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

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there's something you need to know about me: I'm a klutz.

I'm about as athletic as a wall. I stumbled into writing after being cut from the softball, volleyball, basketball, swimming, and cheerleading teams all in the same year. I have been known to trip over my own feet and occasionally walk into glass doors. The last time I roller skated was in junior high.

But I'm obsessed with the Minnesota Roller Girls. If I were a lesbian, I'd want to date one. They have fun, bold names like Dixxxie Wrect (say it out loud), a killer fashion sense, and they're scrappy—they don't mind getting down and dirty now and again.

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

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Normally, I think sports are a drag, but at that first Roller Girls bout, I couldn't take my eyes off the teams of sexpots whirling around the track and throwing themselves into a muddle of human flesh. They were vixens on roller skates out for blood, and they looked damn hot doing it.

The great thing about derby is that it is one of few women's sports that combine sanctioned, violent aggression with unabashed female sexuality. I wanted in. As one of my favorite sayings goes: Women can do everything men can, and they can do it in heels, or, in this case, fishnets and roller skates.

The idea of being on the team excited me so much that my complete lack of any physical coordination slipped my mind as I signed up for tryouts. I started dreaming up Roller Girl names and headed to the mall with an expense account to make my otherwise girly image as badass as possible. As one new recruit put it, "Roller Girls are like the cool girls in high school that everyone wants to be, except they have tattoos."

When the day came, I put on a purple tank top with skulls and lightening bolts, combed my hair in flirty pigtails, and rushed out the door. I was ready to kick some ass.

"GET YOUR GEAR ON and line up now," a short, stocky man named Spike screamed at the bench. Girls scrambled to stand, rolling frantically across the floor of the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, moving fast to strap on elbow- and kneepads. "Did you practice your crossovers?" a nervous 21-year-old named Alex Lacey asks her friend as she laces up expensive black derby skates.

It's Sunday, June 29, and tryouts for the Minnesota Roller Girls 2008-09 season have just begun. As I look at the ratty pink wheels I found online for $40 and wonder what a crossover is, I can't help but wonder: What have I gotten myself into?

I skate over to where the women are lining up, number 34 pinned to my back, my stomach doing back flips. These girls had been practicing for months. I had done one skate around my block in Uptown the night before.

"I said NOW," Spike roared, causing the girl next to me to trip.

Within seconds we were sprinting around the track. When some contenders got cocky and started singing, "We Are the Champions," a coach gave them an earful: "If you can sing, you're not working hard enough!"

We weaved through cones and slammed ourselves onto the ground, just to get up, sprint to the other side of the room, and do it all over again. We sprinted for hours. We grunted through sit-ups, pushups, flutter kicks, and mountain climbers; we did the Grapevine and yoga. We did all of this over and over again on fucking roller skates.

One skater fell and sprained her ankle. Another was tending to a bloody gash on her leg. And all I could do was pray the same would happen to me so I could rest. In agony I looked up at a coach, pleading with my eyes for the day to be over. "If you don't like this, you might as well quit now," she screamed. "This is what all our practices are like."

By the end of tryouts, one woman puked; another walked out of the arena, never to return, and someone else started to cry. I lay on the cold floor, relieved it was over. I was too tired to rehydrate; muscles I didn't even know I had were twitching uncontrollably. My wet face stuck to the floor, my new shirt was soaked in sweat, and my rock-star pigtails were flattened by perspiration.

"What have we gotten ourselves into?" a girl next to me panted as she dumped water over her head. "This is hell."

AFTER NEARLY FOUR HOURS of physical torture, we were told to stand in a line facing the wall, our backs to the coaches, like bandits awaiting a firing squad. Hardly anyone spoke as we waited nearly 20 minutes to find out if the last four hours of our lives were worth it. Twenty of the 43 women had earned the honor of going to boot camp, where they would train to become a Minnesota Roller Girl.

Carolin Alfonso, a 26-year-old recent graduate from Hamline University, was surprised when they called her forward. "I was just so tired. That was the most intense physical activity I have ever experienced. I played hockey in high school and I don't remember anything comparable to that. I couldn't believe it. I heard my number and I heard nothing else for three minutes afterwards."

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.

"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."

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.

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!"

