The making of a Rollergirl 

Ali Gadbow joins the rough-and-tumble ranks of Missoula's new roller derby league

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.

click to enlarge Hellgate Rollergirls strap on their knee, elbow and wrist pads at a practice session at their practice facility—a dark warehouse near Missoula’s railroad tracks. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Hellgate Rollergirls strap on their knee, elbow and wrist pads at a practice session at their practice facility—a dark warehouse near Missoula’s railroad tracks.

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.

click to enlarge The Hellgate Rollergirls includes 25 dues-paying members. The pre-practice stretching ritual prepares the women for a contact-filled practice. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Hellgate Rollergirls includes 25 dues-paying members. The pre-practice stretching ritual prepares the women for a contact-filled practice.

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.

During a jam, which lasts two minutes at most, five players from each team are on the track: a jammer, three blockers, and a pivot blocker. The pivot blocker wears a stripe on her helmet and sets the pace for her team. The jammer wears a star on her helmet; she's the one who scores the points by starting behind the pack of skaters and making her way to the front. Each time the jammer laps the pack she earns points for every opposing player she passes. The first jammer to legally pass all of the blockers is known as the lead jammer. She can call off the jam by slapping her palms against her hips in a kind of rolling chicken dance.

Blockers have two jobs: to prevent the opposing team's jammer from scoring, and to assist their own jammer through the pack. Breaking through the pack is tough in any kind of race, but it's extremely hard to do on roller skates when people are trying to knock you down. A blocker's job is a lot like a lineman's in football, except both quarterbacks have the ball and they are both making a run for the end zone.

Also, players usually skate under pseudonyms, dress in funky outfits, and do quite a bit of posturing. One might think these last elements were dreamed up by today's post-punk, post-feminist skaters, but the performance is as old as the game itself.

Since its inception during the Great Depression, roller derby has always been populist entertainment. Like pro wrestling at about the same time, the sport started attracting crowds at local arenas, and the high-intensity, full-contact spectacle gained traction. Derby was coed, and the women played by the same rules and with the same intensity as the men. In fact, women were the real draw.

Bouts were broadcast on the radio as early as 1939, and the sport was—again, like pro wrestling—one of the first to be regularly televised, starting in 1948. To keep fans watching, some of the action was choreographed. It has never been clear how many of the games were fixed, but some certainly were.

Anyone born before 1970 probably remembers catching some version of roller derby on TV. My father watched it religiously in the 1950s with his octogenarian aunt Mabel, who also loved pro wrestling.

For-profit derby's parallel path with that of Gorgeous George and Andre the Giant cursed the sport with a demotion to "sports entertainment" in the public mind. Aside from a brief revival in 1989, the televised version of the game disappeared in the early 1970s when the theatrical "RollerGames" league was disbanded. Old-fashioned roller derby's last gasp was punctuated by the 1972 release of Kansas City Bomber, in which Raquel Welch battles Helena Kallianiotes (literally, with hair-pulling) for the star position on the Portland roller derby team. Coincidentally, scenes were shot at the Portland Expo Center, where I got my first taste of derby the way we play it now.

click to enlarge Teammates execute a “pace line,” a close-quarters exercise that helps skaters gain the balance—and confidence—necessary for close-proximity, full-contact skating. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Teammates execute a “pace line,” a close-quarters exercise that helps skaters gain the balance—and confidence—necessary for close-proximity, full-contact skating.

Clearly, entertainment is still central to today's derby. It would not be the same sport without the costumes, the posturing and the spunky pseudonyms, but make no mistake—the game is tough. Today's derby requires hours of practice every week, follows a standard skater-created rulebook a yard thick, and the games are never fixed. It's now played on a flat track, with the advantage that bouts can be set up just about anywhere with a minimal investment of time and money. The revived version, which was reborn in Texas and swept the nation in the early 2000s, is largely an all-women, all-amateur phenomenon with a strong DIY ethic. Derby's definitely a sport, but nobody wants to take it to the Olympics. We'd rather take it to the streets.

On December 11, 2009, I officially became a Hellgate Rollergirl. It was the night of the league's first big fundraiser, the Black and Blue Ball. The event was held at the Elks Lodge and included a singles auction. I paid my first month's dues, danced a little, toasted my new pals and egged on the bidders. Then I went home.

