roller derby
Image: Jules Doyle

SOME CHILDREN have mothers who fuss and fret over every scraped knee or bruised elbow. Not me. Instead, my mother treated my childhood injuries with the phrase, “If it’s not broken and you’re not bleeding to death, you’re fine.” As a result, I’ve always prided myself on being tough. I’ve torn tendons while rock climbing, broken toes while playing volleyball, and shredded my medial collateral ligament while surfing, all without tears. But that doesn’t mean I don’t set limits for myself: I would never careen off a cliff on skis, for instance. And I generally avoid full-contact sports.

For one thing, I’m vain. I bruise easily, too. While dull aches and tenderness may not bother me, I don’t like being defaced with ugly purple-and-blue marks resulting from errant elbows either. Oh, and I hate other people’s sweat. In fact, the mere thought of someone slapping their cold, clammy arm against my skin makes my stomach churn.

That embarrassing phobia of being whacked—or at least sweated on—has always left me feeling like a weenie. So when a friend told me that Portland’s Roller Derby league, a group of eight teams called the Rose City Rollers, would be holding tryouts for its upcoming season, I saw a chance to prove I’m as tough as I tout myself to be and signed up— albeit with great trepidation. I attended a derby bout at the Portland Expo Center in May and saw how brutal it could be: ten women whipping around the rink, hip-checking one another to the ground like a mob of demented carhops.

The melee did involve some rules, however. A team is made up of five skaters, one of whom is called a jammer. This brave soul’s task is to earn points by ripping around the track and lapping members of the opposing team—called blockers—who try their damnedest to ensure the jammer doesn’t go anywhere, besides maybe the floor. (There’s a reason they wear helmets.)

Roller Derby wasn’t always quite so ferocious. When Leo A. Setzler headed up the country’s first Roller Derby league in 1935, the sport mirrored the era’s popular dance-a-thons by featuring couples racing around a rink for hours on end. Eventually, to spice things up, female skaters were encouraged to begin jostling, pushing, and shoving one another. These rolling catfights (along with skimpy costumes) helped popularize the sport through the 1970s.

But like many cult fads, America’s fixation with watching dolled-up women clobber each other waned. For much of the 1980s and ’90s, the sport all but disappeared, until a derby revival began with the formation of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) in 2004. Today the New Mexico-based organization presides over 56 leagues, from Portland’s Rose City Rollers to Denver’s Rocky Mountain Rollergirls to Baltimore’s Charm City Roller Girls. In 2006, the A&E television network even capitalized on the sport’s retro appeal by launching a reality show spotlighting Austin, Texas’s Texacutioners.

The show could just as easily have been based on Portland’s Rose City Rollers. Each match (of which there are usually eight in a year) packs in about 2,000 screaming fans. Rightly so. According to the WFTDA, the Rose City Rollers all-star team is ranked 10th in the country—a fact I was blissfully unaware of heading into the tryout.

Ten women whipped around the rink like demented carhops.

Upon arriving at the Oaks Amusement Park skating rink—where league members practice three times a week—I’m asked to sign a waiver. Not one but two emergency contacts? A health insurance policy number? My hand’s shaking so badly I can barely scribble my name.

“Don’t worry,” says Kim Stegeman, the executive director of the Rose City Rollers, as I strap on a helmet, knee pads, and elbow and wrist guards.

“You’ll be fine.” That’s easy for her to say. Nicknamed Rocket Mean, Stegeman is an all-star blocker with the league’s Guns ’N’ Rollers team. And like most of the women here, she is muscular, tattooed, and clad in black. By contrast, the pink sports bra and pigtails I’m sporting make me feel as if I’m auditioning for a starring role in Legally Blonde 3: Elle Goes to Sturgis.

“Gather round,” Stegeman yells to the 30 or so women gunning for a spot on the roster. “It’s time for introductions.” My stomach drops again. Some of these gals are former collegiate hockey and rugby players; others have been training with coach Judge Mental once a week. I haven’t been on skates since an awkward four-minute couples-skate at Skate World in the sixth grade.

I calm down when Stegeman announces that there will be no body-slamming tonight. We’ll merely test our skating skills. That said, it won’t be a cakewalk, either. Stegeman explains that most women attend three tryouts before being inducted into the league.

Two laps into our initial exam—a 30-lap marathon around the rink—I can understand why. My heart is galloping and my quads are aching. But I’m not quite as rusty on my skates as I had feared, and speeding around the rink is exhilarating. I don’t know about fending off elbows and hip-checks, but for now, I’m having fun.

As we begin the relay-race segment of the tryout, which involves everything from jumping in our skates to performing a knee slide (dropping to one knee, then standing up and motoring on) and a four-point slide (like a softball slide—on your butt with one leg tucked under your cheeks, hands in the air), I realize the sport’s other big draw: camaraderie. Even though we’re competing head-to-head, my would-be teammates continue to cheer me on even when I inevitably eat rink at the end of my sprint. Gestures that make me, pink sports bra and all, feel as if I’m among friends.

“We’re all about empowering women,” says Stegeman. “Sure, there are rivalries in bouts, but at the end of the day we’re trying to achieve common goals and perpetuate the Rose City Rollers.”

I didn’t make the team that night. But I did walk away unscathed (except for a bruised ego, of course) and content, knowing that while I may never fully embrace contact sports, if I had to swap sweat with any group of women, I’d definitely choose this one.