I was enthralled, but intimidated, the time I watched the Rose City Rollers hold their first public bout at the Portland Expo Center back in 2005. The crowd, mostly young, clad in hipster gear and clutching cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, sat on bleachers overlooking the floor. The oval track was 88 feet from end to end and 44 feet wide. Loud rock blared from the speakers as the announcer whipped up the audience. Then, as the noise reached a muddied roar, the floor was flooded by a horde of lean, mean roller-skating women. They wore uniforms with short-shorts or flouncy skirts, showing off muscled legs decked out in striped socks over fishnet stockings.
As the fanfare died down, two teams of five women took their places on the track, and with a whistle they were off. What happened next looked like controlled chaos. The women screamed around the oval, jostling for position, and occasionally a skater was sent flying off the track by a well-placed hit from an opponent. Apparently someone was scoring points, though I couldn't quite see how. I didn't care. I cheered like crazy. I wanted to be a roller girl.
As a kid growing up in Missoula, I was active, but chafed at the regimentation of organized sports. I was a tomboy, but not a jock. After seeing the Rose City Rollers, I realized derby's punk rock approach to sports was something different. These girls were being rewarded for acting physical, aggressive and confrontational. Roller girls seemed so confident, so secure in the knowledge that they were special. Their booty shorts and fishnets were campy but by no means slutty. It was a kind of drag. They snarled, they intimidated, they wore thigh-high stockings and miniskirts, and they never let us forget that they were women. It looked fun.
Despite the fact that I did occasionally scoot around the historic local Oaks Park roller rink to the tune of an old-timey organ—which is more roller skating than most ordinary people indulge in after puberty—joining an established big-city roller derby league, even in its early stages, was a daunting prospect. Derby girls were definitely cool kids, and being the kind of strong and intelligent woman who turns into a shy, blushing, babbling idiot in front of cool kids, I made no effort to get involved.
I moved back to Missoula around Christmas 2006. My car was freshly equipped with snow tires and contained my mother, my books and clothes, a heavily drugged cat, and an ancient pair of thrift shop roller skates. Ever since I had sipped a Pabst on those Portland bleachers and felt undisguised envy for the Rose City Rollers, thoughts of derby had never entirely left me.
Then, in July 2009, Facebook informed me that I should become a member of a group called "Let's Bring Roller Derby to Missoula!" As much as I hate it when Facebook tells me what to do, I was all for clicking that button.
It turns out I wasn't the only person in Missoula with roller derby dreams. Anneke "Delicious Demon" Ayers, Brae "Bitty Bitch" Bullard, Marlana "M. Kneesya" Kosky, and other Missoula women had been throwing around the roller derby idea for a few years, but nothing ever came of it.
"A lot of phone calls were made to warehouses and stuff," says Ayers. "We had no place to skate. We had no place to buy skates. It was like running right into walls. I was literally laughed at and hung up on."
Around the same time Ayers was coming up empty, Missoula native Jessie "Viperella" Lundberg was finishing law school in San Francisco. It's there she discovered roller derby.
"I just thought I should get some roller skates, because that would be a good way to work out," she says. "I went online to look at skates and found this whole roller derby thing. And it turned out that there was a bout that weekend. I went to the bout, and as soon as it started I was like, 'Oh, my god!'"
Like me, Lundberg didn't try out for the big-city league. After all, she had just bought her first pair of skates. Instead, she scoped out Bay Area parking garages where she could hone her skills. After graduation, she moved back to Missoula and launched a Facebook page called "Let's Bring Roller Derby to Missoula!"
In less than a month, "Let's Bring Roller Derby to Missoula" amassed 173 members. Women started holding impromptu meetings in backyards around town. Lundberg and her sister even set up a recruitment booth at the Testicle Festival at Rock Creek Lodge, but the booth attracted more leering men than it did prospective players.
In August 2009, the online group moved its virtual home base and formed the "Hellgate Rollergirls" Facebook page. I friended them. In September, the Hellgate Rollergirls, or HGRG, held its first recruitment meeting in a conference room at the Missoula Public Library. Of course, I was there. The room was packed. Skates and pads were displayed on tables for the recruits to examine. As "Delicious Demon" and "Viperella" welcomed us and began laying out the league's game plan, I slipped on a pair of wrist guards for the first time, and felt momentarily like Wonder Woman.
Shortly after that first recruitment meeting, HGRG went public with its mission. Committees were formed to plan fundraising events, increase membership, and spread the word around Missoula. Since we had no home and few of us even owned skates, the public relations effort looked like an uphill battle.
For one thing, while most people know roller derby exists, few have a clue how it's played. Even those of us who had seen actual bouts were a bit fuddled when it came to the actual rules. Until I started skating with the league, all I really knew was that someone scored points, that it involved skating very quickly and that people got knocked around. Actually, it's a bit more involved.
Roller derby teams consist of a maximum of 20 players, up to 14 of whom are on the roster for a given game. A game, usually called a bout, consists of two 30-minute periods, which are further broken down into an unlimited number of skating sessions called jams.