The making of a Rollergirl 

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

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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.

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