I began training with the Santa Fe Disco Brawlers in July 2011, and I hadn’t skated since I was 12. “Death Ro,” a veteran skater, told me I looked like a newborn gazelle on skates with my long wobbly legs—hence my derby name, “Hella Gazella.” (You select a derby name once you pass your basic skills test—yes, there are tests—and are deemed safe enough to play.)
The Disco Brawlers are a part of the Duke City Roller Derby league, which is a member of Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). In order to play in a WFTDA league, you have to pass a basic skating skills test along with a multiple-choice exam; you don’t just show up with a pair of roller skates and start slamming into people.
I trained for seven months before taking my skills test. It has changed since then, but I had to skate 25 laps on a regulation-size track within five minutes, fall safely, take a couple of big hits from my teammates without falling, lean a skater out of bounds legally, etc.
WFTDA roller derby is a bit different than the ’70s or ’80s TV incarnation of the sport. It has changed radically, particularly within the last 10 years. The game is much more competitive, and there is no punching, elbowing or hair-pulling to level the playing field. Now you actually have to be good at it.
Because of the competitiveness of roller derby, I’m in the best shape of my life, but I still have a long way to go to keep up with a lot of the other skaters. I began roller derby thinking it would be a fun way to get exercise. Now I train at Rhino Fit (1550 Pacheco St., Ste. 3, 690-8047), a local kettle bell gym and team sponsor, in order to keep up with this increasingly rigorous game.
Why exercise to play roller derby? You skate, you get hit, you fall, you get back up, you jump to avoid another hit, you fall anyway, you get back up. Maybe other skaters don’t fall as much as I do, but it is both exhausting and exhilarating. You use a lot of energy.
I asked Death Ro about her experiences in roller derby. She has watched the game evolve drastically in the seven years she has played. Ro skates for the Disco Brawlers, Santa Fe’s home team, and the Muñecas Muertas, Duke City’s all-star team.
I think of her as the Pai Mei of DCRD. She studies martial arts, she’ll snatch your eye from its socket for funsies, and she is an insightful and talented athlete. Skating at about 5 feet tall and packed to the brim with aggression, she has been described by some as “a tiny packet of rage.” She wears the most ecstatic smile while throwing her body into another skater. Watching her play is like watching the breaking shot in a game of billiards: She’s the cue ball, and the scattering balls are the other skaters.
“When I started, it was less athletic,” Ro explains. “Teams agreed before the game who would fight who and how the fight would be started. There was a penalty wheel, and if you were sent to the penalty box, they would spin the wheel and put you in stocks or spank you. There was also jousting, wrestling and several other things we had to do. Nobody was really doing cross-training. It was more for fun, and most teams weren’t quite as competitive.”
At least fishnets and tattoos are still allowed, because fighting and penalty wheels certainly are not. At least in WFTDA leagues, most teams—including ours—train nearly year-round. Some leagues even have dieticians who come up with meal plans for their skaters. Personally, I’ve seen skaters whose lives and bodies have positively changed because of this sport.
This is the only sport I’ve ever wanted to train harder for. Now, in my second season, some of this work is starting to pay off. I’m landing those hits and jumps more often; I’m working more effectively with my teammates, and I skate longer and harder each time. But the reality of it is that I know I should train even more.
Roller derby also creeps your life in ways you wouldn’t expect. It takes a lot of effort to play, train and help your league throughout the season. The skaters and volunteers become your best friends, and it becomes difficult to imagine your life without roller skates and rink-rash. Yes, rink-rash.
Interested in pledging for the cult? Well, go ahead and drink the Kool-Aid, already. We’ll be waiting on the other side with your roller skates and gold hot pants.