- Associated Press - Saturday, August 20, 2016

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) - It’s a boiling hot August afternoon, but inside Carousel Skate Center in Huntsville, it’s dark and cool. Helmets, pads and skates are scattered in piles as their owners gear up for practice. Around 30 teen and preteen girls sit, laughing and chatting while they lace up their skates. Out on the rink, one of the coaches carefully measures out the track, marking it with colored discs.

Someone yells, “We have a new skater!”

A near-deafening chorus of “Hi!” greets the newcomer, who grins nervously.

Nearby, Alice in WoundHerland sits with some of the older girls, lacing up her skates.

“I’ve always been a little bit of a tomboy but I never really found a sport that felt quite right,” said WoundHerland, whose real name is Hannah Rice. At 18, she’s about to graduate off the team.

“When I started I couldn’t skate at all,” she said. “I couldn’t even stand up. I looked like a baby deer, my legs going everywhere.”

Her friends sitting around joked that it wasn’t long before she was like “Popeye eating spinach” and she suddenly became “a powerhouse skater.”

When Rice’s family moved to Huntsville from Texas a couple of years ago, she was thrilled to find that Huntsville had a junior league for roller derby.

It’s called the Rocket City Rebels, and it’s the only junior roller derby league in the state. It’s open to anyone ages 8-18 and has experienced explosive growth since it was formed five years ago. The original league had 12 players; today’s roster has nearly 40.

WoundHer said she fell in love with the team’s staunch acceptance of all body types, personalities and abilities.

“If you’re curvy, that’s fantastic, because we need powerful booties,” she said. “But if you’re skinny, we need fast, wiry girls too. Everybody is accepted.”

The Rocket City Rebels was created under the Dixie Derby Girls, Huntsville’s women’s roller derby league. Founded in 2004, the Dixie Derby Girls features adult skaters who play home bouts and compete nationally against opponent teams in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

When Abi Kunkle was around 10 years old, she went with her dad to a Dixie Derby Girls Father’s Day Bout.

“I was thinking, oh my gosh, this is so amazing, all these women getting out and hitting people, and I was like, ‘Dad, I want to do that,’” she recalled. After talking with the Dixie Derby Girls - several of whom had kids who wanted to play, too - a group of parents and kids started the junior team in 2011 for ages 8-18.

Kunkle, now 16, skates as Ginger Ails.

“A lot of places you can’t walk in having blue hair or just being the weird kid and everyone love you for that,” she said. “But here it’s always been the weirder kids, the kids that don’t exactly fit in. They find a community here.”

Ruby Shepherd’s mom was on the Dixie Derby Girls. Shepherd was at the Rocket City Rebels’ first practice in August 2011.

“It was really exciting and I’ve pretty much been skating ever since,” said Shepherd, now 14, whose derby name is Cora L. Snake.

The team has gone through a couple of name changes and rebrandings in the past five years, but its emphasis on acceptance and community remained the same.

“We all look different and sound different and think different, but we all really love each other,” said Shepherd.

The basic rules of a roller derby game - called a bout - are fairly simple. Two teams of five players each are trying to score the most points by lapping the opposing team.

Each team has one jammer, who scores the points. The other team members are the defense, called the blockers. The jammer has to muscle her way through the opposing team’s pack of blockers in order to race around the track. Once she does that, she scores a point every time she passes a member of the other team.

Modern-day roller derby has rules that keep it from being the no-holds-barred sport of 20 or 30 years ago. Players get penalties for things like blocking above the shoulders, or blocking with any part of the arm below the elbow.

“A lot of people think that the sport is still that thing it used to be back in the 80s and 90s, and I wish the sport would get more recognition of what it is today,” said Rainbow Smash (a.k.a. Alexis Oliver, 16). “It’s more of a safe sport. Roller Derby is skater-run, so it’s more of a family sport than it is for money. If you know how to skate, slap on some gear and get out there.”

While roller derby has traditionally been a sport played by women, the Rocket City Rebels doesn’t discriminate.

“People think it’s mostly a girls’ sport but it’s not,” said Gnarley Quinn (a.k.a. Eliza Heiman, 11). While there are no boys on the team currently, they are welcome to join.

The team practices twice a week, alternating at Carousel Skate Center and RollerTime. Both rinks are run by the same owners, who have been extremely supportive of the team, said Little. While the league is mainly run by volunteers, sponsorship has been provided by Costco and AAL-USA, Inc.

Bouts are played on weekends, against teams from other states. Sometimes the Rebels will play scrimmages at a Dixie Derby Girls event.

“When you’re skating, (I love) just the speed and being surrounded by all your sisters,” said Razor Kitty, (a.k.a. Eliza Bell, 18). “It makes me feel empowered, like I can do anything.”

Gnarley Quinn said she’s both excited and scared when she’s competing.

“I’m scared because I know some jammers who are not very pleasant when they’re jamming,” she said, “but I’m also kind of excited because I want to see if I can block them better than I did before.”

Oddtopsy (a.k.a. Erin Little, 18) has been skating derby for about two years. She calls it a “family sport” because her mom and dad are active volunteers with the team, her older sister is a coach, and her younger sisters Cassidy and Bianca (Punky Bruiser and BB Gunn) are on the Rebels.

When Oddtopsy came out as gay, “almost all of my support came from my team,” she said. “It’s so weird to come from a possibly toxic environment at a school to come to practice and it’s a complete 180. I feel loved and validated and it’s amazing.”

Oddtopsy’s mom Angel said she has watched her daughters come out of their shells since starting derby.

“It’s cool,” said her daughter, Punky Bruiser (a.k.a Cassidy Little, 12). “Everybody is allowed, even if you’re different.”

“It was just night and day,” she said of Punky’s transformation. “It was the first time I saw her feel really accomplished. It made her feel empowered.”

Her daughter BB Gun, 10, joked that she has “like 20 derby moms” because all the older girls look after her. “It helps me stay calm,” she said. “I love hitting my sisters.”

As head coach Melissa Shepherd - Coach Mel - opens practice, the girls skate off to the rink. Grimm’s Scary Tales (a.k.a. Makynzie Smith, 16), puts on her helmet, ready to join her friends for practice.

“My favorite thing about this sport is the community that comes with it,” she said. “I finally have a sense of belonging. They accept you for who you are, and not just who they want you to be.”

She said she’s been bullied in the past because of her weight, but it doesn’t happen at derby.

“Skating makes me feel powerful,” she said. “I’m not just sitting on the sidelines, I’m finally out there playing.”

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