Roller derby: tough sport on a roll
A look at the women who try out and play for the Seattle-based Rat City Rollergirls, a league entering its ninth season.
Seattle Times staff columnist
No, really, it's fine. I'll stay over here.
Far from the wheels, the polished track, the padded elbows and the women who look like they will do whatever it takes to become a Rat City Rollergirl.
The celebrated, circling sirens of Seattle have been holding practices in advance of their March 31 tryouts, expected to be the toughest ever as the local league heads into its ninth season.
The reasons are numerous and varied: More families are coming out to Rat City bouts to see what "girl power" really is, and drawing new hopefuls (read: mothers) in the process.
The league — seventh on the Derby News Network's Power Rankings — is running like a well-oiled machine, with marketing, merchandise, ticket packages and meal deals, but also with a happy home at Seattle's KeyArena. (The league plays Saturday night).
All help create a solid fan base, with women who see past the kitsch and costumes and want a shot on the track.
"People are taking us more seriously," said Jessica Ivey, Rat City's marketing officer. "It's not a flash in the pan. We're getting more recognition as a sport."
Said Sara Problem (get it?) a longtime Rollergirl: "People come for the fishnets and stay for the derby."
I visited the team's "Rat's Nest," a warehouse off Shilshole Avenue Northwest in Ballard, and watched women prepare for practice with the solemnity of doctors prepping for surgery. Velcro ripped and wrapped, pads slid up arms and legs, mouths were guarded, helmets were secured. I wasn't in the way, but kept my distance just the same. It gets a little intense.
After all, this is a full-contact sport in which 10 players (five from each team) skate around a flat track, conducting a series of two-minute "jams" that put one team's designated "jammer" against the other. Jammers win points by lapping members of the opposing team, who are trying to knock each other off their skates.
Angie Thibault, 33, of Burien, was on her second tryout. The first time, she did it for the experience, "to see where I am, level-wise."
"I was a fan," she said. "It was a matter of just being talked into it, and after a while, I thought, 'OK, I should do this now.' "
Thibault likes the speed of roller derby, and that you're playing offense and defense at the same time.
"That, strategically, is amazing," she said.
But Thibault, who is a stagehand, also is attracted by the prestige that would come with being a Rat City Rollergirl.
"I want to play for them," she said.
Syne Mitchell, 42, a writer, wants to skate with women she admires, and who can teach her things.
Was she nervous?
"Hell, yeah," she said. "It's hard. Let's get real: To do roller derby, you have to do things that are terrifying."
The first time someone described a transition, she said, "I thought, 'No way' and the first time I tried it, I thought I was going to die."
But roller derby also fills an important need for women — especially now, when their rights and bodies are part of a political tug of war.
"This gives women a place to act out parts of their personalities that aren't really embraced by society," Mitchell said. "Where women can be strong and fast and aggressive."
Said Ivey: "Beauty, brains and brawn. It isn't accepted for women to have all of those things. But that combination can be explored in roller derby.
"You hash things out on the track and it makes you more mellow."
The league holds tryouts every quarter; an average of 20 women show up. The league usually drafts six to eight players from that group. (www.ratcityrollergirls.com)
But before they are split among the league's four teams — The Derby Liberation Front, Grave Danger, Sockit Wenches and Throttle Rockets — they are placed in the Rat Lab, made up of up-and-coming skaters who are further trained and then eased into competition.
Right now, the league is looking for a "tall, big blocker" and a good utility player, Ivey said.
I sat beside her to watch as hopefuls were taken through a series of drills.
The one with legs like tree trunks, doing burpees in her skates like a prima ballerina?
"She's a kindergarten teacher. See that girl? The teeny tiny one?"
The one blocking people like an NFL left tackle?
"Three kids. See that girl?"
The one moving like Wile E. Coyote with an Acme jet pack?
"She's doing cancer research."
In other words, the women who want to be Rat City Rollergirls are your friends, neighbors, co-workers, the mothers of your kids' friends. Could be you, too, if you know how to skate in fishnets.
"You have those recollections of when you were 12 years old and at the roller rink, and there's that endearment," said Ivey. "And then you make it badass."
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
No way. No how.
About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
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