Outlaws of the Sporting World: Roller Derby Girls

By Jocelyn Voo
Curve magazine

No one can deny that roller derby girls are tough. Broken bones and bruises the size of ham hocks are expected in the sport, and judging by the ferocity which with players jam, block and generally manhandle their opponents in the rink, these girls are out for blood. As Kasey Bomber, co-captain of Los Angeles’ Trust Fund Terrors, puts it, “You will get hit, you will get hurt. A girl has to accept that almost welcome it if she wants to succeed here. This isn’t a Yahtzee tournament.”

The sport wasn’t initially modeled on a Gary Busey-on-angel-dust philosophy. Sports historians date the first roller derby back to 1935, when athletic promoter Leo Seltzer orchestrated a roller skating endurance race among 25 co-ed teams. The first team to complete the leg-breaking 57,000 laps around the ring—a distance equivalent to the length of the United States—was declared the winner. Organizers wised up when they realized that the newly created sport’s real appeal was similar to that of modern-day NASCAR’s: The most exciting part wasn’t watching players circle the rink, but seeing two bodies collide in a fantastically satisfying mess. At that point, two years after its initial birth, roller derby transformed from an endurance competition into a full-fledged contact sport, and players have been throwing elbows ever since.

Interest in the sport petered out during the economic slump of the ‘70s, but in 2001 a roller derby revival swept the nation, with one distinct difference: the inauguration of all-girl teams.

“It was a natural move, based on how women in sports have changed in society in general,” says Tim Patten, co-founder of the American Roller Derby League and author of Roller Babes (under pen name D.M. Bordner). “The debate to eliminate the women or men has gone on for over four decades,” Patten continues. “I was always on the side to get rid of the men. I knew it was always the women who attracted the ticket sales, and when people left he arenas it was the women’s game that they generally remembered.”

And for good reason. Derby fans are an insatiable, almost rabid breed, and they know attending an all-girl match lends plenty of opportunity to witness gnarly bouts and exposed thighs. As Marco the Beast, a blocker for Minnesota’s Lone Assassins, tactfully put sit, dinner-and-a-movie, this ain’t. Translation: Jennifer Love Hewitt fans, stay home.

Still, though this sport primarily attracts those who prefer their beer cheap and their girlfriends a little crazy, derby crowds are multigenerational and come from varied backgrounds. “We have grandparents who are old enough to remember and miss roller derby from seeing it back in the day,” says Ginger Snap, a pivot on New York’s Manhattan Mayhem. “We have hipsters who love the retro-kitsch aspect. It’s an accessible sport with athletes you can relate to. Hell, you can get one in your lap if you’re sitting close enough.”

Oh, if only.

Rollergirls are an undeniable throwback to the hot “bad girl” fantasy: soft skin and hard knuckles on skates. Take Minnesota’s Dagger Dolls, for example, who wear short black skirts and pink pinafores, or L.A.’s Fight Crew, who employ a bitchy airline stewardess theme with button-up uniforms. Kasey Bomber describes her Trust Fund Terror’s teamwear as a snotty rich girl’s preppy-punk version of traditional tennis whites that “shows off bloodstains and track skids really well.” But as much as outsiders give rollergirls flak for wearing cheek-flashing skirts solely to boost ticket sales, keep in mind women’s figure skating, gymnastics or even tennis, all of which feature lithe bodies stretching and strutting in form-fitting lycra and micro-minis. Derby uniforms are every bit as functional as they are sexy. Ask any seasoned player: You’ll be glad you’re wearing stockings when you hit the floor at 15 miles and hour.

Like their fans, rollergirls come from all walks of life. “We tend to be interested in a lifestyle that’s different from mainstream society,” muses Hunter Down, a rookie for Dallas’s Assassination City Derby league. “We definitely are not the ‘weaker’ or ‘fairer’ sex. We have no qualms about being who we want to be.” Most leagues require players to be at least 21 so they can partake in post-win drinking celebrations, and the average age is 30. However, there’s no age ceiling; rollergirls in their 40s are still shoulder-checking with the best of them. “If you ain’t worried about getting your bones broke, we ain’t worried about breakin’ ‘em,” says Kid Vicious, a jammer assist on L.A.’s Tough Cookies.

And if you’re queer? Forget about it—literally. “Roller derby makes no judgment on sexuality,” Bomber says. “You can be heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, unisexual; it doesn’t matter. The question is, can you hit?”

‘Cause, really, you’re gonna get hit. As with any other contact sport, roller derby is ripe for injury. Despite wearing the necessary kneepads, elbow pads, wrist guard, mouth guard and helmet (and optional ass pads for tailbone protection), girls sustain torn PCLs, fractured ribs and even whiplash, only to bounce back as soon as their physical therapists give the green light. Matches can be ferocious. Girls spin on broken bones, bloody faces and fake teeth. “In one bout, we launched the jammer on the opposite team into the penalty chairs,” boasts Head Trauma, founder of the Minnesota RollerGirls league. But don’t confuse the pile-ups with WWE-inspired theatrics. Says Vicious, “Give me a list of the people who think that what we’re doing is scripted, and I’ll send them the hospital bills.”

The inherent violence in the sport, coupled with selective media exposure like A&E’s reality show Rollergirls, has perpetuated the stereotype of rollergirls being the outlaws of the sporting world. In the show’s TV promos, Punky Bruiser, a blocker for the Texas Holy Rollers, insists, “I don’t have a problem with authority. I just have a problem with people telling me what to do.” And to a degree, derby girls do exude a certain brash charm. But one of the most overlooked aspects of roller derby is that players operate with integrity and respect, both on and off the track. Yes, there are rivalries—ball-busting, skate-thrashing, serve-her-ass-up-on-a-platter battles—but for the most part, an implicit rule holds that what happens on the track stays on the track. Roller derby comprises such a passionately self-reliant community that players often develop bond thicker than their battle scars.

“Any city with a league has several dozen couches available to any traveling rollergirl whether they’ve ever met them or not,” Bomber points out. “It is such an outreach of goodwill. When you get there, they’ll ply you with liquor, show you the local hotspots, then put you on their rink and try to show you a thing or two.”

Rollergirls love the sport, plain and simple. There’s no money involved, so all players have day jobs to support their derby habits. These are teachers, attorneys, office jockeys and stay-at-home moms who are flying around the track and nursing Olympic-grade injuries. Moreover, rollergirls from player-owned and –operated leagues often occupy behind-the-scenes managerial, promotional, financial and recruiting roles when they’re not in the rink, selling logo merchandise and holding everything from bake sales to bingo nights to fund tournaments and increase team visibility. To them, roller derby is not a hobby; it’s a sport—and a business.

“It’s a grass-roots endeavor by the new generation of skaters,” declares Twisted Fister, a rookie for the Gotham Girls. “It’s a very empowering sport, particularly because the skaters are in control of the movement, and not he investors who just want to make money off of it and don’t care who they exploit.” Surly Temple, a Manhattan Mayhem blocker, agrees: “It’s for us and the fans, not the Marge Schots and George Steinbrenners.”

At the end of the day, rollergirls are competitors who thrive on the physical and mental challenges of a sport grounded in strategy. There’s more to the sport than full-body blocking and there’s more to their lives than derby, but the girls are passionate enough about it that they’ll play with sprained joints and train for hours on end to emerge as league champions. “And I don’t know about the other girls,” adds Kitty Kamakaze, a blocker on Seattle’s Derby Liberation Front,” but then I got home and take ibuprofen and make an appointment to see the chiropractor the next day.”

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