Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 6:00 PM
If you see a woman sporting bruises, don't immediately think the worst. She could be a member of a local roller derby team. The sport that was once popular on 1970s television is experiencing a grassroots rebirth of sorts. Ideastream's Kymberli Hagelberg caught a practice with Akron's Rubber City Rollergirls as they prepare for their first-ever bout.
After a full work day in the cardiac care unit at Canton Aultman Hospital, Tracy Phillips cannot wait to lace up her skates, pull on her skull-decorated black and white helmet and hit the rink.
SKULLY: "I like just getting out and just smashing somebody down (laughs) When I've had a really bad day, it just feels good."
Phillips is a starter for the Rubber City Roller Girls. She's joined by teammates who by day are accountants, teachers, stay-at-home moms and bank tellers. But by night they transform into roller girls, careening into each other, the roller rink wall and their heavily padded coaches during thrice-weekly practice sessions. They answer to rink names that better describe their rough-and-tumble alter egos. There's Lor-reign O'-Terror, Anya Badside...Amy Animal.
Skully is a veteran of an earlier Akron team. At practice, she zips around newer players, guiding them through a series of timed maneuvers.The Rollergirls will have their first bout later this month against another rookie team from New York.
SKULLY: "You don't want to go in and have a bout with somebody that's been doing this for three or four years. That's not going to be very interesting for the fans or ummm…mentally uplifting for the girls either."
Roller Derby began in the 1930s, when writer Damon Runyon suggested to sports promoter Leo Seltzer that his skating marathon might be more interesting if the skaters, well… crashed.
Modern teams are made up of five members who do crash -- a lot. The teams simultaneously play offense and defense in two-minute rounds. Skaters known as Pivots lead a pack of blockers around the rink who are followed by Jammers. Jammers make points for each opponent they lap.
Besides learning to slam into opponents, skaters also try to become sklled at ways to fall…safely. Of course it doesn't always work out that way. Just ask Amy "Animal" Mullins, a teensy human resource manager for K-Mart who is on the injured reserve while her broken wrist mends.
ANIMAL: "Let's see, we have one double-knee fall, very important. You gotta fall on both knees, try to stop yourself. That's what I didn't do…Remember in school the air raid warnings…You want to fall - and duck!"
There are about 250 roller derby leagues across the country. Most are do-it-yourself affairs. Instead of the banked rinks of the 70s, teams skate in roller rinks on flat, circular portable tracks that can be moved to arenas and high school gymnasiums.The teams are unpaid and the leagues often donate what profits they have to charity.
Like the Rubber City Rollergirls, many of the women who join derby teams consider themselves athletic, but outside the traditional jock culture. So says Amy "Alli-Catraz" Spears, president of the Columbus-based Ohio Rollergirls, the state's oldest league.
Catraz says the skaters have lots of fun with the theatrical aspects of the derby -- where else do fishnet hose and leather qualify as sports equipment -- but there's more to the sport than high camp.
CATRAZ: "People expect everybody to have tattoos and everything - and a great many of us do. But it's really a diverse crowd of people. I do think it's something very different for fans too. We're somewhere between amateur and professional, we're more accessible to fans… "
And some see themselves as role models. Anya Badside, otherwise known as Jen Gager, a teacher at Akron's Our Lady of the Elms High School, thinks the team can be a lesson for her students.
BADSIDE: "A Strong woman is beautiful. Teaching at an all girl's schools that's one of our big messages, that you can be smart, and you can be athletic, and pretty and feminine - if that's what you want.
Or, as the Rubber City Rollergirls like to say: "We're ladies, but we'll still knock you over."
Kymberli Hagelberg, 90.3.