At that point roller derby in Missoula still had little to do with actual roller skating. During the fall, girls with skates worked on their skills in a parking lot under the Orange Street bridge, but most members didn't have skates.

Personally, I was caught up in the usual Christmas mayhem. By January the downtown landscape was crusted in uninviting layers of dirty ice, and suddenly it was February. What was up with the Hellgate Rollergirls? I had no clue. I also had no skates, except for those old-school showboaters collecting dust in the attic. I wasn't the only one wondering whether this thing was ever going to happen.

In theory, it's easier to get organized these days, what with social networks and the Internet. Facebook was certainly instrumental in getting HGRG off the ground, but cyberherding has its limitations, especially when an organization is committed to a certain level of egalitarianism. Or, to put it another way, I was on a contact list, just not the list that was used to announce that indoor practices had commenced in the multipurpose room at Target Range School.

Hannah "Hannibal Wrecker" Heimbuch happened to work at the school, and she knew that local groups often used the multipurpose room. The HGRG Housing Committee searches tirelessly for appropriate indoor spaces, but landlords are wary of the possible liability issues involved with allowing young women on skates to knock each other down in their building. Target Range, on the other hand, was blessedly open to Heimbuch's request for practice time, and it was there that I really learned to skate.

I heard about the indoor practices second or third hand, probably from a derby boyfriend, maybe from my boyfriend (he always knows what's going on). At any rate, I got fired up. Roller derby was real and I was missing it. But first, I needed to order skates.

A few days later I met my friend Katt at the Bike Doctor. Shop co-owner and founding HGRG member Marlana Kosky has trained her bike mechanics to size female feet for roller skates, and the shop offers a discount on skating gear to dues-paying HGRG members.

Katt and I stripped off our shoes and submitted our feet to careful measurements of length and width. We flipped through a skate catalogue and both decided on a mid-priced model. Or almost decided. Derby gear costs money: a beginner's initial investment in skates and safety gear is generally at least $200, and we were looking at $120 skates, not to mention knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guards and helmets.

After a week of waffling, I put in my order, but I soon had bad news. My skates were backordered indefinitely. I switched my order to the ubiquitous, more economical but less sexy R-3s, a standard for derby beginners (also known as "fresh meat"), and I waited. One week went by, then another. I couldn't stand the delay, so I pulled my thrift store skates out of the attic and set about cleaning as much dirt and hair out of the bearings as I could reach with a toothpick. I was afraid to pull the wheels off, since this was my one and only pair of roller skates, and I didn't know a whole lot about them.

On a Friday in March, I finally took the plunge. Early that day, I loaded a duffel bag with my brand-new pads, helmet and wrist guards, and my ancient skates. After work, I drove straight to Target Range School and wandered the halls, looking for the multipurpose room.

I was early and the room—linoleum-floored and roughly half the size of a basketball court—was dark and empty. I sat down and pulled on my pads and skates. Soon a few women began trickling in. We introduced ourselves. A few of the girls remarked on my skates: I must really know how to roller skate if I was going to skate on those things. Yeah, right. My stomach filled with the proverbial butterflies, but I managed to right myself on the slick linoleum and started to warm up.

click to enlarge The Hellgate Rollergirls scrimmage during a recent practice. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS

The difference between my skates—technically "dance skates"—and the derby version soon became painfully clear. Dance skates have a high arch. Your feet sit in them as they would in a pair of ballroom dance pumps. My skates were high, delicate boots of thin leather, sitting on a tall base. Derby skates are cut low, like basketball sneakers, with a minimal arch and a wide wheelbase—built for speed. Compared to the other skaters, I was rolling on stilts. Worse, my wheels and toe stops had dried with age and turned rock-hard.

I fought to build up speed—partly because I couldn't get a purchase on the floor and partly because of the gunk in my bearings—and I tended to slide out around corners. When I tried to engage my toe stop, it slid along the floor like a buttered hockey puck. But I was skating, and I was excited.

That first night I learned two new ways to stop that didn't rely on my unreliable toe stops, and no one sneered at my slow, slippery skating style. I also got the workout of my life.