The recruits this year didn't hold back. One rookie hurt her arm so badly she needed a sling. Another fell and fractured her vertebrae, putting her in a body brace for a minimum of three months. And no one will forget the day when, during a scrimmage, everyone fell into a hog pile and blood oozed out. "We've got a broken finger!" someone yelled. Spectators claimed they could see the bone.

Each evening the women go home sore. They get what's called fishnet burn—waffle-lined skin scrapes from sliding across the floor in tights. Injured players tape up their feet and limp around their offices. Many have bruises bigger than softballs hidden underneath work suits. They do all this and they don't even know if they will make a team. Out of the 20 hopefuls at boot camp, this year only 14 will be drafted. The rest will stay on as reserve players in case of absence or injury during the season.

"It doesn't matter, it's just so awesome," says Sarne, as she sits looking very professional in Sen. Jim Metzen's office, where she works as a legislative assistant. "It's just a lot of really strong, beautiful women being both of those things at the same time. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?"

After she was cut from tryouts, Sarne asked to train as a referee; she'd do anything to stay involved with the league. While other refs-in-training sat on the sidelines watching, Sarne voluntarily did every single boot camp exercise in the hope that the selection committee would notice.

But as recruits talked about the different teams they could be drafted to, Sarne couldn't help but feel left out. "I was really tired and practice was frustrating," she says. "All the other refs were sitting in the corner, but I was still doing all the drills, and I was starting to regret staying. I started to think, 'Maybe I didn't make the right choice.'"

On the last day of practice as the women nervously awaited instruction, the coaches made a surprise announcement. They had started the draft with 20, but now there would be 21: Sarne had earned a spot on the roster. "She worked so hard and so long. Basically, she was getting to the point where she actually improved more than some of the other girls did," says Spike. "I mean, she didn't make the cut on that one day during tryouts, but what she did during boot camp is exactly what we are looking for, that kind of drive."

As the girls hugged and congratulated Sarne, a boot camp coach interrupted. "Okay," he said. "Now let's go beat each other up."

IT'S SEPTEMBER 4, and while the rest of the world is listening to John McCain accept the Republican nomination for president, the Roller Girls are enduring their own form of political theater. Tonight is the draft party, and the new rookies will find out which teams, if any, drafted them.

Outside O'Gara's, Lacey can't stop grinning. She steps off her bike, in stiletto heels, and confesses: She knows she made a team.

Inside, the women have ditched their dirty practice gear for dresses and skirts. A goofy man in a green blazer and red pants is onstage handing out rookie awards and making jokes about the Rockits all being pregnant. From the other side of the room, one Rockit yells: "Yeah, that's because we're so hot people want to screw us."

One by one, each recruit, all a little slimmer than they were at tryouts, ascends to the stage. Lacey, the league's second draft pick, stands at the microphone and announces herself as "L'exi-cuter." For nearly a minute, the veterans stare at her as she stands awkwardly, waiting for a team to claim her. It's just one more form of Roller Girl hazing—even though Lacey has made a team, she's still a rookie. Finally, two Atomic Bombshells come onstage to welcome her. As they hug their new teammate and hand her a bag of goodies, the crowd erupts with laughter.

Later, Alfonso does her first Roller Girl duty as "Rita Rawkus" of the Garda Belts—she takes a shot of whiskey onstage. Then it's Kelley's turn to announce herself as "Skullateral Damage." Her new teammate Sarne goes next. Beaming with pride, she tells the crowd to call her "Diamond Rough," the newest member of the Bombshells.

As the alcohol flowed, it suddenly occurred to me why I really love the Roller Girls, and it certainly wasn't because of my dreadful experience training with the team. Ever since I left tryouts with a bruise the size of a grapefruit and called in sick to work the following day because I couldn't walk, I had been a little wary of them.

But as I watched them celebrate their new members and prepare for the October 18 season opener, it all made sense. These women are hardcore, and not just because they beat each other up on roller skates. From their ramshackle beginning in 2005 to the professional athletes they are today, people have always found the Roller Girls appealing for the same reason: They make no apologies for being themselves.

"If you think about it, all women have a little Roller Girl in them, but oftentimes they aren't allowed to show it," says Kelley. "That's all this is. Roller derby isn't about ink or being tough or whatever, it's about being empowered. Just look at veterans. There are girls with dreads and tattoos, and then there are ones who are in makeup looking absolutely nine-to-five. It just reinforces that this is about you doing what you want to do and being the person you want to be."

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