How a girl, a guy and the guy’s father found happiness in roller derby
By Toby Smith
Mettapocalypse of D.I.A.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
One morning about a year and a half ago, Metta Gustafson decided she wanted to try roller derby.
While that’s not quite like wanting to try chain-saw juggling, for Gustafson, 32, it did seem a stretch. At 5-foot-5, she is a willowy 115 pounds. She has no tattoos or tongue jewelry, had never felt an urge to punch someone’s lights out. As for sports, she thought about them the way some people think about Brussels sprouts.
She didn’t Rollerblade, skateboard or ice skate. Roller skating? “I went once, I think, back in elementary school at a birthday party.”
As the receptionist for an Albuquerque accounting firm, she sat on her ass all day. In roller derby, you regularly get knocked on your ass.
“I wanted some exercise, something to do. That’s why I started.”
Gustafson is saying this as she readies for a practice with the Duke City Derby, her league. Two of the teams in the league work out four times a week on a chain-link-and-concrete playground at the Heights Community Center.
“I came out here on a Monday. I didn’t have any gear. I remember putting on some loaner skates and thinking, I must be crazy.”
She was placed among the newbies. It took her four months to learn the crossover step without wobbling. It took that long to learn how to fall and how to stop.
“There were a lot of times when I thought, What am I doing here? In the winter, we skate outside, no matter how cold. In the spring, the wind is always blowing.”
Any time of year, derby skaters practice hitting—a shoulder block here, a hip thrust there, a furtive elbow that can send you sprawling face-first onto the concrete.
In derby-speak, if you don’t like to be hit, go clip coupons.
“First time I got hit, I got hit hard,” remembers Gustafson. “I knew that was going to happen. I had all the padding on. Jackie hit me. I landed on my butt. Those are the scariest falls. You’re going backward. You don’t want to fall back.”
She didn’t cry. OK, she almost cried. “Mostly I got frustrated with myself.” Six, maybe seven months later, she passed a skills test required of all newbies. It’s to show they’re not a liability on the flat track.
“I still fall over,” she says, “but not as much as last year.”
With the skills test behind her, Gustafson acquired her skater name. A handle is to roller derby what a nose is to a face. No cute button noses, either. No Lily Pad or Lemon Sky. Instead, you get Godjamit, Jersey Sore, Razor Blaze and Botulism. Players are often known by their aliases more than their birth names. Sometimes you want to change your skate name. Gustafson has stayed with hers: Mettapocalypse.
“My boyfriend came up with it.”
Jon Helm and Metta Gustafson, a.k.a. Mettapocalypse
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Jon Helm was an athlete back in Carmel, Ind., where he grew up. He played baseball and soccer and pole-vaulted on the high school track team. When asked about Metta’s sports experience, he shakes his head.
“She was on a bowling team in high school. But so was [Columbine shooter] Dylan Klebold, and we all know how that turned out.”
Helm, 33, has always had a sly, bone-dry take on the world. It got more sly and dry when he went off to college at Indiana University. That’s where he met Metta. “We had a similar sense of humor.” Gustafson worked at Mother Bear’s, a pizza place in Bloomington, and Helm liked to hang there and talk to her.
“We’d make fun of people together,” he says.
Ten years ago, in search of adventure, Gustafson and Helm packed up and moved to Albuquerque. Helm worked first as a paralegal while Metta did the accounting-office thing. Helm eventually went back to school, to CNM, and became a registered nurse. That was about the time Gustafson decided to try roller derby.
Helm attended Metta’s practices. He cheered her games at the Albuquerque Convention Center. She’s still an alternate who sees periodic action.
“She needs to get tougher,” Helm says.
Clearly, Metta will never be as tough as, say, D.I.A. teammate Gretchen. The 28 year old won't give her last name. She's a bill collector, and some people she meets on the job, she says, don’t much like being asked to pay up. Fact is, it’s difficult to think of Gretchen being scared of much. She has doorway shoulders. Growing up in Alaska, she became a power-lifting champion. She dead-lifted more than 400 pounds, benched 231. She’s known as Max the Arctic Blast. To the Arctic Blast, hitting is like breathing.
Does Helm worry about his girlfriend? “I don’t fear for her safety. I like women amputees and am hoping my dreams come true with Metta.”
Helm knew next to nothing about roller derby but soon wanted to get involved. In time he came up with an idea: Why not create a television show? A show about roller derby.
The easiest way to get on TV in Albuquerque is through public access. Helm brought his idea to the folks at Quote…Unquote, Inc. community cable channel 27. He had no background doing TV, had never conducted an interview or filmed anyone. In fact, he was fuzzy on some of the rules of roller derby. Didn’t matter. He was given his own half-hour show, which he titled “Derby Insider.”
