They’re tough, strong women with names like InSINerator, Bruze Orman, Surfer Rosa, Canna Whoopass, Bat L. Royale, Desi Scarnaz, Quadratic Abrasion, and Bullie Jean King. These Atlanta Rollergirls are Emory girls, too. Roller derby requires “core strength, endurance, power and explosiveness, agility, balance, stability, and footwork. And those are just the physical components,” says Cindy Fontana, a.k.a. InSINerator and the associate coach for swimming and diving at Emory Athletics.
Hollywood images of movies like Rollerball and Whip It may come to mind, but modern flat-track roller derby is un-staged serious sport and the Atlanta Roller Girls (ARG) league skates to sold-out crowds. “While retaining derby’s original quirky identity as a DIY, alternative sport through fun effects like stage names and themed bouts, today’s competitions are fought and won through strategy and athletic finesse rather than simple speed or brute force,” says Michelle Brattain, a.k.a. Hate Ashbury, director of league media. Started in 2004 with a single team, ARG “helped start the modern derby revolution” as founding members of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Today the league has seven teams, including an all-star group.
"In roller derby, each team fields a five-person ‘pack’ consisting of four blockers and one jammer in each ‘jam’ or two-minute period. The jammer is the only skater who scores points-- one for each opposing player that she passes. The blockers play offense and defense at the same time, as they try to stop the opposing jammer and help their jammer through,” Ashbury explains. “Derby involves strength, but also strategy. A strong defensive wall can be more effective at stopping a jammer than a big hit. It's also a fast-moving game and the scenarios are constantly changing and forcing skaters to adapt as the game unfolds. Penalties, which can land a player in the penalty block for a minute, can make or break a game."
Female skaters range in age from 21 to 50-something and come from many socioeconomic groups and professions, including minister and medical editor. Amanda Cerqueda, a.k.a. Desi Scarnaz, is a lead research specialist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “I got involved with ARG right out of college. I had grown up watching roller derby, and spent a huge chunk of my childhood on skates,” she says. “As soon as I got a real job, with health insurance,” she adds lightheartedly, “I went to an ARG workshop and was instantly hooked.”
Practice sessions take place five times a week and “are structured to target different aspects: skills, endurance, and scrimmage,” Fontana explains. League skaters are required to practice at least four hours each week, but most also undertake additional personal training.
The allure, the injuries, and motivation
“Awareness, mental toughness, guts, grit, and teamwork are key factors,” Fontana explains of the sport that intrigued her for its athletic skill. Though she couldn’t skate eight years ago, “I was hooked immediately.” Bruze Orman, a.k.a. Gara Coffey 01-02 pharmacy practice resident for Emory Health Care, came off a 20-year skate hiatus to join the league. “First came a lengthy ‘fresh meat’ process where we trained to learn how to play roller derby safely. Then I was drafted to the Apocalypstix and in 2011 to the Dirty South Dirty Girls All-Star team.” By day, Coffey is a clinical pharmacist at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Alana Reed 11G (Surfer Rosa) had a similar initiation to the sport. “When I started skating I was still in graduate school and had some more flexibility,” she says. As a fourth year doctoral student in biological and biomedical science, Reed wanted a leisure time activity. “I was drafted to the Sake Tuyas in 2009, one of the Atlanta Roller Girls home teams,” she says. After a losing season her team went on to cap the championship in 2011. She recalls how energized the victory made her feel. “I felt like we were living in an epic sports moment.”
Injuries in the sport do occur, including a condition nicknamed rink rash. “Every rollergirl is in a constant state of some discomfort whether it is aches and pains, muscle soreness, fatigue, bruises, and of course, jacked up feet. Ice, Epson salt baths, Advil, and extra padding in the skates can all be par for the course,” Fontana explains. “Multiple wounded warrior skaters come back after major injuries and/or surgery. The LOVE of derby is that strong.”
Balancing family, work life, and skating can pose a challenge. “During the academic year it can be extra tricky, burning the candle at both ends, especially with early 6 a.m. swim practices and late night skating practices,” Fontana says. “You just make it work. There is too much enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from derby not to make some sacrifices to fit it into your schedule.”
Reed puts this sacrifice in perspective. “It’s totally worth giving up a few hours of sleep to skate and to spend some time with my teammates. Derby provides great balance, and the reward from getting to skate is a great incentive to get through busy days!”
Put on your skates
If you love skating, “Roller derby is an amazing and multi-faceted experience where you can find a group of women who will be your family. You’ll push yourself athletically beyond what you ever thought possible,” says Reed. “It’s also an excellent outlet for work and life frustrations. There is nothing like hip-checking one of your best friends to make you forget about a huge work project.”
“Is it hard work? You bet, but the reward is huge,” Fontana points out. “Try it, even if it seems like it is outside your comfort zone. You won’t regret it.” Reed also recommends the sport. “Roller derby is becoming even more competitive and athletic, and the amount of training that goes into becoming a derby athlete is no joke. But stick with it, even if it takes longer that you’d expected or hoped, because I promise it’s worth it!”
“If you’re thinking you might want to put on your skates and give derby a try, we have workshops that come up in advance of tryouts to give skaters an idea of what it’s like to be a rollergirl,” Coffey says. She mentions that “a recreational league gives skaters a chance to get out there as well.” Cerqueda adds, “Hit every open skate at your local skating rink that you possibly can. This game is a lot of work. Probably more than you expect. But it’s well worth it.”
Young girls from ages 7-17 can join in the fun, too. “The Atlanta Derby Brats is a junior derby league and it’s taking off like crazy,” Coffey shares. If you don’t want to skate on a team, ARG always needs volunteers and referees to help with bouts.
Curious about Atlanta Roller Girls? Learn more about their upcoming bout September 22 at Yaraab Shriner Temple in Midtown Atlanta. Follow the Atlanta Roller Girls on Facebook, Twitter, and watch YouTube videos.