Sunday, July 13, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Roller Derby Star Was Fierce Competitor


HAYWARD, Calif. - Three decades ago, young girls watched raptly as the "Blonde Bomber" of Roller Derby whizzed around the track, knocking down competitors with a bump of the hips and flashing her trademark smile.

Joan Weston-Scopas was one of the fiercest competitors in the sport, a staple of the days before in-line skates and color TV.

But she finally met an opponent she could not beat - not an L.A. Brave or a N.Y. Chief, but a rare, incurable brain virus called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Similar to mad cow disease, CJD invades the brain, killing its victims months after the first symptoms surface.

One day last fall, Weston-Scopas couldn't remember how to write a check. Seven months later, on May 10, she died. She was 62.

"She meant business"

Joanie Weston's legacy is everywhere at her house in Hayward, east of the San Francisco Bay. The powder-blue hot rod she and her husband, Nick Scopas, used to take for a spin is parked in the driveway. Figurines of unicorns and cocker spaniels line shelves.

A portrait, painted by a fan 24 years ago, leans against a dresser. Her hair is a glistening gold. She's flashing her famous smile, and the faintest of wrinkles line her sparkling eyes. She was 38 back then.

"Joanie was a healthy, vivacious, outgoing, smiling, loving person," her husband said.

In the heyday of the Roller Derby, Weston was No. 38, the "Blonde Amazon," 5 feet 10 and a powerful 160 pounds. She was tough

and talented, with a reputation as one of the most skilled woman athletes of her generation.

"She meant business," said Scopas, himself a former skater.

"She was the core of this game," said Sherry Erich, a fellow skater. "She's the reason why so many girls are skating today."

Outside the track, she was a softie. She loved dogs, children and Disneyland. "Babe," a film about a talking pig, was her favorite movie. She was always game for a round of bingo, and was a diehard "Star Wars" fan.

Scopas picked up a Christmas card, and - trembling - reread the message scrawled in his wife's shaky handwriting.

"She said `That's a very special card for me,' " he recalled, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief. "It's the last card I got from her.

"That was the hard part. She knew something was wrong."

In September, 21 years after she retired from the track, Weston-Scopas donned a helmet and jersey again for an exhibition game at Cow Palace.

But by November, the woman who was a whiz at business forgot how to balance the books. Names slipped past her. She forgot her way.

Doctors said it might be allergies. A psychiatrist called it depression. One day, she couldn't remember how to put her shirt on. Doctors began calling it accelerated Alzheimer's.

To the end, no one offered a solid diagnosis.

In March, Scopas saw a TV report about Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Rare, occurring in just one in a million people worldwide, CJD causes spongelike holes in the brain.

"The symptoms - disorientation, confusion - were like they were looking at (Joanie)," Scopas said.

No treatment

Scopas took his wife to Mexico, to doctors who promised no cures but vowed to take a look at his ailing wife. They had no treatment.

Finally, after a stay at the hospital, doctors told Scopas to take his wife home to die. By then, her tall frame was clenched by palsy. She was blind, and wrinkles covered her face.

She died surrounded by her husband, two stepchildren and four grandchildren.

"I was holding her in my arms and that was the end," Scopas said. "It was really a beautiful thing."

On May 14, hundreds of fans and friends filled the pews, lined the walls and packed the lobby of St. Joachim's Church in Hayward for her funeral mass.

Two days later, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco called to say the test results were back: Joan Weston-Scopas had died of CJD.

Scopas set up a fund in his wife's name for CJD research. He doesn't know how she got the disease, usually contracted through tainted surgical instruments, growth hormones or possibly from eating the beef of cows afflicted with a similar brain virus.

"It's there, it's dangerous and we'd better find some way to treat it," Scopas said. "Or someone else will go through what I went through, and it's just a horrendous thing to go through."

A natural athlete

Joanie Weston was just 12 years old when she saw Roller Derby on television. She went to the track in Los Angeles, asking if she could play.

"They just laughed at me and told me to go home and grow up," she recalled in 1981. "Well, I did - and when I was the required legal age of 17 or 18, I signed up."

After four days of training, she was picked up by the Brooklyn Red Devils in 1955.

By the time Roller Derby folded in 1973, Weston - then with the San Francisco Bay Bombers - had been honored as "Queen of the Roller Derby" four times.

She took up golf, softball and volleyball. She sold fabric paints with success and ran a bar with two other women in Hayward.

She and Scopas, who moved in with her in 1970 and married in 1986, started going to horse races.

They had big plans: Scopas wanted to take her Greece on his first trip to his parents' birthplace. And she was looking forward to playing softball at the Senior Olympics.

Scopas, sitting on their bed and cradling his wife's photograph, said it's her laugh he'd miss the most.

"Holy smokes, she'd get me with that laugh!" he said, wiping his eyes.

Scopas plans to take Weston's ashes to the place she loved best: Hawaii.

"She loved to surf. And she loved porpoises - she wanted to swim with the porpoises," Scopas said. "Now I just have to get the nerve up to go. That'll be a special day."

Note: Donations for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease research can be sent to the Joan Weston Fund, U.S. Bank, 987 B St., Hayward, CA 94541.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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