Most everyone who has spun the Comcast dial has stopped at some point at channel 27. Helm didn’t want his show to be like anything else on the channel: Programs range from two hours of live disc golf to the loincloth wisdom of Don Schrader.
Helm wanted a show that a viewer might pause at and say, Get a load of this crazy shit.
That is why he got his dad to be on the show with him.
Jon Helm(s), senior and junior, on the set of “Derby Insider”
Courtesy of “Derby Insider”
The Guy’s Father
Jon Helm’s father, also named Jon Helm, had no television experience and zero roller derby knowledge. He sold furniture in Indiana. When he retired about five years ago, he moved first to Miami, Fla. But he didn’t like it there. Divorced, he relocated to Albuquerque, to be near his son and Metta. In fact, he lived with them for a spell.
“We had rules,” says the son. “No. 1 being he could not hold the TV remote.”
One day earlier this year, the younger Jon Helm posed this question to his 61-year-old dad: “How would you like us to be the only father-and-son co-anchors of a nationwide sports show?”
Dad did not hesitate: “Why the hell not?”
“Derby Insider” debuted in March and runs the same episode three times a month on Thursday nights at 10. It follows “Sports Bar After Hours.” If you’re not familiar with that program visualize, if you will, an hour of three beefy guys with chin whiskers and crimped ball caps lounging around and cracking wise on hot women and overpaid dumb jocks.
When the Helms went on the air, in the spirit of roller derby, they took new names. Dad became Dr. Johnny Falco. Son Jon is Don Juan Giovanni, but he’s thinking of changing it. Some possibilities he’s considering: Manuel Merlot, Rip Fuel and Stink Panther.
Neither Helm wears roller derby garb on TV. Don Juan dresses like a late-night TV infomercial pitchman. His burgundy turtleneck came from Savers for $3. He bought the blue blazer with lapels nearly wide enough for liftoff in high school. The lenses of his aviator glasses are tinted yellow.
Dr. Falco, who resembles your eighth-grade science teacher, wears a black suit and dark necktie. His horn-rimmed specs have no lenses.
“It is what it is,” the younger Jon Helm says of the show.
It’s a lot like “Wayne’s World.” But in this case the parent is not up in the kitchen shouting orders to the kid in the basement. This time the parent is sitting alongside the kid in Studio B of Quote…Unquote. Sitting there and alternating between straight man and doofus. Is there a script? Can you fill 28 minutes without a script? Even Don Schrader has a script.
“We’re not seeking world dominance,” says the son.
The May show opens with the younger Helm doing a remote broadcast with Brutalitar, who skates for the Ho-Bots. Remotes are not yet glitch-free on “Derby Insider.” The interview sounds as if it takes place on a highway overpass.
“Nice interview with Brutalitar,” Dad says during the episode.
Next comes footage of a fundraiser that the Duke City Derby held in the parking lot of Low Spirits. To the accompaniment of techno music, the camera holds for several seconds on a plastic bucket filled with soapy water and someone hosing off a pickup.
“Pretty good car-wash montage,” Dad says.
The final piece on the show is another remote, an interview with Puncher Villa, president of the Las Cruces roller derby league. The background noise is scratchy, as if there’s a thunderstorm brewing.
“Nice interview with Puncher Villa,” Dad says.
Toward the end of the show, Jon Helm the younger introduces a surprise guest: a small box he refers to as Jack Stats. When Helm pushes a button on the box, a recorded message that greatly resembles his own voice is heard: I am the informational robot for “Derby Insider” … I am the informational robot for “Derby Insider” ... I am ...
Saturday, May 21 Taos Whiplashes vs. High Desert Derby (Farmington) Taos Youth and Family Center Doors at 4 p.m. Tickets $7 in advance and $10 at the door
Saturday, June 4 Ho-Bots vs. Taos Whiplashes D.I.A. vs. Santa Fe Disco Brawlers Albuquerque Convention Center Doors at 5:30 p.m. Tickets $12 in advance and $15 at the door
Saturday, July 16 Whiplashes vs. Pistol Whip Hers (El Paso) Taos Youth and Family Center Times and ticket prices TBA
Saturday, Aug. 6 West Texas vs. Muñecas Muertas (Duke City Derby travel team) Round robin featuring: Santa Fe Disco Brawlers vs. D.I.A. vs. Ho-Bots Albuquerque Convention Center Doors at 5:30 p.m. Tickets $12 in advance and $15 at the door
Saturday, Aug. 20 Taos Youth and Family Center Details TBA
Saturday, Sept. 26 Taos Youth and Family Center Details TBA
Saturday, Oct. 22 Championship bout Albuquerque Convention Center Doors at 5:30 p.m. Tickets $12 in advance and $15 at the door