If you want to play roller derby, you need very strong thighs. If you fall—and you will, often—you don't want to put your hands on the floor. The likelihood of having your fingers smashed under another skater's wheels is extremely high. If you fall, you need to get back on your feet using only your leg muscles, so derby training involves many, many lunges and squats. Lunges on skates are not fun. Let me tell you this. The second time we practiced I was still so sore my leg muscles hardly functioned—when I went down, I didn't get back up.

Flat track derby's governing body is actually an ultra-democratic collective: the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, or WFTDA, which I pronounce "wufdah." "Wufdah," incidentally, is also the sound I make returning to my skates after a fall—in under two seconds, without using my hands—so the name is appropriate.

Leagues are either WFTDA-affiliated or "rogue," meaning they don't have WFTDA support, but everybody more or less plays by WFTDA rules. By common agreement and for insurance purposes, in order for a league to participate in bouts or scrimmages with another league, all skaters must show a level of skating proficiency dictated by WFTDA's "Minimum Skills Requirements," which include performing certain stops from a brisk pace, skating around obstacles, and giving or taking hip and shoulder checks.

During HGRG practices, initially held twice weekly, I kept the minimum skills requirements in mind while I pushed myself to perform T-stops without teetering, to fall small, and to get up fast. I worked on my derby stance—knees bent deep, back straight and eyes forward—and I built up the endurance I would need to lap a regulation track 25 times in less than five minutes. Now that I was skating regularly, it was also time for me to take another vital step in becoming an authentic roller girl: choosing my derby name.

click to enlarge Style and attitude play as much a part of roller derby as anything that happens on the track. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS

Taking a derby name is as solemn a task as naming your dog or baby. Once you settle on a name, you're stuck with it, so it had better be just right. Your derby name should fit your derby persona, and that's basically an extension of you, only bigger, bolder, more playful, more aggressive and unabashedly competitive. The right derby name should suggest something about who you are in real life as well as something about your playing style. A good moniker might be a play on your name (Tiffany Klang is known as "Doppelklanger"), your physical appearance (petite Brae Bullard took her initials and transformed herself into "Bitty Bitch"), or what you do on the track (Marlana Kosky incites fear with the title "M. Kneesya").

I went over my options. I could play with my name...Gadbow...Bad Blow... Gadfly Gallows...Alley Gallows? Hmmm. Spooky, but it didn't make much sense, and it didn't say much about me. Ali Cat? Ali Gator? Too typical, and do I really identify with a lizard? Plus, Allie Gator and Alligator Allie are on the national derby name roster as members of Mad Rollin' Dolls and Side Roller Derby, respectively.

My full first name is Alison, but names like Alison Wonderland are also done to death. Baby name books translate Alison as "son of the noble" or, more quaintly, "little truthful." I'm attracted to the concept of truth as something you can't deny, and something that might blow up in your face. My major lifelong interests have been art and science, disciplines that have differing but, in my opinion, equally valid claims on truth. Also, sometimes I write true stories for our local weekly newspaper. So I decided on my name: "Lil' Truth." I like the ambiguity. How much truth, exactly? You'll never know. It's not an especially scary or aggressive name, but let me tell you: sometimes the truth can hurt.

These days, I think of myself as a roller girl. I have a derby name, derby gear and derby bruises to back me up. More than anything, I find it's become a part of who I am.

Flat track roller derby is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle. League guidelines suggest a level of individual commitment that can be daunting: attendance at skate practices, conditioning, all-member meetings, committee meetings and league events is mandatory to remain in good standing. Add to that the financial commitment to equipment and monthly dues (ours are $25) and roller derby asks a lot. But somehow, even in a league that has never bouted, that just weeks ago gained access to a space large enough that skaters don't risk nausea from turning in tiny, tight circles or gravel burns from skating in parking lots, the dividends are more than enough.

The sheer joy of skating, the sense of common purpose, the sense of escape from ordinary life, of physical challenge, of performance and fun—all of these things keep me on skates at least three hours a week. And, surprisingly to me, the organizational part is rewarding, too. I've never been a joiner, but more of a Groucho Marx type: I'd never join a club that would have me as a member. As I get older, that outlook is changing. I credit the frustrations of the Bush II years for turning me into a great proponent of community involvement.

