Skate or die: Life with the MN Roller Girls

The rough-and-tumble Roller Girls punch, smack, and kick their way to victory at the rink

The rest of us limped to the bench in defeat. "I just stood there and watched everyone else," says Lisa Sarne, a 24-year-old who didn't make the cut. "I knew if someone hugged me or something, I'd break down. It was kind of shattering."

Sarne, a former hockey and rugby player, had been practicing for months. The two weeks before tryouts she was so nervous she constantly felt like she was going to vomit. She had high hopes for making the team. "I've always been the goon in hockey, the person who is supposed to go rough everyone else up," she says. "I love it. I don't score a lot of points, but I knock a lot of people over."

As I, too, sat on the losers' bench, elated that I was never going have to go through that sort of self-inflicted suffering again, and at a loss as to why anyone would do this for fun, I noticed that the girl next to me was crying.

Leetha Phommachack takes a break from the action
Kris Drake
Leetha Phommachack takes a break from the action


"I thought I was going to make it this time," she said as she grabbed her bag and got up to leave. "I guess I'll see you guys at next year's tryouts."

THE OLDEST OF TWO female derby leagues in the Twin Cities, MNRG has a cult following of fans who try out year after year to make the league. Going into its fifth season, the league has evolved from a small group started by the local counterculture in 2005 to one of the larger roller derby organizations in the country. With nearly 120 male and female volunteers, skaters, and referees, the organization sold out the Roy Wilkins during last year's championship bout when more than 4,000 fans flooded the arena.

This year, a full-time mother, an editor, a chef, and a cytogeneticist were among the recruits. For months before the tryouts, they chatted on message boards about endurance and skating techniques and met weekly at local rinks to practice. Some even formed a "Don't Be a Pussy Club," which required members to practice 12 hours per week in preparation.

Today, as MNRG evolves and the players become more skilled, league tryouts are harder than ever. Many veteran skaters say they probably wouldn't make the team if they were auditioning for the first time. "It's not like it was before, where you could just show up and make the team," says Jawbreaker, one of the league's best players. "Now if you want to play, you have to be athletic. You have to go out and practice all summer with the rest of the girls."

With her perfectly manicured toes and nails, Lacey might have a weak spot in her heart for pink nail polish, but don't let that fool you. The nutrition student at the U of M is one exceptional athlete. She effortlessly biked the 10 miles from Minneapolis to St. Paul for tryouts. A former rower and rugby player, she says she was sick of outrunning some of her teammates and tired of looking "tough and being mean, which isn't really that fun."

Roller-girl style is part of what drew her the sport. "In derby, the girls looked like girls," Lacey explains. "You don't have to be super butch to play. Some people think it's objectifying for a woman to dress that way while doing a sport, but I think if you ever tried to objectify or talk down to a Roller Girl, she'll kick your ass."

For most of the girls attending tryouts, moving on to boot camp was as important as getting a promotion at work. Several drove for hours from outstate Minnesota and Wisconsin just to practice. For them, MNRG provided the rare combination of getting a good workout, making friends, and publically being a shit-talking tough girl.

"They are all out there working their butts off being very empowered women," remarks Janis Kelley, a St. Paul businesswoman who saw roller derby as her life's next challenge. Having just completed her first 5K, Kelley almost picked up the accordion, but decided otherwise. "I will play the accordion when I'm 70 years old and in a nursing home, because my body isn't going to hold out forever," she says.

With that in mind, at 38 years old, Kelley picked up some derby skates and rolled her way through tryouts. "It isn't just fluff," she adds. "Derby isn't just a theatric; it's an actual women's contact sport. I don't think that people realize the degree that it is grueling.... [T]here's an enormous amount of skill and athleticism that goes into it."

In roller derby, two teams send five players onto the track: three blockers, one pivot—a last line of defense—and one jammer, the woman who scores the points. The blockers crouch low and skate in a pack so tight that their wheels sometimes get tangled, as the pivots set the pace in front. Then the jammers—who start some 20 feet back—race to break through the clump and speed around the track.

For two minutes, players throw their bodies into each other trying to stop the other team's jammer and pave the way for their scorer. "There aren't many sports where you are playing offense and defense at the same time," says three-season veteran Cynthia French. "You have to keep looking behind you and you have to pay attention to where your teammates are and you have to work as a unit. You have to concentrate on the other jammer and at the same time help your guy. Getting all those things in and figuring out when to slow down, when to speed up—there's a lot to it."

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