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It's gut check - and body check - time at Rollergirls practice

Skaters practice up to five times a week

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Roller girls lace up for a recent practice. Most of the participants work out five nights a week to keep in shape for matches.

So what if a couple of the Texas Rollergirls snapped their ankles earlier this season?

I'm officially banned from making body contact with any of the skaters in tonight's Texas Rollergirls Rock-n-Rollerderby practice, so it's unlikely I'll add to the tally.

At least that's what I keep telling myself as I lace up my skates and tug on the sweat-soaked, more-than-slightly-stinky knee pads lent to me by one Muffin Tumble, aka Terrie Cordova, 41.

She hands over wrist guards and elbow pads, too.

Actually, three busted ankles isn't that bad, someone points out, considering that six players broke ankles last season, and the annual litany of injuries usually runs the gamut from dislocated shoulders and torn ACLs to concussions and cracked collar and tail bones.

Heck, back in February, when the Rollergirls invited me to serve as official whistle-blower at their first match of the season and gave me my own Rollergirl T-shirt and name ("Winona Writer"), I watched one skater get her finger crushed.

She didn't even wince when the medics splinted it up.

I'm here voluntarily — in the name of journalism, really — tonight, to find out what it's really like to train as a professional Rollergirl.

The crowd is rough; I'm not lying.

It's all tattoos and pigtails, tight black T-shirts and sweaty elbow pads. Wheels are squeaking and scrunching, heels are clacking and the surly woman behind the counter at the door is wearing a permanent scowl. Maybe she's just sick of looking at the foot-high clear plastic container of used chewing gum perched on the display case.

Muffin has taken me under her wing. She even loaned me her shiny red helmet, which I buckle into place before I push onto the rink and into the fray.

Muffin plays for the Hell Marys, one of four teams in this Austin flat track league. (There's also a banked track league; I tried out for them for another story four years ago.) As such, she gets to wear a cool red-and-black plaid school girl outfit.

The other teams in the Austin league are the Hotrod Honeys, The Hustlers and The Honkytonk Heartbreakers — and an all-star traveling team made up of 20 of the best players.

"I consider it my therapy," Muffin says of the roller derby. "It's my workout, too."

Workout is right.

About 20 women are circling the rink at breakneck speed, like a swarm of bees bent on stinging the backside of a fleeing suburban homeowner caught mowing the lawn.

After 40 laps, the stream of skaters pulls off, skin glistening, and spills onto bench seats at one end of the rink.

They stretch for a few minutes, grab a sip of water, then head back onto the freshly resurfaced skating floor.

Tonight, they're focusing on offense and defense techniques. Sometimes they practice foot work or do hitting drills. Or they might study strategy, view taped footage of matches or scrimmage.

The whole thing intimidates me a bit, so I just skate in circles on the outside of the track, doing my best not to make anybody angry. It's actually kind of exhilarating. I roll faster and faster, crossing one leg over the other and leaning into the turns.

Inside my planetary orbit, the pros practice the ominous-sounding "offensive snake drill," which involves one player weaving through a pack of skaters, getting blocks from her teammates. It's fast-paced training that involves more than a little pushing and shoving. These women definitely aren't ladies.

Someone wipes out, spinning a tornado on the slick floor.

"You're all right," another skater shouts at her. "Get up and go!"

The skaters range in age from 19 to 43 years old. (At 46, I'm practically a brittle-boned granny among this crowd.) They're teachers, mothers, scientists and saleswomen, and they've all got cool roller-derby names, like Lady Stardust, Rice Rocket, Vanna Whitetrash, Katakillzem, Voodoo Doll and Devlyn Angel.

"If you're not strong when you get here, you're strong when you leave," says Muffin, an accountant who moonlights as a bartender at the Jackalope.

Rollergirls attend a pair of two-hour all-league practice sessions a week, plus additional team practices. They run the stairs at Mount Bonnell, get yelled at by a coach at the HIT Center and more. In all, most players spend about five nights a week honing skating skills and flexing muscle.

"I used to not have a butt," Muffin says. She does now. "My legs are strong; my balance is good. And I've got endurance."

Katakillzem, aka 29-year-old Katherine Lansdowne, has been playing roller derby for five years. It's her second year in Austin, a hotbed of the sport credited with sparking the revival of roller derby.

"It's a girls-only sport. It's not a boys-did-it-and-then-the-girls-did-it thing. Most of the time you have guys dominating and women trying to prove they're as good as the guys. In this sport, women set the precedent." Lansdowne says. "We're a lot of really strong-minded women."

Olympia Ellison, 29, a health investigator for City of Austin, has been playing for the Hotrod Honeys for seven months. A former power forward on her collegiate basketball team, she's been an athlete all her life. But this is different.

"Here you can wear cute clothes and hit girls," she says. "It's like Halloween. It's so much fun."

The regular season started in February and ends in August, although the all-star team will continue to play through the fall.

The local league, a nonprofit organization, operates under the governing body of the Womens Flat Track Derby Association, which oversees more than 70 teams in the U.S. and Canada.

"It's not your typical hobby," says Fearlys, aka training director Lyssa Clifton, who runs her own eyelash studio. "There's nothing wrong with book club or volleyball, but I needed something a little more aggressive. No other sport can you beat up on your best friends and they still respect you and love you. And it makes me happy."

It makes me happy, too, just whizzing around the rink and steering clear of everyone else.

I practice a few skills, including falling — which the Rollergirls call "controlled lowering."

I'm not as graceful as the more experienced skaters, but I manage to plop onto one knee and skid along for a while with my arms in the air, like I'm in a goat-tying competition.

Yeah. I could get used to this.

After two hours, the women glide off the rink, another practice under their belts.

I yank off my skates and hand them back to Muffin.

No broken bones!

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If you go ...

The Texas Rollergirls play at Playland Skate Center, 8822 McCann Drive. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Matches are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. June 27, July 25 and Aug. 22. For more information, go to www.texasrollergirls.org .

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994