hydra trophy.

Thunders, 29, also skated for Team USA in roller derby’s first World Cup in December 2011, in which the U.S. routed Canada 336-33 in the final. Regarding her success, Thunders hints that she’s equal parts drive and athleticism.

“Even when I’ve had an excellent tournament season and I’m really proud of what my team has accomplished and me individually, you can always do better.”

Alongside her drive, Thunders says the precision and fluidity required in figure skating helped make the transition to the sport and quad-style roller skates successful.

“I feel like I’ve brought a lot of what I know from figure skating to derby,” Thunders said, “It’s about keeping a tight core and having your center of gravity under your shoulders. When I train, a lot of focus is about weight transfer and pinpointing precisely where to complete the move.”

Yet, like any player, she’s had to get stronger as the game grows more competitive. Along with plyometric exercises, Thunders said she spent time between championship seasons weight training, “working to build up body mass and muscle."

“With that, I definitely felt a difference in my strength and explosive power," she said, "and my ability to react in the game.”

[+] EnlargeBonnie Thunders of roller derby
Courtesy of Jules DoyleBonnie Thunders: 'made of rubber bands and steel plates.'
Lauren Goller, another skater who has faced Thunders, agrees that the athleticism matches her fast skates.

“I am convinced that she is made of rubber bands and steel plates.” Goller said. “Bonnie has amazing footwork, plays very smart and can muscle her way through a wall that looks impenetrable.”

What else inspires Thunders?

“I find my motivation not so much from famous female athletes, but from my competitors and even more so from my teammates,” she said.

Off skates, Thunders also finds inspiration in the center of the USA’s biggest sports town, New York.

“Over the winter I saw some basketball -- Nets and Knicks games -- and it was awesome," said Thunders, a Brooklyn local. "Being wrapped up in derby, I enjoyed it more than I ever thought I would. The Nets’ stadium is just crazy.”

According to one estimate, more than 20,000 women in the United States play roller derby. Since its up-from-the-bootstraps revival in 2001, roller derby has grown hastily outside the U.S., creating an international conversation.

In 2009, Drew Barrymore’s directorial-debut film, “Whip It" -- which featured skater Daniels as herself -- hit theaters, starring Oscar nominees Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis and Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden. More recently, the London Roller Girls booked a 13-episode TV show with the Extreme Sports Network, announced in January.

Regarding the roller derby’s renaissance and her place within, Thunders weighed in.

“Derby is established here in the U.S., but outside I see it as a machine that’s chugging along and gaining momentum pretty quickly,” Thunders said. “It’s going to go a lot of directions in the next few years. But the most moving thing has been seeing passion of new teams and international growth of the sport.”

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