June 29, 2007 / 10:11 AM / 11 years ago

Rollergirls hold back no punches in derby revival

CINCINNATI, June 29 (Reuters Life) - Cheryl Marable hadn’t put on roller skates since she was a kid, and she was rarely violent. But Marable wanted to get some exercise, and once she tried roller derby there was no looking back.

Competitors take part in a roller derby parctice in an undated file photo. The full-contact sport had its last heyday in the 1970s, when costumed players raced around a banked wooden track in a sort of professional wrestling-meets-speed skating dynamic. REUTERS/Andrea Hopkins

“Sometimes hitting a girl you love dearly is the best thing for you,” said Marable as she watched fellow members of the Cincinnati Rollergirls thrash their way around a practice track on a humid summer night, elbows flying.

The fledgling Rollergirls franchise is one of about 220 amateur roller derby leagues that have sprung up in recent years across the United States and trickled their way into Canada, Britain, Australia, Germany and Sweden.

The full-contact sport had its last heyday in the 1970s, when costumed players raced around a banked wooden track in a sort of professional wrestling-meets-speed skating dynamic.

The revival in 2004 of organized amateur leagues has brought the sport back to America, with a twist: while a punk-rock vibe persists, the track is now flat and players a suburban mix of working women and full-time moms looking for an alternative to another day at the gym.

“It’s different. It’s not running on a treadmill,” said Marable, 32, a call center manager who joined last year.

Learning to skate again was Marable’s first hurdle. Many bruises later, Marable has lost 20 pounds, improved her high blood pressure, and gained an obsession.

“Roller derby makes you feel like you can take on the world,” she said simply.


Not everyone in Cincinnati’s two-team league — the Full Metal Corsets and Dames of Destruction — are new to skates.

Mercedes Stafford, known to friends and enemies alike by her derby name “Sadistic Sadie,” has skated all her life. A diminutive blond who works for an airline, 31-year-old Stafford is known league-wide for her competitive streak.

“I’m the biggest trash-talker on the team,” said Stafford, who is also part owner of the Rollergirls with six others.

As the Dames and Corsets scrimmaged, curses and cries of anguish rang out and referees tried to keep the battle clean. An injured woman rolled from the track, calling for an ice pack, while children of the skater moms played nearby.

Coach Martin Holland, 30, came to the team when his girlfriend started playing. He praises the sport’s mix of showmanship and raw athleticism, and warned you cannot judge a player by appearance alone.

“We’ve got women from all walks of life, and the great skaters come in all shapes and sizes,” Holland said.

During a bout, blockers try to prevent the opposition’s quickest skater — the jammer — from passing them on the oval track. Body checks are legal. Women are routinely flung out of bounds or taken down in the middle of the pack of skaters.

While players wear helmets as well as knee, wrist and elbow pads, injuries are common.

Stafford tore her rotator cuff at the last game and needs surgery. Marable has pinched nerves in her toes. But even the injured players keep coming back.

Graphic designer Karen Boyhen, 38, hurt her knee recently but didn’t go to a “real doctor” in case he told her to stop skating. She got acupuncture and a massage instead.

While Boyhen doesn’t fit the stereotype of an aggressive derby girl out for blood — “I’m kind of an introvert,” she said shyly — she raves about the two-hour workouts she gets at practice three times a week.

And Boyhen admitted she’s attracted to the sport for more than the exercise.

“I like hitting people,” she confided. “In my family you were never allowed to show anger. I never hit anyone. Here, you’re encouraged to hit people. It’s exhilarating.”

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