Roller derby gets real

Goodbye gimmicks, hello competitive women athletes

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



 Photo Gallery: Roller Derby

Local Teams

Rose City Rollers teams: Wheels of Justice (all-star travel team), Axles of Annihilation (travel team B), Break Neck Betties, Guns N Rollers, Heartless Heathers, High Rollers.

Other programs: Wreckers (non-competitive training and exercise program); Rosebuds (junior program for teens); Fresh Meat (competitive training program for aspiring team skaters).

Upcoming bouts

Tickets and a complete schedule for Rose City Rollers bouts are available online, Here are some upcoming bouts taking place at the Hangar at Oaks Park, 7805 S.E. Oaks Park Way in Portland.

April 19: Break Neck Betties vs. Heartless Heathers; doors open at 7 p.m., bout begins at 8 p.m.; tickets are $14.

April 20: Axles of Annihilation (travel team B) vs. Wasatch Roller Derby (travel team A); doors open at 6 p.m., bout begins at 7 p.m.; tickets are $14.

April 21: Wheels of Justice vs. Salt Lake City's Midnight Terrors; doors open at 9:30 a.m., bout begins at 10 a.m.; tickets are $5.

May 17: Wheels of Justice vs. Melbourne, Australia's Victorian Roller Derby League all-stars; doors open at 7 p.m., bout begins at 8 p.m.; tickets are $14.

May 18: High Rollers vs. Guns N Rollers; doors open at 6 p.m., bout begins at 7 p.m.; tickets are $14.

Meet some players

Name: Carlee Wolcott

Roller derby name: Scylla Devourer

Age: 31

Residence: Vancouver

Occupation: Student at Pacific Northwest College of Art; hat maker

Derby team: Wheels of Justice

Time in league: 31/2 years

Name: Jessica Chestnut

Roller derby name: Chestnutz

Age: 33

Residence: Vancouver

Occupation: Mortgage loan officer

Derby team: Break Neck Betties

Time in league: 5 years

Name: Kiki Bittner

Roller derby name: Devilla Jukes

Age: 40

Residence: Vancouver

Occupation: Co-owner of Deane's Graphics & Advertising

Derby team: Break Neck Betties

Time in league: 11/2 years

Name: Wendy Woodhouse

Roller derby name: No name yet

Age: 38

Residence: Vancouver

Occupation: Property management

Derby team: Wreckers program

Time in league: Six months

Roller derby basics

A roller derby game is called a "bout." A bout is divided into two 30-minute periods. Each period is made up of a dozen or more plays, called "jams."

Modern derby uses flat tracks as opposed to banked tracks.

Roller derby has three positions: jammer, blocker and pivot. Each team plays one jammer (star on helmet), one pivot (stripe on helmet) and three blockers.

Jammers score points. They must fight through the pack, scoring a point for every opposing skater they pass.

Blockers make up the "pack." They play offense and defense at the same time as they tie up the opposing jammer while helping their own jammer through the pack.

Pivots are the pack leaders. They help guide their team's decisions and often serve as the last line of defense.

The first jammer to maker her way through the pack is awarded "lead jammer" status. As lead jammer, the skater can end a jam at any time by putting her hands on her hips.

Jams are two minutes, unless the lead jammer ends it sooner.

Carlee Wolcott slowly approaches the starting line. The purple wheels of her roller skates come to a stop when she reaches her place on the powder blue floor. Her short purple hair is tucked beneath the black helmet featuring her team logo. Her nickname, Scylla Devourer, is printed across the back of her fitted purple jersey. The sleeve of tattoos on her arms is partially obscured by the armbands bearing her number, 1719.

Three other women line up closely on either side of Wolcott. Together, they form a black and purple wall, reinforced with mouth guards, elbow pads and knee pads.

The teammates squat down in unison, heads turned over one shoulder. Behind them, four opponents mimic their stances. All eyes are focused on the two skaters lining up behind the pack, stars emblazoned on their helmets.

Then, everyone is still.

Then, the blast of a whistle.

The starred skaters burst to life, working to maneuver their bodies around and through the human walls. Wolcott uses her hips to knock an opposing skater off balance. Another member of the wall delivers a blow using her shoulder.

The skaters with stars scramble to pass as many people as possible, scoring a point for every opponent they pass. The crowd erupts with every score, with every devastating block.

And then it's over.

Music thumps through the speakers as the skaters clear the rink; a new pack heads to the starting line. And then, it begins again.

This is roller derby.

Gone are the theatrics of roller derby past -- the costumey outfits, the scripted events. This is the roller derby of today, where women of all ages, shapes and sizes come together on the track to show off their athleticism and strategic play.

"It's a game," said Kiki Bittner, a skater from Vancouver. "It's kind of like chess and football on skates."

The history

Roller derby has evolved over the past nine decades, when the term was first used to describe roller skate races. In the late 1930s, film publicist Leo Seltzer launched a touring skating competition called Transcontinental Roller Derby. Over the years, the events evolved from marathon skating races to more physical competitions that emphasized skater collisions and falls.

