Roller Derby Flourishes Among Austin Women Who Like to Get Physical
By Angela Buenrostro
For Reporting Texas
Lani Ogle slammed into the rail as she attempted to zoom around a pack of skaters twice her size. The impact tore a hole through her stocking, revealing a patch of raw skin. Ogle, whose black tank top was emblazoned with the words “Never Say Die” in green, ignored the burn and kept skating.
That’s what roller derby girls do.
Whistles, cheers and rattling cowbells rumbled through the Palmer Events Center in Austin one recent Saturday night as 2,300 people watched the Texas Roller Derby Lonestar Rollergirls championship.
As fans slapped their hands against the banked, blue track, the Cherry Bombs defeated the Rhinestone Cowgirls 51-47.
“I love a close game,” said Ogle, 28, a Cherry Bombs skater who competes under the name Scrappy. “I’m so glad that it turned out that way and that we came out on top in the end.”
The night was about more than a score. And roller derby is more than a game.
Roller derby allows women of various lifestyles to dust off their alter egos, stay in shape and release aggression. Derby girls consider themselves athletes, yet they entertain their diverse fan base with unscripted fights and collisions.
The championship was the first derby experience for Dell employees Patrick Artes and Adrien Flores. Their co-worker, Maya Mayhem of the Cherry Bombs, invited them to watch her play.
“[It’s a] sensory overload right now, and it hasn’t even started,” Artes said. “Hopefully, there’s blood and guts. There’s just not going to be — I don’t think.”
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Roller derby is played by two teams of five: three blockers, one pivot and one jammer, whose goal is to score points by lapping members of the opposing team. There are eight short matches known as “jams” per period and four periods per game, or “bout.”
Amanda Treviño, who as captain of the Cherry Bombs goes by Annie Smokely, said her team tries to keep hitting, run down the clock and prevent the other team from scoring.
“When that whistle blows, right off the line, you hit and you hit and you hit,” Treviño said. “If they’re trying to pair up, you get in the middle and mess them up.”
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A whistle began the first jam of the championship. Blockers and pivots elbowed their way around the track to set the pace. Jammers, identified by stars on their helmets, began on the second whistle. A Cherry Bomb jammer dashed around the pack, scoring the first couple of points.
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Roller derby is an American sport created by Leo Seltzer. It made its debut in Chicago in 1935. After flourishing for decades, roller derby fizzled in 1973, when Seltzer’s son sold the family business.
In 2001, musician Dan Policarpo moved to Austin with a vision of forming a circus-like roller derby league. He recruited April Ritzenthaler, Anya Jack, Heather Burdick and Nancy Haggerty as captains, now known as the “She-E-Os.”
Soon the captains and Policarpo parted ways. The captains formed Bad Girl Good Woman Productions, which morphed into TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls.
TXRD has five teams of 12 players and an alternate squad. There are more than 1,400 leagues worldwide. Texas has 47, including five in Austin.
Each team plays other teams once, and there’s a playoff between No. 2 and No. 3. That winner plays No. 1 in the Calvello Cup Championship, named in honor of Ann Calvello, a legendary roller derby skater of the golden age who played into her 70s.
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The Cherry Bombs trailed 28-21 at the half, and the teams traded the lead from there on out. Arm wrestling, pillow fights and two-lap duels settled penalties and entertained the audience.
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Aspiring TXRD skaters go through a two-month training period with cuts at 30 and 60 days.
New skaters sign a contract pledging to remain in good standing through a point system. Points are earned in many ways, such as attending practice, volunteering and attending league meetings.
For six months, they skate on the alternate squad, Hired Guns, and become acquainted with each team. Then there’s a draft to match players with teams.
Everyone goes by skater names — Dusty Doublewide, Nicki Ticki Timebomb, Sacralicious, Ninja Please and the like. It costs $700 to $1,000 to outfit a skater, depending on how far she wants to go with her look.
Aside from skates, helmets, gloves and protective pads, typical outfits consist of a top with the skater’s name on the back. Some skaters opt for short shorts or pleated skirts over tights. Each team has a color, and each skater has a unique look. Rhinestone Cowgirl Diablo wore grapefruit-sized pigtail buns protruding from her helmet the night of the championship.
Elizabeth Jimenez, 32, known as Lizard, from the Hired Guns, rooted for the underdog Cherry Bombs. Jimenez, who donned a turquoise-painted scalp and black, spiky hair for the championship, said roller derby makes her feel “powerful” and “alive.”
To be an active skater, each member must practice twice a week. The aggressive nature of the sport leads to the occasional broken teeth and bones.
“It’s the cheapest anger-management therapy you will ever find,” said Ogle, by day the administrative director at Texas Campaign for the Environment in Austin. “It’s incredibly cathartic. I feel like I am more well balanced mentally because I have this outlet where I can be aggressive.”
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At Palmer Events Center that Saturday night, the noise level increased as skaters dashed around the track for the last jam. Cherry Bomb jammer Rocky Casbah quickly swung her arms, allowing her to accelerate through the pack to secure the win.
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Despite the loss, Rhinestone Cowgirls captain Brandis Stockman, also known as Dee Toxin, was happy with her team’s play.
“It was a great game,” Stockman said. “I feel like we did everything we could. We left everything on the track.”
A TXRD game looks different from other banked-track leagues, which don’t allow fighting.
“We are hard hitting, fast, exciting,” Stockman said. “Nobody does it like we do.”
Ogle said she appreciates the diversity of the skaters.
“The backgrounds in day jobs or night jobs of all the different skaters are incredible,” Ogle said. “It cuts across so many industries, so many lifestyles, you get just an incredible mix of people, and people end up being friends who otherwise would never meet.”