July 1, 2013
Cindy McCoy was a roller derby queen, skating before packed houses in the U.S. and Australia at a time when the sport commanded prime-time coverage and legions of teenybopper fans.
That was the mid-1960s, and the derby was in its heyday.
"Roller derby had started during the Depression, in the '50s and '60s. It was extremely popular with men, women and children," McCoy said. "One roller derby event at White Sox stadium had over 50,000 people."
Born and raised in Colorado Springs, McCoy cut her teeth clattering on steel-wheeled skates down the city's sidewalks and at Skateland, a rink once on Colorado Avenue. There, she took lessons with other skaters, and her natural skill began to show. McCoy could do jumps, spins and twirls that confounded most of the other skaters - even the boys. The chance to show off her athletic ability was new for McCoy, whose school had no organized team sports open to women.
"I always resented that. I thought there were some of us that were just as good or better than the guy players," said McCoy, 64, who has been nominated for inclusion in the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame and who recently collaborated on a biography of her derby career, "Hell on Wheels." "I think what really attracted me to the roller derby was the fact that they had the men's team and the women's team, and you both played under the same rules."
After her parents' divorce, McCoy traveled with her mother to Los Angeles. At a roller derby game there, she saw an ad recruiting and training skaters for an amateur league. McCoy talked her mother into letting her join and started saving up for regulation derby skates.
She was 5-foot-6, 116 pounds, and only 14.
"We went through hours of training and building muscles, from just learning how to stand up, how to get the feel of the track, how to build up your speed and jump, and how to take falls," McCoy said.
Though it might not have appeared so to the casual observer, in many ways women's roller derby was more hardcore than it is today. There weren't helmets or mouth guards or toe-stops on the shoes.
"We skated on a banked track. We wore elbow pads, a little tiny piece of leather on our tail bone, and some sponge knee pads. If you wanted to stop, you fell. I probably ended up with four or five concussions, easy," McCoy said.
After a year of amateur games, she earned a spot on the Los Angeles T-Birds, the city's professional team. It was during that time McCoy met her "drill-sergeant" manager and trainer John Hall, a former military man with a history of molding professional skaters.
"When I first saw trainee Cindy McCoy, I was impressed by her determination and her motivation," wrote Hall in an email. "She quickly learned to do all necessary to become a professional banked track skater."
McCoy was small but athletic, and clearly had a natural acumen for the sport. What's more, she was "a genuine nice young lady," Hall wrote.
She impressed Hall so much that he advocated for her inclusion in the Roller Games League's first skating tour of Australia.
"The Australian fans loved her," Hall wrote. "Cindy McCoy gave me great pride as she demonstrated all that I taught her in her professional skating."
McCoy was the youngest member of the team, who became like the skater's second family. Attendance at Sunday competitions in Melbourne drew as many as 25,000 spectators. With her glamour girl looks, her skill on the boards and her signature ponytail, McCoy was an instant fan favorite.
"We would go to potluck dinners with the fan club," McCoy said. "The president taught me how to drive a vehicle over there. I felt like they were family, not just fans."
Hall wasn't there when fans in Australia named McCoy their Rookie of the Year and Roller Games Queen, but the importance wasn't lost on him.
"That is the only time in (the) history of Roller Games that any skater has received that honor from fans," he said.
McCoy skated professionally for the T-Birds for several seasons, earning good wages - about $300 a week - until she suffered a near career-ending accident. She was training a group of young Australian skaters, teaching them how to fall without injuring themselves. The youngsters weren't listening, and McCoy got frustrated.
"I realized I was going way too fast to do it. I guess I let my Irish temper get the better of me," said McCoy, who landed hard on a structural beam of the track, dislocating her tail bone and fracturing her last vertebrae. "My legs were numb. I had to have another skater help me out of my skates. I was in a lot of pain."
After surgery and six weeks in the hospital, McCoy was well enough to fly home.
"They had a farewell party for me. I couldn't skate, but at least I went out in my uniform," she said.
Despite doctor's dire predictions, McCoy was able to return to skating - first stateside in Los Angeles, and then, back in Australia. She left the sport for good when she was 18.
"I made a promise to my mom to go back to school if she would let me skate overseas, so that's what I did. I came back to Colorado Springs to go to high school," said McCoy, who went on to graduate from Air Academy High School and what was then Metropolitan State College of Denver. "After skating and traveling and being on your own, going back into high school was like amateur time."
McCoy took a job at First National Bank and then went on to a career in management before retiring. Last year, McCoy and her husband, Terrance O'Neill, moved to Las Vegas, and are hoping to find a producer for a movie version of "Hell on Wheels."
"It never really hit me at the time. I mean, now that I'm older and I see how everything went, it's kind of neat, but at the time you're so into skating and the fan club and the pace of it," McCoy said. "It was a pretty amazing life."