That set the foundation for modern day roller derby, according to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the regulating body for today's roller derby leagues.

By the early '60s, additional roller derby franchises had emerged. Some of the newer events emphasized theatrics rather than sport. After popularity dwindled in the 1970s, some tried to revive versions of roller derby using staged action and storylines. Those efforts were short-lived, according to the WFTDA.

In the early 2000s, modern day women's roller derby launched in Austin, Texas. The new leagues formed as businesses and nonprofits run by the athletes themselves. By 2010, more than 450 flack track roller derby leagues were in place around the world.

Portland's Rose City Rollers derby league formed in 2004. Today, the league has two traveling teams and four home teams -- Wheels of Justice (all-star travel team), Axles of Annihilation (travel team B), Break Neck Betties, Guns N Rollers, Heartless Heathers, High Rollers -- as well as programs for youth, new skaters and recreational skaters.

More than 400 women and 80 girls are part of the Portland league, including women in Clark County.

'Fresh Meat'

Vancouver resident Jessica "Chestnutz" Chestnut first joined the Rose City Rollers league seven years ago. She was at the Portland Expo Center and noticed a roller derby flier. A lifelong athlete, Chestnut bought a skating starter kit on the Internet and joined the league's Fresh Meat program, a competitive training program for aspiring team skaters.

After a few months, Chestnut was drafted by the Break Neck Betties. She spent several years playing with a few of the Portland teams before moving out of the area and playing with another league for a year. She moved back to Clark County and took a year off from derby, before rejoining the Betties in November.

"I missed it," the 33-year-old said. "It's part of my soul."

Over the years, Chestnut said the sport has continued to evolve. Seven years ago, the sport didn't have many rules and it wasn't as competitive. Instead, it was treated like a beer league, Chestnut said.

Since then, though, the Rose City Rollers, and the sport as a whole, have intensified. The league's training programs have become more strenuous. Skaters have to devote more of their time, and themselves, to prove they deserve a spot on a team, Chestnut said.

And the hard work doesn't stop once a skater is drafted by a team.

Skaters spend several days a week practicing with their teams, participating in scrimmages and building their endurance on skates. They also spend time in the gym, lifting weights and improving cardio.

Despite the evolution, the skaters say the misconceptions about roller derby live on.

"I think we're a lot more athletic and less campy than people think," Kiki "Devilla Jukes" Bittner said.

Bittner joined the league 11/2 years ago, and in November, was drafted by the Break Neck Betties. She remembers watching roller derby as a kid and was surprised to see how much it had changed.

"It's like a sport now," Bittner said.

Not just a sport, but a nonscripted, full-contact sport. That physicality is what drew Carlee "Scylla Devourer" Wolcott to the sport.

Wolcott joined the Rose City Rollers 31/2 years ago after seeing her first derby bout in Seattle.

"I saw people hitting people, and it was awesome," Wolcott said. "All I knew was I wanted to skate around and hit people."

But the sport is more than just hitting people, Wolcott said. There's technique and strategy, she said.

The sport also has rules, despite the prevailing belief that it's a free-for-all on the rink. Elbowing or pushing in the back, for example, earns skaters a trip to the penalty box.

"It's an intense sport, and it's so much fun to play," Wolcott said.

Melting pot

Misconceptions about the skaters themselves continue as well.

"We're not all drug addicts that beat each other up," Bittner said.

Take her, for example. She's a 40-year-old mother of two. She owns a business with her husband, to whom she's been married nearly 20 years. She's tall and slender and grew up on cheerleading squads.

When people think "roller derby," they don't envision Bittner, she said.

The same goes for Wendy Woodhouse. The petite 38-year-old stands only 5 foot. She's the assistant manager of an apartment complex, is married and the mother to three boys. She has a background in dance and gymnastics, but has never played a team sport.

Wolcott, on the other hand, admits she is the stereotypical roller derby girl.

"I'm like the quintessential derby person," Wolcott said. "I have the colored hair, the tattoos. I don't smoke, though. That's bad."

But, Wolcott said, she's the only person on her Wheels of Justice team with colored hair and she has more tattoos than any of her teammates. At age 31, she's about the median age of skaters on her team. She's an art student and hat maker. She's married and has two dogs.

The league is a sort of melting pot. Women of different ages and backgrounds all skating and competing, said Chestnut, a mortgage loan officer and mother of two.

The rough-and-tough stereotype of the women couldn't be further from the truth, Woodhouse said.

"I have never met a kinder group of women," she said.

After dabbling with the sport a few years ago on a dare, Woodhouse decided six months ago to join the Wreckers, Rose City Rollers' noncompetitive, recreational program. She's been welcomed into the league with open arms, she said. Veteran skaters offer support and encouragement to the newer skaters, Woodhouse said.

"It just makes me proud to be a part of them," she said.

The misconceptions may persist, but that won't stop the skaters from continuing the sport they love.

They'll continue to push themselves to the limit at practices, give it their all during bouts and hip-check the sport's detractors.

"We're not caped crusaders," Bittner said. "We're just doing a team sport like anyone else. It's just a little different."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546;;;