It’s been over three
years since I’ve put on my hot pink roller skates in our nation’s
capital, but I’m finally coming out of derby retirement to skate with
the nationally ranked league in the United States, the Bay Area Derby Girls
My contacts in the underworld of roller derby are both dressed in casual business attire when I meet them at Samovar Tea Lounge during a sunny lunch-hour break. T.Wrecks is a soft-spoken petite professional, well versed in the world of online search engine optimization, and Jane Hammer is her sassy cohort. I feel at once honored to be invited into their midst and a little anxious that if I don’t do right by these ladies, I will end up in cement roller skates at the bottom of the Bay.
They school me on derby history and the city’s long-standing love affair with the sport. At the height of derby’s popularity in the ’60s, people lined up to see the longtime champion, the San Francisco Bay Bombers. Today, there are three local teams that make up B.A.D.: the San Francisco ShEvil Dead, the Richmond Wrecking Belles, and the Oakland Outlaws. Together, these hard-hitting ladies are struggling to reconcile derby’s reputation of kitsch spectacle with recognition for their athleticism.
A grueling practice schedule of 10–20 hours a week is taking local players to another level of competition in a nationwide arena. While practices might seem like a brutal second job to many, I find myself missing the intense workouts and easy friendships. My skates are calling my name.
For Thursday’s practice I’m given a nondescript
address in an industrial area of warehouses and wide deserted streets.
I’m purposefully not given the door’s code to enter, and instead have
clear instructions from Angel Wrecker to wait for a derby player to let
me in. I furtively follow a player through a large iron gate and step
inside a cavernous warehouse with exposed beams and a huge tiled
linoleum floor. I have arrived.
Inside, the immense warehouse feels like a secret clubhouse for a tribe of heavily padded glamazons, and is separated into team stations. I hover on the SF ShEvil Dead’s side where the ladies are already putting on gear and pre-hydrating for this evening’s practice. Conversation is a mix of locker room jokes, shoptalk about wheels, and trash slinging to teammates. It’s all in good fun, and everyone seems to be dishing out insults as graciously as they are taking them.
We start practice by skating in reverse around the track, and I am soon surrounded by the thundering reverberations of more than 50 women on quad roller skates careening around a confined loop. Ladies speed around the track, sometimes skating on one foot while they do ankle rolls with the other skate gracefully lifted in the air. Other players dexterously hop and weave through the crowded mass. The players are an assorted group of ages, ethnicities, and body types – it’s a refreshing diversity that reflects the city’s own cultural landscape.
The referee’s whistle blows, and I follow everyone else’s lead in forming two tight lines, with one pair of ladies at the end weaving through the group. No problem there, except we are also moving at a quick clip and have to keep in a formation tighter than the Blue Angels. By the time it’s my turn to navigate through the entire team, I’m out of breath and struggle to keep up with my partner’s quick dodging skills. I’m out of practice and my legs are starting to burn from keeping in a low stance and trying to make sense of this seemingly chaotic Thunderdome of a warm-up.
Skating in such a large group of women feels a bit like how I’d imagine running in a wolf pack: You are friendly with everyone but could easily knock someone to the ground. It’s a delicate balance of camaraderie and intimidation. Usually the dynamic works, but there’s always the threat of strong personalities clashing: I hear Tae Kwon Ho tell a girl, “So you got hit in the face. Get over it! It’s full contact.” I’m reminded of Jane Hammer detailing how one player broke her maxilla (a small bone in the cheek area of the face) during a bout. Although you can legally hit an opponent only between the knees and armpits, mistakes happen and injuries and insults are all part of the game.
We have finally finished the group warm-up, and I join the new players (aka “Rinky Dinks”) as we do plyometrics for nearly an hour. It’s like a Pilates class for pirates, and it becomes extra swear worthy since we are all still wearing heavy 15+ pound skates and pads. Meanwhile, our svelte leader Reppa Rations is not even breaking a sweat. She is known for leading challenging training sessions with such ease that one Dink admits she has a “girl crush on her.” The only break we get from the brutal barrage of sit-ups, military-style push-ups, and leg lifts is when a whistle is blown and one of the ladies scrimmaging gets injured. The entire warehouse falls silent and we kneel on one knee in solidarity until our fallen comrade skates off and motions that she is OK.
It’s finally our turn
to play, and I quickly join the crowd of ladies huddling around our
captain, Lusty Malice. We are going over strategy and tips: communicate,
stay close and tight, stagger your position in front of the opponent,
etc. All the Dinks are nodding, absorbing the advice and excitedly
moving skates back and forth on the tiles in anticipation. I’m finally
called to take my place in the upcoming two minute jam.
There’s a long pause and I can feel my teammate’s legs quivering with adrenaline as we all delicately balance in the start position with one skate on its toes and the other ready to push off. When the whistle finally blows, everything at first feels helter-skelter and I want to start hitting players with wild rock-star abandon, but I remember to conserve energy so I can help my jammer pass as many opponents as possible. When you’re in the midst of a pack, those two minutes fly by. I try to form a wall with two other team players to closeout the opposing jammer, but I accidentally throw an elbow block and the ever-vigilant ref calls a major foul. I race around the track to go sit steaming in the penalty box until the timer tells me I can get back in the game.
T.Rex sees me getting frustrated and reminds me of some of derby’s truisms: “one jam at a time” and “make it better each time.” It’s addicting to be on the track, the heady feeling of adrenaline mixes with a real threat of bodily injury and the satisfaction of working with a team of female athletes all intent on winning. Sometimes players don’t even know each other’s real names, but it doesn’t matter. When you are on the track you work cooperatively as a team with ladies you might never otherwise meet.
My legs are aching for the next few days but I drag my sore body to the official bout to see what a nationally ranked team looks like in full battle regalia. It’s an intimidating bunch of ladies, with thighs like ponies and matching short skirts that show off purple bruises and rink rash as proud derby scars. One pink-haired player has her entire right leg wrapped. I’m told she strained her hamstring but she’s still playing tonight.
The bouts are quick and high scoring: There is more of an emphasis on strategy and less on showboating or catfights. The San Francisco ShEvil Dead are playing the Richmond Wrecking Belles and it’s a close game from start to finish. I find myself screaming advice from the sidelines, knowing that the players can’t hear me, while swaying back and forth in my seat as the ladies duck, tumble, whip, and shove. The ShEvil Dead gain the lead in the last 10 minutes of play, pushing themselves to gain triumph over Richmond’s tough competition.
As the San Francisco team takes its victory laps, the sold-out crowd rushes the rink to proudly slap high fives for the victors. I’m hooked on derby again, and I want to be out there on the track to proudly represent my city in roller skates and knee pads.
Interested in becoming a roller derby girl? Get geared up at the locally owned Cruz Skate Shop, then attend practice with the Reckless Rollers (the recreational derby team) to gain some necessary skills before tryout. If you just want to drink like a skater, check out bar night at the Rough and Tumble the third Wednesday of every month at Minx, or come to the next bout!