By: Orrin Konheim
After the exodus of the Washington Redskins and D.C. United from RFK Stadium, the D.C. Roller Girls are picking up the slack for the neighborhood’s sports entertainment at the neighboring D.C. Armory. The sport of roller derby isn’t widely known in American culture outside of the 2009 Ellen Page film “Whip It” but the Roller Girls can work with that.
“Derby has always had a more indie feel to it,” said Liz Yee. “We skate our hearts out and our athleticism shows. It’s a great spectator sport and family friendly.”
Roller derby is a full-contact sport played on roller skates over a track marked out by cones on a gymnasium floor. The teams, consisting of six players at a time, compete to have their point scorer (the jammer) make the most headway in getting around the track faster than the other team’s defenders (blockers) can impede them.
Because the sport is relatively novel to the audience, there are a lot of challenges in terms of getting people understanding the game and investing in it. Fortunately, the program explains the rules and the DCRG takes a number of steps to keep things interactive and fun.
One of the fun elements of Roller Derby is that the skaters have monikers such as “Stabigail Adams” to “Grace of Wrath” to “Rocky Brawlboa” and when they take the rink, the announcers welcome them with appropriate theatricality. Yee, for example, is known as the Kansas Comet.
Rather than shaking hands of their opponents, the skaters high-five audience members and are available to meet fans at the bake sales and after the game in the spirit of making the proceedings more interactive.
“There’s a bunch of people here that are coming to see something cool, there’s a handful of people who really follow derby,” said Yee.
The D.C. Roller Girls started playing bouts (the sport’s vernacular for matches) in 2007. Yee estimates that the sport reached its peak in 2011 on the heels of the aforementioned film “Whip It.” In addition, that was the year that the D.C. Armory co-hosted the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Eastern Region championships.
One thing, that is certain is that there is never a shortage of people signing up for the sport.
The DCRG hosts four open houses a year where potential skaters get to rent equipment and try out the sport. If people are still interested and willing to get the equipment, they can attend a three-month boot camp. Eventually, if skaters master the skills well enough they will be called up to one of three teams: All-Stars, National Maulers, and Capitol Offenders.
“The goal is that you’ll keep leveling up and you’ll get stronger every three months,” said Yee. “The trainers are monitoring and coaching you at each practice, supporting you to make sure you are learning the skills and are moving up when you’re ready [to compete on a team].”
Jane Louie AKA Scoriental Express plays on the all-star travel team though it took a couple years to be able to get to a point where she can compete. Now, she plays on the All-Stars.
“It takes a year to be able to react on the track and understand the rules. I was a late bloomer and I had skating experience,” she said.
In the recent bout on December 15th, a lot of the skaters-in-training could be found helping with team effort: One was working the team’s social media feed, while another was selling merchandise and another was helping out with the silent auction. They all had various reasons to come to the sport.
“I’m definitely a junkie for crazy extreme sports so I was Roller Girls and came in,” said Jessica Milli AKA Whiplash who has also done Krav Maga, Spartan races and marathon training.
“It is a fantastic community, I enjoy the variety of people I meet, and its fun seeing a lot of our new skaters, because I used to work with new skaters, learn how to skate and get into the sports,” said Louie.
Louie cross-trains in addition to attending skating practice about two days a week. The team holds communal practices three days a week with the elite teams like the All-Stars hosting additional practices and a travel schedule that sees them going to one or two tournaments a year.
The travel schedule has helped create a network for people to meet others outside the area.
“Whether you’re a volunteer, a skater, a former skater, even sponsors, when
I’m traveling across the country, I pull out my phone and I just email
them,” said DCRG President Jennifer Lindstrom AKA Slam Greer.
*The team’s travel budget*, along with pretty much everything else the league does, is contingent on the fundraising. Roller derby is one of the few sports where every sanctioned team in the world is entirely volunteer-run.
The skaters fundraise through many outlets including making their own merchandise (generally considered a team bonding activity), a halftime contest, sponsorships, a bake sale, and a silent auction. Of course, there is also admission.
DCRG’s official mission is to promote athleticism and diversity, while fostering self-worth, personal strength, and female empowerment. To aid in this mission, the Roller Girls solicit volunteers to help run their bouts. Frequent volunteers are added to the team’s “pit crew” and eligible for league awards.
Additionally, the team rents half their armory space on game days to local vendors. Many try to tailor their goods to the crowd. Woodworker Heather Olsen, for example, used the opportunity to sell a coat rack with roller wheels as hooks.
“I enjoy collaborating and creating art with and for specific audiences,” Olsen said.
With the obstacles in fundraising, it’s difficult to schedule a lot of events. In 2015, the DCRG put on five bouts.
“Some of it is about our ability to put on a large scale event. The armory is an expensive venue so we try to space it out to maximize the events’ effectiveness,” said DCRG president Lindstrom.
The 2019 bout schedule has not been announced though the next DCRG open
house is on January 7th in Hyattsville (5706 Lafayette Place). For more information, check them out here.