Growing up in the ’80s in Puerto Rico, Miriam Hill sat in front of the TV on Saturday nights to watch roller derby on NBC.
The youngest of three siblings, Hill had a pair of hand-me-down roller skates that didn’t quite fit. Several times a week, she would lace her sister’s loose skates tight around her ankles and head outside to her hilly street on Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Sailing down the pavement with the wind in her hair, she pretended she was passing skaters and racing to score points until her skates fell apart.
“But I didn’t have a lot of friends,” Hill said. “This was all in my head.”
A self-described nerd with an enterprising streak, she received a scholarship from the University of Florida and, in 2002, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. After graduating, Hill did not plan to remain in Gainesville. She kept a $2 bill from her grandmother in her car ashtray to pay some day for her last highway toll out of town.
She had never played a real game of roller derby.
Fast forward a decade, and Hill is the president of the Gainesville Roller Rebels, a nonprofit roller derby league owned and operated by the skaters. She recently used her business education and grant-writing experience to gain the league acceptance into the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the highest governing body in modern roller derby. Only about 10 percent of the leagues in the world are members.
Today, at 35 years old, Hill goes by another name: “Stocky Balboa,” a tribute to the iconic underdog played by Sylvester Stallone and to her robust figure, which reflects her light-hearted sense of humor about herself.
When Hill was searching for a fun, meaningful way to spend free time as a young working adult, roller derby answered her prayers. She remained in Gainesville to be with her boyfriend (now husband), and had a job as a clinical trial contract negotiator for the UF College of Medicine, but as she progressed into her 20s, she found herself wanting more out of life.
“I’d come home from work and be super depressed, like, ‘Is this all there is?’” Hill said. “Eventually, roller derby happened.”
In December of 2007, Hill’s hair stylist mentioned that a league was starting in Gainesville. Unsure what she was getting into, Hill went to a recruitment barbecue and became one of the founding members of the Gainesville Roller Rebels (or GRR, which the players pronounce “grr,” like a growl).
She began training on- and off-skates to build muscle and stamina before playing in her first bout as a blocker. Before long, Hill was adding her derby name to the about 40,000 registered names on the International Rollergirls’ Master Roster.
Two years later, she began to feel leg pain and learned that she would need to take an extensive break from skating because she her calf muscles needed surgery. Following her 16-month recovery, Hill became president of GRR in July 2010.
“I almost feel like the league started all over again in July 2010,” she said. “We refocused what we were doing, and it was no longer going to be a hobby for us.”
Over the course of a year and a half, Hill completed the league’s WFTDA application. She devoted practically all her spare time to it, sometimes working into the early morning hours.
“Stocky was the WFTDA application,” said GRR vice president Adrienne Fagan, also known as “Rage-rienne.”
Her work paid off when GRR was accepted as an apprentice league in January 2012 and graduated to full membership in December, making it one of only five association member leagues in Florida. GRR can now compete in regional tournaments and move up in the rankings.
“It legitimizes us as a sports team,” Hill said. “We are in a national spotlight now with people who pay attention to roller derby. This is what the league was always aspiring towards.”
The GRR Allstar Travel Team competed in their first WFTDA bout against the Washington, D.C. Rollergirls on Feb. 10 in Jacksonville. Hill coached from the sidelines wearing a shirt with a tiger on it to inspire “tiger intensity” while her teammates with names like “Killary Clinton” and “LeBrawn Maimes” jockeyed for position and knocked each other down.
The D.C. Rollergirls won the bout 201-141, but the atmosphere was jovial afterwards. Since the Gainesville league is unranked and the Rollergirls are a division one team, Hill didn’t expect to win. She was just glad to see GRR enter a new chapter.
“We did a lot better than I thought we would do,” she said. “We’re really f–king new, and the win was reachable.”
As of March 15, the Roller Rebels were ranked No. 51 in the country. If they keep their ranking above No. 60, they will compete in the Division 2 playoffs at the end of the season against teams ranked No. 40-60.
“The highest entry by a previously unranked team is Gainesville, who debut at No. 51 WFTDA,” read the rankings announcement on Derby News Network, “No other team debuts inside the top 100.”
Snapping pictures of the skaters in action, Dana Hill was at the bout to support his wife. A radio show host on WUFT-FM, he has attended every bout she has played in.
“My new motto is ‘It doesn’t pay to bet against Miriam Hill,’ because when it comes down to it, she makes it happen,” Dana said. “It’s really impressive sometimes. She’ll say to me one night, ‘I’m going to make this happen.’ And it does.”
Managing the business aspects of GRR has proven to be great for her career, too. Hill said her involvement with the league was a major factor in being offered a new job as the department administrator for periodontology in UF’s College of Dentistry, which she began on Feb. 22.
“We do our own accounting, taxes, insurance, contract negotiations, advertising, marketing, media,” Hill said. “We run our own website. We do everything ourselves. So it gives people a lot of practical, real life experience.”
Through roller derby, Hill transformed from a languid college graduate adjusting to the routine of working life to a vital member of the Gainesville community with an activity she loves.
“This is one of the best experiences you can have as an adult,” she said. “It’s the greatest.”