Social clubs always seemed outdated to me, but I believe that in this decade people my age started to realize we'd got it wrong. Yes, those old institutions like the Elks and the Eagles didn't seem to know what they stood for anymore. But as DIY and local-centric movements gained ground and pulled many of us out of our war-torn, regime-weary funk, the democratic, coalition-building force of the social club regained its appeal. This was about when youngsters started joining lodges again. They also formed roller derby leagues.

My cousin and go-to man on underground sports, Zach Dundas, has likened the organizational mindset of derby to the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement, an early 20th century revolutionary movement that combined the organizational framework of rank-and-file unionism with the anarchist concept of direct democracy. He may not be far off. Modern derby is fiercely independent and egalitarian. The WFTDA requires its member leagues to be at least 51 percent skater-owned and organized around "democratic principles." Historically, fraternal lodges were places where, often under the protection of a spooky secrecy oath, men broke out of their social shells and started getting ideas. Now women want a piece of that action.

Derby leagues don't have an oath of secrecy, but they do foster a sense of sisterhood. The derby clubhouse is a place where young women can talk about their lives, in a space outside of the domestic and professional spheres, and forge strong friendships with other Missoula women that they would never meet anywhere else. Even in a city this small, people move in their own circles. Derby provides a chance for those circles to intersect in playful, exhilarating and unexpected ways.

click to enlarge Author Ali Gadbow, white shirt, prepares to “whip” a teammate during a two-on-two practice drill. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS

A casual poll of 23 out of our 34 official members, plus one aspiring ref, gives some idea of HGRG's demographic. Our median age is 29, and most girls are between 27 and 30. Our youngest member is 20. The oldest admitted age was 37. At least seven of us are moms, and most of us have pets. At least five of us are University of Montana students, and most of us have more than one job, including 10 in the service industry, two in the beauty industry, three in health care, three in law, one teacher and one pet store owner. Asked to describe the best thing about derby in five words or less, most people included words like badass, kickass, tough, strong; sports, athleticism; camaraderie, community, and new friends. A few girls also mentioned cool clothes.

Over the months, HGRG outgrew the space at Target Range School and we still didn't have a clubhouse—unless you counted the basement stockroom of Piece of Mind, where we held our monthly membership meetings while shoppers perused the glassware overhead. But on April 16, we held our first practice in our new home, a leased warehouse on Toole Street that could serve as both practice space and meeting room.

Finding a large home base with a skate-able floor was a major leap forward, but our new home has a few flaws. We're not handicap-accessible, which hampers our ability to stage public events, and we're renters, so we can only hang on to our space as long as we have funds and good standing with the landlords. At last count, 25 members were current on their monthly dues, which is enough to pay half of the monthly rent. In order to keep our current practice space and clubhouse—not to mention finding and securing a bouting space—we'll need to recruit more women and fundraise like crazy. But there's promise. We're a community now, and we're committed. We're dedicated to building the team, and looking forward to giving back to the larger community, including Target Range School and everyone else in Missoula who gave us a hand.

I notice now that I say "us" when I talk about roller derby, and I talk about "our" mission here. It feels good to be involved, but it's even better when you do it on skates and get to hit people.

The week we signed the lease at Toole Street, my derby skates finally arrived. The first time I stood up on them, I immediately sat back down, hard, on the cement floor. No dirt in the bearings meant no resistance in the wheels, and that spelled speed.

After a few wobbly starts, I embraced my newfound power and headed for the track. I can't begin to describe the elation I felt flying around the hand-taped, regulation-sized derby track on my brand new skates, or the sense of belonging I felt afterward, drinking my off-skates beer on the loading dock with the other girls. My only thought was that I had arrived—we had arrived. Missoula roller derby was real.

That night, around 25 skaters joined me on the track: enough to field two teams as soon as we passed our basic skills tests. We're all at different skill levels, from the freshest "fresh meat" still getting her skate legs to the hockey players and natural athletes who nailed their crossovers on day one, but every practice, we all improve. Many of us could have that skills test under our belts by the end of May.

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