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

AS MUSIC BLASTS and the announcers pump up the crowd, the teams roll out to the floor. There're the Dagger Dolls, the fan favorite, in pink. The most girly of the group, and apparently the most endowed—"The Dolls always have the big boobs," someone warned me—they skate out like rock stars, dancing to the music. It's a stark contrast to the Rockits: Wearing red, they skate out in a single-file line like professional athletes. Then there are the Garda Belts, the wild girls in green who drink as hard as they play. And, finally, the league's resident badasses: the Atomic Bombshells.

The crowd goes wild when players are called to the floor by their derby names: Kim Jong Kill, Misfit Maiden, Demora Liza, and Coochie Coup. During breaks from the game, players let their derby personalities take over to rouse the crowd. Dagger Doll Cynthia French, who skates under the alias "Dottie Hazzard," remembers the time she jumped Citizen Pain during an impromptu 2006 preshow. "Then all the Dolls and Garda Belts came off the bench and it started a big fight," she says, giggling.

Though there are some similarities, a lot has changed from the days of televised derby where women wearing roller skates got in fake fights similar to those in professional wrestling. Today, with 60 leagues across the country organized by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, and a new Drew Barrymore film called Whip It coming out, derby is a fast-growing sport.

Hell on wheels: Back (left to right): Scootaloo as Lindsey Lyford and rookie Lisa Sarne. 
Front (left to right): Rookies Janis Kelley, Carolin Alfonso, and Alex Lacey.
Kris Drake
Hell on wheels: Back (left to right): Scootaloo as Lindsey Lyford and rookie Lisa Sarne. Front (left to right): Rookies Janis Kelley, Carolin Alfonso, and Alex Lacey.
A rookie who calls herself "Ice Pack" shows off a bruise she earned in boot camp
Kris Drake
A rookie who calls herself "Ice Pack" shows off a bruise she earned in boot camp

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But with the growing popularity comes more regulation, much to the dismay of local derby pioneers. Just ask Scootaloo, a Dagger Doll who says she's one drink away from getting kicked out of First Avenue for good. "Derby has changed dramatically in the last two years," she says, twirling a rainbow strand of her hair. "It went from being rock 'n' roll style and attitude to more serious."

A self-proclaimed troublemaker, Lindsey Lyford, 23, almost wasn't allowed to play in the championship bout after she allegedly grabbed another player by the neck. "I don't even remember what happened, to tell you the truth," she says. "You just go to take someone down and shit happens. I mean, it's roller derby, that's the thing about it. It's roller derby."

In this year's MNRG recruit class, there are far fewer women with tattoos than there are with hockey, rugby, or lacrosse experience. Nowadays MNRG is attracting more athletes, some of whom prefer to leave their fishnets at home. Kim Gallant, 34, a Rockit who also skates on the national Team Awesome, is happy that derby is moving away from the show and more toward the sport. Soon, skaters on Team Awesome, who have already ditched their traditional derby outfits for more athletic gear, will be skating under their real names. "This is a sport and the rest of that stuff is just silly," says Jawbreaker, the five-season veteran, referring to the game's over-the-top visual elements. "You would never expect that of a hockey player."

AFTER TRYOUTS, the recruits attend boot camp for two months. The newbies are forced to skate next to the best skaters in the league. For novice skaters, most of whom are fans turned players, the experience can be humiliating. As they stumble and trip like tortoises on ice, the All Stars fly by, showing the girls what years of practice can do. "I came home after one of the first nights and told my friends that it was really daunting in a sense because I was on the same floor as Jawbreaker and Suzie Smashbox. There's a reverence I have for their ability," says Kelley.

Boot camp is a grueling combination of cardio and strength training. Hours are spent sprinting and weaving through cones, trying to improve one's endurance, agility, and speed as team captains watch for potential draft picks. For two hours at a time, the women push their bodies to their physical and emotional limits. When they do something wrong, the coaches scream like it's pledge week at the fraternity house. "You need to fucking go out and jam now!" screamed Scootaloo from the sidelines.

"You are mean to them and they are like, 'Yeah, okay.' They are so willing to learn," she explained of her methodology. "It's meant to be constructive, and with these girls you can just boss them around and they don't give a shit."

Many recruits say the yelling makes them work harder—and one woman said it made her cry—but for a league that's trying to move up from the 18th spot in the national rankings, a stringent training philosophy is required. "It's the Bobby Knight thing, where you just scream and yell and you essentially bond your players through that sheer force of will," says Spike, also known as Walter Kwaan, a 39-year-old retired IT specialist who now works part-time at the Apple store and serves as the league's head referee. "There are lots of ways to bond a team and the way the military does it seems to work for us."

Once the women master skating in a clump, it's on to how to hit, block, and fall, and they learn it the hard way: from the veterans. They play games such as Queen of the Rink, where all the skaters move around in a circle trying to knock each other out. After one girl did a complete face plant, one boot camp coach yelled, "Don't kill anybody!"

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