Friday, February 22, 2008

I was fiddling around with my elbow pads and the borrowed pair of roller skates when one of the girls asked, “Did you bring a mouthguard?”

Apparently, roller derby was even more of a contact sport than I imagined.

But I was already committed. I couldn’t back out at that point. It was all about pride as I rolled my way up to the starting line.

“No mouthguard,” I said. “But go ahead. No need to take it easy on me.”

And with a blow of the whistle, I was off to begin my experience as a temporary member of the DC Rollergirls.

The idea for this adventure in participatory journalism was formulated when I learned the Rollergirls would be moving their events from the Dulles Sportsplex in Sterling to the D.C. Armory, across from RFK Stadium. I asked my editor whether he thought it was worth writing about the girls when they had their first “bout” Feb. 23.

His reply: “Will they let you skate?”

And so I contacted a woman by the name of Blonde Fury, who serves on the DC Rollergirls’ media committee.

“If you’d really like to ‘take it to the track,’ so to speak, I highly recommend attending a practice,” said Ms. Fury, who is actually Jen Eskin, a grant reviewer for the federal government.

I arrived on a Wednesday night to see nearly 50 young women skating around the vast Armory floor. There was some barking of orders, some nasty-looking spills and some wild outfits.

“It’s no fun going to the gym,” said Bonnie Bacon, aka SpeedyGonbraless, a veteran member of the Cherry Blossom Bombshells. “I’m less on the aggressive side, but this is pretty good for fostering your competitiveness.”

I found Blonde Fury, who was kind enough to explain to me the rules of the sport.

There are four teams in the league: the Cherry Blossom Bombshells, the DC DemonCats, Secretaries of Hate and defending champion Scare Force One. Each team, she said, has a group of “blockers” and one “jammer.” The job of the jammer is to fight through the group of blockers to the front of the pack. The job of the blockers is to help their own jammer through while blocking the opposition’s jammer. Once a jammer gets through the pack, she is declared “lead jammer.” A second time through results in a point. Bumping is allowed — even encouraged — provided there are no hits above the shoulder or below the knees.

But even with strict rules of engagement, there have been broken toes, cracked tailbones and even a bruised trachea. One of the Rollergirls is laid up with a broken leg that required the installation of seven screws and a plate.

Though feeling not the least bit comforted by this information, I asked whether I could strap on some skates and try it out.

I had not worn a pair of roller skates since Poquessing Middle School’s skating party in 1993, but Blonde Fury declared I would be a jammer for the bout. I started off well, making my way to the middle of the pack thanks to a few helpful shoves from my teammates. And the opposing skaters took it easy on me, even though I’m sure they could have decked me numerous times over. (I feigned disappointment in their lack of aggressiveness but was actually quite relieved.)

Going around corners was the hard part. While most of the Rollergirls had poetic technique, smoothly crossing one skate in front of the other, I found myself struggling to stay on track. In using vast amounts of energy to simply stay upright, I was utterly exhausted after three laps around the track. Needless to say, I did not attain status of lead jammer, and my team scored no points. In short, I was a failure, though the Rollergirls were nice enough to tell me otherwise.

Despite their offbeat nature, the Rollergirls were welcomed with open arms by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which was looking to attract new events to the D.C. Armory. The National Guard helped matters when it put down new flooring last year.

“We think this is good for both parties,” sports commission chairman Matthew Cutts said. “It’s entertainment. It’s a sport. This is the type of thing we want at the Armory.”

The Rollergirls have about 50 members, the vast majority of them in their early 20s. Many are in graduate school while also holding down full-time jobs. For some, the move to the D.C. Armory is a convenient switch because the league practices or scrimmages at least three times a week in the evening.

“I didn’t have a lot of female friends, and I was looking for a group that wasn’t a professional organization or all about drinking,” said Beltway Betty, aka Melissa Cannarozzi, a photo editor with Newhouse News Service. “I like it. … You get to see a lot of personality, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s gimmicky. It’s not your regular sport.”

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