For skaters, by skaters | Community Spirit
In the shadows of the endurance races of the 1920s and the entertainment spectacles of the 1980s, roller derby has emerged from the darkness, exploding with energy and character, as one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
But instead of slowly creeping out of the shadows of the past derby scene, these derby ladies are full-fledged skating out into the spotlight, dressed as anything from superheroes to vampires, with passion in their hearts and a thirst for high-contact competition.
Mad Rollin’ Dolls, Madison’s flat track roller derby league, is in its 10th season.
Four Madison-based teams make up the league: the Unholy Rollers, the Quad Squad, the Reservoir Dolls and the Vaudeville Vixens. Beyond the four home teams, there is the inter-league traveling team, the Dairyland Dolls, made up of A and B-level teams. The league also hosts a recreational team, the Mad Wreckin' Dolls, and Team Unicorn, a non-chartered inter-league team.
The next Mad Rollin’ Dolls "bout” is this April 5 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center. It's a triple header, so doors open at 4 p.m. and play starts at 4:15 p.m.
Unholy Rollers skater Gaile "Splatter Alice" Schwickrath, 39, recalled her first time skating on the track.
"I felt like I was flying," she said. "It felt so invigorating in a way that I have never experienced before. After that, I never stopped coming."
In fact, most do not stop coming. Splatter said the vast majority of skaters who try derby once are hooked for life.
"There's a magic here," Splatter said. "And I think each individual can find a different way to define that magic. It's a spark and it ignites something different in everybody."
The Women's Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA, formed in 2004 and has grown exponentially. Madison's league was the fourth to join WFTDA, which now has 234 full leagues and 110 apprentice leagues (which are leagues waiting for official status), doubling since 2012.
WFTDA is a certified non-profit organization and was built from the ground up.
Quad Squad skater Emily "Hammer Abby" Mills, 32, said it is fascinating being a part of a sport that is so new and helping it take shape.
Everything in derby is do-it-yourself and volunteer-based, team members say. Mad Rollin' Dolls skaters administer their own league, with skaters conducting the league's business from sitting on committees to marketing and accounting roles.
Skaters pay out of pocket for all expenses, including equipment, uniforms, and travel. Skates alone can cost anywhere from $200-$1000 and need to be replaced every couple of years.
"You can't rely on big corporate sponsors to help you out with your weird, tattooed friends who want to wear crazy outfits and adopt stage names," Hammer said laughing. "You have to do it yourself. We have this tagline: 'For skaters, by skaters.'"
Perhaps that is why the sport is usually associated with an underground, punk and queer scene.
"People who don’t have a home anywhere else can have a home here," Hammer said.
However, this "alternative" label may be misapplied. Derby is accepting of all people and is extremely diverse. League skaters come from just about every background, from artists to scientists, doctors to musicians.
"We joke that we could take our 80 skaters and just go have a commune somewhere," Splatter said. "We've got enough people where we could grow our own food, we could manufacture things…we've even got doctors. We have our own little city within roller derby."
One sign of citizenship in that little city is the choice of a derby name.
Reservoir Dolls and Dairyland Dolls B-team coach Jenni "Pretty Reckless" Hart said these alternate "personas" are very empowering.
"There are people who do things in their personal or professional lives that maybe don’t allow them to express themselves in the way that they want to," Reckless said. "So when they come to roller derby and they can put on that other mask and be that other person, it’s a release."
Each name is recorded on a national registry so that no player has the same name.
"It's fun and empowering to be able to create a name and a persona for yourself that’s unique," Hammer said. "There are a gazillion Emilys in the world, but there are no other Hammer Abbys."
Derby is empowering beyond the individual names. A sport created by women is redefining what is means to participate in a "women's sport."
"There was a need and a desire for a women’s sport that was a contact sport and was a little different from mainstream athletics," Reckless said.
There is feminist attitude in roller derby as a whole that each individual woman can find strength within.
"I've realized how quick women are to apologize for being great," Splatter said. "Or to be too concerned about how we celebrate being smart, being beautiful, being strong without coming across as egotistical or narcissistic or all those negative things people might associate with confidence. Society encourages women to be the demur, quieter sex. You can be strong, but don’t get in other people’s faces about it. I love how derby helps women flip that. I’m strong, I can skate, I can hit this hard. I play this sport."
Yet even with the incredible growth in the last decade and the aggressive nature of the sport, many people still do not understand it.
Roller derby consists of two 30-mintue periods made up of 2-minute "Jams." There are five skaters for each team moving counterclockwise around the track at once, one jammer and four blockers.
Derby requires players to be on the defensive and offensive at the same time. Only the jammer can score points by passing her opponents while the blockers help her by stopping the other team's jammer from scoring.
"A lot of people don't know that there is no ball," Reckless said. "Another common misconception is that it's staged. People don't get that all hits are real."
WFTDA rules and regulations determine the penalties and the hits that players are allowed to make.
As it grows, more men's leagues are popping up across the country.
"Now there are more men playing because they see that it's an athletic endeavor more than an entertainment spectacle," Splatter said. "Although, derby is very entertaining."
The April 5 bout will pit the Rumblebees against the Blue Belles, the Unholy Rollers against the Vaudeville Vixens and the Reservoir Dolls against the Rushin' Rollettes of the Brewcity Bruisers.
Beware, skaters say, once you experience a bout, there is no going back.
"Even with all of the different personalities and different life philosophies, we all have this common thread, this common passion that transcends any differences we might have had off of the track," Splatter said.
"Of any sport I've ever played, it is definitely the most welcoming," Hammer said. "It's not even like 'you are welcome here;' it’s like ‘yeah, we're already here.'"