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Women's roller derby is tough, on and off the track

Skaters can shake off the falls and other injuries, but the economic

September 20, 2009|Allen G. Breed

RALEIGH, N.C. — There are some pretty horrific images in the Carolina Rollergirls' online injury archive: The purple-black bruise on Kristi Kreme's thigh; the nasty "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 5-foot, 2-inch skater -- real name Abbey Dethlefs -- has taken down some pretty tough opponents, but one proved too much for her.

The recession.

"The economy is tougher," 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, Dethlefs is one of half a 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 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 one another 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," says Linda Riker, a.k.a. 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%, and 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 the Oakland Coliseum to 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 Barrymore's directorial debut, "Whip It," and on the short-lived 2006 A&E television show "Rollergirls."

But the vast majority of leagues skate on flat tracks. And the sport is growing.

When the United Leagues Committee was formed in April 2004 to discuss standardizing rules and promoting competition, there were 30 member leagues. Since changing its name to the Women's Flat Track Derby Assn. in November 2005, the organization has grown to 78 leagues with more than 150 teams in the U.S. and Canada. The association does not poll member leagues on attendance figures.

In June, the association hired its first full-time paid employees: an executive director and insurance administrator. The sport has grown so much that the organization this year doubled the number of regional tournaments to four leading up to the 2009 national championship Nov. 13 though 15 in Philadelphia.

Even if her Detroit team advances in the North Central regionals, Riker won't be going.

The 33-year-old was laid off in February after eight years with Ann Arbor-based Borders Books. She's applied for more than 100 jobs, some at a $15,000 to $20,000 pay cut, but hasn't even been asked back for an interview.

That's one reason she recently stepped down from Detroit's elite travel team.

"I couldn't justify spending the extra money to travel if I was having a hard time making ends meet at home," she said.

That scenario has played out on a larger scale.

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," Dethlefs said.

It's 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 were founded in 2005, the Baltimore league has offered members a hardship exemption on the $35 monthly dues. This year, applications for waivers or reductions have doubled.

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