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.