A Contact Sport on Wheels for Feisty Females

Posted October 8, 2010 at 5:23pm

What moves on eight wheels, can take a body slam and goes by names like Lady Burn Johnson and Condoleezza Slice?

Folks who know anything about roller derby can figure out that this describes a DC Rollergirl. But what they may not know is that there’s much more to these tough ladies than their nicknames and colorful outfits. The women who roller skate competitively on teams are actually dedicated athletes in a sport that demands intense physical training and strategic knowledge.

The DCRG league is made up of three teams ‘ the pink-clad Cherry Blossom Bombshells, the red and black DC DemonCats, and the black and blue Scare Force One. Added to that is the league’s traveling All-Star team and the Capital Offenders, a traveling exhibition team.

Except for the entertainment value of the skaters’ on-track alter egos, the league’s bouts aren’t too different from any other sporting event. Fans drink beer in the stands, stand for the national anthem and cheer for their favorite team. They’re even entertained by mascots, such as the Bombshells’ Da Bomb and the DemonCats’ BeelzeBubba.

But roller derby may be the only sport that requires a pre-competition demonstration so fans can learn the rules.

To play the game, each team puts five skaters on the track. Four of those players ‘ one pivot and three blockers ‘ form the pack. Pivots are responsible for strategically communicating with and leading their blockers. The fifth skater, the jammer, scores points by fighting her way through the pack and lapping it. She earns one point for each member of the opposing team she passes.

Samantha McGovern, known on the track as Green Eggs and Wham, said that while there aren’t always set positions for skaters, each position requires certain skills. A fast and agile skater would be a natural jammer, and a strong skater with excellent team awareness and communication would make an ideal pivot.

Though they play the same game, the rollergirls come from diverse backgrounds and career paths, from veterinarians to Capitol Hill staffers, and each has her own reason for joining the league.

Who Are the Rollergirls?

Lori Brown waited a long time before she joined a roller derby league. She knew she wanted to start skating when she saw her first bout five years ago, but had to wait until she graduated from college and moved closer to a league.

‘It was this alternative sport that emphasized how strong women can be,’ she said. ‘I think that’s what attracted me in the first place.’

Brown, who skates for Scare Force One as Wham Slam Bambi, works in a House Member’s office as a legislative correspondent. She sees roller derby as the perfect post-work activity.

‘It’s great because I can leave work and come and do this and it’s great stress relief,’ she said.

Christy Chason, aka BAT CAT of the DC DemonCats, looked to roller derby when she was seeking a new physical challenge. The former gymnast said other team sports she tried, like softball, just didn’t have the excitement she craved.

Minutes into watching her first DCRG contest, she turned to her boyfriend and said, ‘I am absolutely going to do this.’

The Library of Congress Veterans History Project liaison specialist signed up for training camp in fall 2009 and was drafted to the DemonCats in June. She realized she had found the challenge she was looking for during training camp.

‘After my very first practice I felt like I’d been hit by a bus,’ Chason said. ‘Playing derby is the most challenging thing I’ve done in my life, but also the most rewarding.’

Being Taken Seriously

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics who think roller derby is still the staged event it was in the 1970s and ’80s.

The fact that the sport still has a misbehaving, roughhousing connotation makes many skaters take comfort in the anonymity of costumes and assumed names, McGovern said. But as the sport grows, some Women’s Flat Track Derby leagues are trading in the costumes for more standard athletic uniforms and ditching the aliases in an effort to legitimize roller derby as a sport.

‘I think it has a little ways to go,’ McGovern said. ‘For every person we interact with, we’re closer to making it seem like less of a fad.’

And what about the outfits and names? Just how far a skater takes them is up to her. Some keep their uniforms basic, makeup minimal and names tame. For others, McGovern said, going all-out is a personal pre-bout ritual.

‘It’s fun,’ McGovern said. ‘I like the anonymity of it. We’ve had teachers in our league who can’t share their real name because they’re afraid of the connotation. It’s nice to get away from our real lives and have this.’

On the Rise

Though roller derby is still uncommon, it’s one of the fastest-growing sports around, in terms of both skaters and fans, and the DCRG league is no exception.

Interest in becoming a DC Rollergirl was so high this year that the league had to hold basic skill tryouts just to whittle down numbers for its 12-week ‘Fresh Meat’ training camp.

When the league was founded in 2006, anyone could sign up for ‘Meat’ camp to learn basic roller derby skills. But in July, only about half of the 43 skaters who went out for spots in camp made the cut. They were expected to learn techniques for skating, falling and stopping in advance.

Once they pass the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s skill and rule tests, Fresh Meat enter the Meat Locker until they are drafted by a team.

The league’s season opening bout on Oct. 2 drew more than 1,200 spectators to the D.C. Armory, which McGovern said is a record for a season debut. That number will probably rise as the season goes on. Brown said her first bout two years ago had only 300 spectators.

Part of the increase is brought on by skater dedication. Skaters pass out fliers at public events, sponsor happy hours and reach out with social media. All of the rollergirls put time into the league in some capacity beyond practice and games, sometimes up to 20 hours per week.

‘We love the fans,’ Brown said. ‘We always want to try to get more people to come.’

The next DC Rollergirls bout will feature the Cherry Blossom Bombshells against Scare Force One on Nov. 21 at the D.C. Armory.