The Wheel Life


Author: Laura Bertocci

For the Angel City Derby Girls, derby is everything and everything else is just what pays the bills.

“Once you get past the bullshit of life, it’s nice that someone’s got your back. When shit starts blowin’ up, you have 70 women who won’t judge you, who say ‘Hey, we get it,'” teammate Babyface Nellie said.

Founded in 2006, Angel City Derby Girls play from January to November at the Veterans Auditorium in Culver City. After a sudden resurgence in interest in women’s roller derby in 2004, the sport expanded rapidly across the country. Angel City is one of 124 official teams in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and the only team in Los Angeles.

Derby is remarkable for the camaraderie it fosters among teammates. “When I first started, my confidence was on the ground,” Recruiting Coach Rachel Shanks, who balances derby between a job and a full load of classes at Pasadena City College, said. “These girls just lift you right up.”

Dominated by women, roller derby has been an emerging sport for the past 10 years, though its roots date back to 1885. Marathon derby races were popular during the Great Depression; one famous race held at Madison Square Garden was the equivalent distance from New York to Los Angeles around a rink. The rules of the game evolved as the sport grew in popularity in the 1940s, but its mid-century heyday was short-lived. As interest waned in the 1970s, most leagues were disbanded and the sport was all but forgotten.

In 2002, a group of women in Austin revived the sport by forming an amateur all-girls team. The league’s success encouraged other females to start their own leagues as well. In 2004, the WFTDA was born.

Derby girls go by their skater name, both on and off the track. These aliases give the sport a sense of humor and are often either a allusion to the player’s name or a unique element of their personality. “I really like cookies, and I’m also gay,” Angel City racer Snick-Her Doodle said of her moniker.

Team members said other players have been christened by their teammates in the last minutes of a car ride to a tournament, such as Breakfast, whose player number, aptly, is “8:00 a.m.”

Wacky skater names go hand in hand with unconventional skating attire, which usually consists of knee high socks, tights, short-shorts and a shirt bearing the skater’s alias and number. Derby style is also tinged with punk, as seen in the duct tape, rips and tears in tights and tops. “It’s a sport where women look like women,” Coach Rachel Rotten said. “In the Women’s National Basketball Association, the women basically dress like men, and people will still see a men’s basketball game before they see a women’s game.”

With flashy posters advertising their upcoming bouts and a virtual monopoly on fast-paced all-women’s sports, the Angel City Derby Girls have earned a loyal following in Los Angeles and no shortage of potential players. Though the game may look straightforward to viewers, derby involves much more than coordinated roller skating.

The move from novice skater to full-fledged Derby Girl can be grueling, involving two rounds of training and several months of practice.

The first thing a skater learns in “Fresh Meat,” Angel City’s introductory course for new recruits, is how to fall. Falling is inevitable and skaters have to do it safely at a certain speed. “If you can fall correctly, you just take a knee and pop right back up rather than falling behind and becoming a liability to your team,” Coach Rotten said.

After six to eight weeks of Fresh Meat, skaters move on to round two, “Cosmos,” where they learn the fundamentals of competitive derby. Learning the rules of the game can take weeks.

Roller derby rules are set by the WFTDA. Two teams consisting of five skaters each compete, earning points every time their team’s “jammer” (a skater designated by a helmet covered with a large star) passes the opposite team’s “blockers.” Blockers prevent opposing jammers from passing them, while letting their own jammer through.

Derby is a full-contact sport, and blockers are free to hip-check their opponents, pop them in the chest or the shoulder or employ any number of strategies to keep jammers from breaching the human wall of blockers.

“It doesn’t make any sense for the first two months,” Coach Rotten said of the game’s complexity. Once the girls are sufficiently comfortable on their skates after completing “Cosmos,” they must pass an assessment of skating 25 laps around the rink in five minutes in order to be eligible to be placed on the team.

For successful applicants, the team introduces girls not only to a new kind of sport but also into a family. “It’s mostly girls who were once outsiders or who didn’t always belong,” Coach Rotten said.

“We don’t turn anyone away, no matter their age or their physical abilities. If they can hack it, they’re in,” Coach Shanks said.

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