- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009


There are some pretty horrific images in the Carolina Rollergirls’ online injury archive: the purple-black bruise on Kristi Kreme’s thigh; the nasty case of “rink rash” on Shirley Temper’s backside; the X-ray of the shattered shoulder - and cobalt chrome implant - that ended Harlot O’Scara’s roller-derby career.

Unlike her provocatively nicknamed fellow competitors, Kelly Clocks’em has managed to skate by with just a few bruises and the odd skinned knee. In her nearly three years around the oval, the feisty 5-foot-2 skater - real name, Abbey Dethlefs - has taken down some pretty tough opponents, but there’s one that proved too much for her.

The recession.

“The economy is tougher,” Miss Dethlefs, 28, said after skating in last week’s Wicked Wheels of the East tournament, her last derby event for the foreseeable future. “I mean, it put me out of business.”

Laid off twice in the past year, with no health insurance, Miss Dethlefs is one of a half-dozen Carolina players who’ve had to hang up their skates since the economy went sour. Others have had to bow out of road trips with the all-star team because they couldn’t afford to travel or take the time off.

And other leagues and players elsewhere are feeling the same pinch - even as roller derby as a whole is prospering and actually enjoying a kind of mini-renaissance with next month’s release of a skater film starring Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page.

What most people don’t realize is that roller derby - an amateur affair, with nonprofit, skater-owned teams competing for fun and bragging rights - doesn’t pay.

On the contrary, it costs skaters hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of knocking each other around on the track.

“It’s gas. It’s baby sitters. It’s equipment,” said Amy Callner, spokeswoman for Baltimore’s Charm City Rollergirls. “It’s all these things.”

“We’re making choices about what we spend our money on,” said Linda Riker, aka Devil Kitty, co-captain of the Detroit Pistoffs, a member of the Detroit Derby Girls league. “I no longer have cable at my house. I don’t have the Internet at my house. I’ve moved to a smaller apartment. I had to get rid of a bunch of my furniture to fit.”

Unemployment in the Detroit metro area recently hit 17.7 percent, and Miss Riker, the league president, said the group has lost about a dozen players because of the downturn.

It wasn’t always like this for roller derby.

Promoter “Colonel” Leo Seltzer is credited with creating the sport in 1935 as a way to drum up business for the Chicago Coliseum. Derby’s popularity waxed and waned for decades, but in its heyday, men’s and women’s professional teams sold out venues from California’s Oakland Coliseum to New York’s Madison Square Garden, and attracted huge followings on television and radio.

The version most people are familiar with is banked-track, a more theatrical brand of derby played on a raised, tilted oval. It’s the style featured in Miss Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It,” and on the short-lived 2006 A&E; television show, “Rollergirls.”

But the vast majority of leagues out there - such as those in Raleigh, Baltimore and Detroit - are flat-track. And the sport is growing.

Members of the host teams often open their own homes to visiting skaters as a way to defray travel costs. But even that isn’t enough for some skaters.

“We have heard from many, many teams we’ve invited to play that they will not be able to, due to economic factors,” Miss Dethlefs said.

It’s all part of a vicious cycle. Less travel means less experience, which affects rankings, which, in turn, affects a team’s ability to draw better opponents, which hurts attendance.

Since the Charm City Rollergirls team was founded in 2005, the Baltimore league has offered members a hardship exception on the $35 monthly dues. This year, applications for waivers or reductions have doubled.

“People have junked their cars, and they’re having a hard time getting to practice,” said Miss Callner, aka Lady Quebeaum - pronounced “kaboom.”

The league depends on dues to survive and compete. But with everything these women give up to participate, Miss Callner says it’s impossible to say no.

“We recognize that this is really important to people, and it’s an outlet,” said Miss Callner, 35, a single mother who’s rationing gas to make it to practices and bouts. “And for a lot of people, it’s what keeps them sane, even when times are tough.”

No one would deny that the sport uses sexuality to fill the seats. But the skaters also want to be taken seriously.

At the tournament level, teams are ditching the kinky outfits for more traditional sports uniforms, said Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association spokeswoman Kali Schumitz, the alter ego of D.C. Rollergirl Lois Slain. A few mavericks are even skating under their given names.

“Some people are really into wearing fishnets and the silly outfits and having a funny name,” said Miss Schumitz, 28, a local-government reporter for the Fairfax County Times in Northern Virginia. “But we’re all there for the competitive aspects.”

And while flat-track leagues are busy planning fundraisers around the Oct. 2 movie release, they take great pains to point out the differences between their variety of roller derby and the version that will appear on the screen.

“The Carolina Rollergirls’ derby is NOT a wrasslin’ style circus act,” that league’s Web site states. “Staged fighting has been replaced with walloping take-outs. Our fast-dodging jammers are too hungry for points to slow down for silly acrobatics.”

There seems to be no shortage of recruits. But MIss Dethlefs won’t be there to help bring them along.

Unable to find a job in marketing or advertising, she went back to school. She’s been commuting to practices and bouts from Richmond, where she’s studying for a master’s degree in creative brand management.

Last Friday, Carolina fell to the Boston Massacre, 112-40. The CRG won two more weekend bouts, but Miss Dethlefs and the team were out of championship contention.

It was an emotional end for Miss Dethlefs. For the past three years, she says, derby has been her “No. 1 priority.”

“I mean, it’s become just the hub of my social life,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know all of these women, who are all amazing. And we’re so different, but there’s such, like, an independent spirit about all of them in some different way that we all connect on so many levels.”

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