By Erika Webb
Liz Canacari-Rose is one of those people who managed to grow up without abandoning the kid who dwells in all of us. If you hear her say, "When I was your age ..." you can bet the words to follow will be relatable and encouraging, not tinged with self-righteousness.
Her 12-year-old niece, Brianna, tapped into that well as she struggled to cope with adolescence.
They attended roller derby games together. Ms. Canacari-Rose said Brianna was inspired by those "bouts" and wanted to join a team. She called and texted her aunt regularly, and spent summers with her.
"I was her venting spot," Ms. Canacari-Rose said. "I was the cool aunt."
But on a June morning in 2010 another "game" ended Brianna's life. Her parents found her hanging in her closet, lifeless after playing "the choking game."
Her aunt believes Brianna committed suicide.
"She was different," Ms. Canacari-Rose said. "I had warned my brother many times to let her be an individual."
Brianna's death devastated those who loved her and tore the family apart.
Ms. Canacari-Rose, who teaches video and board game history at Full Sail University in Winter Park, dealt with the pain using the sport she and Brianna both loved -- roller derby.
Flat track roller derby is a fast-paced contact team sport that requires speed, strategy and athleticism. The flat track version of the sport evolved in 2001, and has quickly grown to encompass more than 400 leagues worldwide, according to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.
"This is in large part due to the ease of setting up a flat track -- it can be done on any flat surface that is suitable for skating, such as skating rinks, basketball courts, parking lots, and even airplane hangars. This greatly reduces the capital needed to start up a roller derby league, and allows small groups of people to get a fledgling league off the ground," the WFTDA's website stated. "The DIY spirit that drives the sport allows roller derby leagues to create their own unique identities and adapt their structures to reflect their local communities."
Ms. Canacari-Rose started Florida Junior Roller Girls in 2011 with her husband Shawn Rose and friend Aaron Childs.
"I had actually started playing for the Central Florida Derby Demons, and during practices kids would come along ... some would kind of practice along with us," Ms. Canacari-Rose said. "They asked to start their own junior derby team."
In the months after Brianna's death, Ms. Canacari-Rose played to save her own life. The tragedy and other occurrences led her to realize roller derby had the potential to save the lives of others.
"I focused everything into derby," Ms. Canacari-Rose said. "Then the kids wanted it and I was like that's what Brianna would have wanted. I had some medical issues and had to stop playing so I focused everything into juniors."
Her own children, Gaia, 16, and Gwydion, 17, have been involved as well.
"Brianna was energetic and somewhat aggressive,' Ms. Canacari-Rose said. "The aggression ramped up as she got into her pre-teens. She wanted to play soccer and derby, but her mother didn't want her to play sports."
Instead, she said, her tomboyish niece started having trouble in school, "hanging out a lot with friends, and smoking pot every once in a while."
"She would dye her hair all of these different colors, chop it in weird ways. She was acting out, running to friends, running away," Ms. Canacari-Rose said. "People like to say it's the bad seed, but it's not the bad seed. Kids have different ways of dealing with things, and they need different outlets."
Florida Junior Roller Girls started off with five girl skaters, including Gaia. Gwydion was referee. Ms. Canacari-Rose handled background management and Mr. Childs ran the practices at Skate City Daytona Beach in South Daytona.
Mr. Childs and the derby girls started arriving early for practice to participate in the open skate at the rink. Their skills attracted other kids and the team began to grow.
"Now there are 17 on the roster and we've gotten four new ones in the past two weeks," Ms. Canacari-Rose said.
Two more will return after the removal of their braces.
"They can't actually skate with mouth guards when they have braces," she said.
She expects the team to be 25 skaters strong by fall. The team is comprised of players from all over Volusia County, including Port Orange, New Smyrna Beach, Daytona Beach, Deltona, Orange City and DeLand, in addition to players from Brevard County.
Julie Reilly of Port Orange said she was at a birthday skating party, with her then-seven-year-old daughter Lily, when the team came into the rink.
"She saw the girls come in in their uniforms and gear for practice and she was mesmerized," Mrs. Reilly said.
Lily, then a gymnastics student, wanted to know who these girls were and what they were doing.
"Her being so little and these kids being so big ... in my heart I thought my little baby, she's going to get out there and fall and come crying back to me and that's going to be it," Mrs. Reilly said. "But the women coaching and the kids were so warm and welcoming the way they just took her in ... we were both hooked."
Mrs. Reilly said Lily, now eight, fell down a lot in the beginning but she didn't run back to her mom.
"She jumped right back up and got right back in line with them. She was smiling ear to ear and her look of excitement was awesome," Mrs. Reilly said.
Gymnastics became part of Lily's past.
Two other factors this mom considers awesome are the once weekly practice and the reasonable $25 monthly cost.
The team's "bouts" take them from Jacksonville to Tampa and Orlando.
Though FJRG age range is from seven to 17, Ms. Canacari-Rose said the largest portion of players range from 12-15.
She said the sport definitely makes a difference in young participants' outlook and demeanor.
"It's the team sport for people who don't like team sports," she said. "That's what my niece liked about it."
Roller derby offers a sense of belonging, but allows players to be individuals. And though Ms. Canacari-Rose considers herself approachable, she said there are some things young people don't want to discuss with any adult. But they will talk to their teammates who become a good support system.
Her reward is watching them evolve.
"They're smiling more. When they walk around they're not looking at the ground," she said. "They're keeping their heads up, eyes forward, shoulders back. They're learning to be more comfortable with themselves as to who they are."
As the FJRG team grows Ms. Canacari-Rose's vision expands along with it. She said she'd like to be able to extend the effort to include separate teams, maybe even one in the Orlando area.
Most importantly, she wants to extend many hands to those in need.
"Kids benefit from having this safe place, these friends they might not have had in school because school sports are definitely different than this," Ms. Canacari-Rose said.
Meanwhile, she heals as well.
"It's helping me come to terms with it," she said. "I'm helping in ways I wasn't able to."