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Roller derby: The weirdest, scrappiest, up-and-comingest sport on eight wheels

After receding into the sports world's background for a few years, roller derby is rising in popularity again.

After receding into the sports world's background for a few years, roller derby is rising in popularity again. Youtube

A woman with red hair and a bright kelly green tank top opened the door to an old brick building in northeast Minneapolis. The pearly light from outside bounced off the concrete floors inside. These were the floors where North Star Roller Derby hopefuls would undergo an exercise called 10 Minutes in Hell.

Which is skating.

And then push ups.

And then skating.

And then squats.

And then skating.

And so on.

The woman started strapping on her gear: skates, pads, helmet, mouthguard. Her legal name is Allison Schaumburg, but when she’s on the track with her team, the Killmore Girls, she goes by “Red Hot Toddy.”

Roller derby is an up-and-coming sport — again. After its initial heydey in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s growing fast and finally getting a second wind. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association has even been working with ESPN2 to televise derby bouts – last November, for the first time, the flat track association’s first-place game appeared on network television -- which has spurred some of the athletes to scrap their signature derby nicknames and go by their legal names instead. (Monikers like “Mary Fagdoline” aren’t widely accepted as appropriate for television.)

Here’s how roller derby works. Each team has five players on the track at once: four blockers, and one jammer. The jammer’s job is to complete laps around the track and in so doing, score points. The blockers’ job is to stop the opposing team’s jammer. It’s a bit like football, but in a circle. Also there are two footballs, and the footballs are people, and there’s roller skates, and the players have names like Salty Maude and Weird Val Shankabitch.

If you’re familiar with how roller derby worked in the ’80s and ’90s, or if you saw that 2009 movie with Ellen Page in it, disillusion yourself. Roller derby is no longer wrestling on skates. There’s no throwing elbows. There are no dirty tricks. The track is flat, not the hollow death-donut shape you might be familiar with.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t rough.

“I did boot camp last year and broke myself,” a clinic participant who prefers to go only by “Wonder Thighs” says. By “broke herself,” she means she busted her ankle last May trying to do a hockey stop and had to spend the season as an off-skate referee.

Kate Tremaine, aka “Kitty Skittles,” has been working her way to trying out for a couple of years now because in 2015, her leg was reduced to, as she describes it, “a 26-bone chicken McNugget.”

Toddy has never gotten a concussion on the track, but she’s had whiplash, and a few of her friends in the league have had to recover from serious brain injuries.

She just finished her third season with North Star Roller Derby, but she remembers when she was where these roller derby hopefuls are now: a recruitment clinic.

These clinics are mostly grueling exercises and drills, a sort of three-in-one workout, lesson, and advertisement for what being on the team would be like. If the participants choose to continue, they can try out, make it to two rounds of punishing boot camps, and, if it’s in the cards for them, get drafted.

Toddy came to roller derby from a hockey background, which helped her less than you might think (concrete hurts way more than ice when you fall on it.) But some people come to roller derby clinics hardly knowing how to skate, and still eventually make the team. Getting a spot depends much more on guts than it does experience.

Ka Lee of Minneapolis, who was lacing up her skates as some of the other arrivals were circling in slow warm-up laps, started skating a little over three months ago.

“In school, I was never really athletic,” she says. Her parents were always too busy for sports anyway, so it wasn’t exactly an option even if she had been. But now that she makes her own money, she’s starting from scratch with roller derby.

“I decided I wanted to do this for me,” she says.

Once she takes to the track, she keeps her eyes on her skates and makes little, controlled movements with her feet. Nothing fast yet. But last week, she learned how to stop, so she’s improving.

“I’m still here,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m crazy or stubborn, but I figured I’d just stick it out.”

Despite or because of derby’s reputation for being high contact and high risk, about 53 people were on the list that night to participate in the recruitment clinic. Toddy’s used to the comments and even the trepidations associated with derby’s rough-and-tumble reputation.

“There’s still a bit of weird business with women playing sports, and women playing contact sports,” Toddy says.

She says the cool thing about roller derby is that it’s one of the few sports where the men’s league is the less popular offshoot. North Star Roller Derby accepts all players who present as female, as well as players who present as simply other than male. (Previously known as North Star Roller Girls, the team dropped that last noun in summer 2017.) The roller derby roster, as well as its fanbase, has a huge LGBTQ community representation.

“We tend to attract that group because we’re so accepting,” Toddy says.

And once you’re in, you’re in. On top of practices and bouts, you’ll spend an hour and a half volunteering with your teammates every week. You’ll hang out together. You’ll play roller dodgeball or crab soccer to work out the nerves before matches. You’ll get a team nickname on top of your derby name. It’s one of the fastest ways to get a big weird family, complete with rivalries and roughhousing.

The clinic participants knew that about derby, too.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s a really good community,” Lee says. “There’s no judgment.”

A half-hour into practice, after 10 Minutes in Hell, Lee is exhausted. The push-ups were the hardest part, she says. Her legs are shaky. But she’s good, she says.

“You fall, but you keep getting back up,” she says. “And they’ll support you.”