For skaters, it's full speed ahead

Women risk bumps to join the ranks of roller derby

November 22, 2009|By Lorraine Mirabella | lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

One minute, Scarlett Black was out on the roller rink, outfitted in helmet and elbow pads, holding her own in a pack of Charm City Roller Girl hopefuls. They furiously circled the floor, crouching low, demonstrating crossovers and abrupt stops. Black's teenage daughter, Amanda, screamed, "Go, Mom, go."

But in an instant, the 41-year-old medical analyst tumbled to the ground. Forced from the roller girl tryouts, she sat with an ice pack on her knee and, somehow through it all, a smile on her face, her resolve intact.

"My goal is to do training and do a derby," said Black, a Pasadena mother of two. "I'm looking for something new. It's rough, but ... exhilarating. I look for adventure in life."

Black, who on a whim bought skates and protective gear only days ago, was among 30 women trying out Saturday morning for the city's all-women roller derby league. The four-year-old league, which has four teams, plays "bouts" at Du Burns Arena in Canton and often draws a sellout crowd of 2,000 at $10 a ticket.

The full-contact sport, played on a flat track as opposed to a banked one, is known as much for often-skimpy uniforms and tough-sounding nicknames as for its body slamming.

"We run into each other at full speed," said Laura Jansen, aka Reckless Ndangerment, Charm City's head coach and an emergency room nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. But, "there is a great sisterhood among the skaters."

Kilani Robinson, 26, a Remington resident who skates as Paige Fault, describes roller derby as a mix of sport and spectacle. On Saturday, she stood with teammates with nicknames such as Tyrannosaurus Lex, Gina Tonic, Pinky Tuscadare-ya and Mya Bloody Valentine, and between drills helped demonstrate what prospective skaters were being asked to do. They spread out on the rink at Putty Hill Skateland in Baltimore County, skating side to side, jumping and skating while linked to other players.

"You need to be fast, have endurance and [able] to take a hit," Robinson said. "You have to love it. How many sports are there that 40-year old women get to play, not only play but have 2,000 people come to watch? It's empowering, and girls like that it's a new sport."

Roller derby has been around since the 1930s, and a professional form of roller derby became popular in the 1950s and 1960s before fading away. But it's often a brand new thing for the women on or working toward joining the Roller Girls league, and some have only limited experience roller skating.

On Saturday, Jansen split the skaters into two groups for drills such as skating 23 laps in five minutes. Some skated confidently; others plowed along shakily and fell often.

On a slow-motion crossover drill, Jansen instructed the skaters to "get low, extend your leg and hold. We're looking for your ability to balance ... and for ankle strength."

"We used to teach girls to roller skate," she said. But now, "they have to look like they are ready to hit one another. You get hit really hard."

Like in all contact sports, there are rules. Here they include no punching, no tripping, no kicking, no elbow jabs. Usually, the bouts are played in 30-minute halves, with five players from each team on the rink at one time. Four are blockers, playing both offense and defense. One is a jammer, who can score by passing opposing players.

Before beginning to skate earlier this year and trying out for Roller Girls in August, Leanne Bergeron, 26, had only roller skated at birthday parties growing up. Now, going by the skate name PunknYoNuts, she's close to becoming a full-fledged player on the team, although she still has a rookie status referred to as "fresh meat."

Roller derby comes with "street cred" and "awesome outfits you get to wear," and never fails to spark a reaction from friends and acquaintances that learn she's on a team, Bergeron said.

They say, "'That's awesome,' and think I'm much cooler," she said.

Black was sold on the sport. Even as she limped away, she vowed she'd be back.

"I think she's a little crazy, but I'm glad she's following through," said Amanda, 17.

"Even if she falls 10 times," added her sister, Samantha, 13. "I'm proud of her."

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