Published in Whatcom Horizon on May 12, 2010
by Matt Benoit
They are ready for battle.
These warriors, however, do not wear armor made of iron or steel. They wear tight, red short shorts; sequined red capes; blue jerseys—some of them wear fishnet stockings, while others are clad in form-fitting red, blue, or black spandex. Some even wear both.
They are protected not by shields covered with a coat of arms, but by helmets, knee and shoulder pads, wrist guards—some of them sport mouth guards. They fight not with swords, but with their wholes bodies, pushing, bumping, blocking, shoving, and nudging their way to victory.
They have names like Contra VersE, OSAKA PUNCH!, Ivona Brakebones, and Smash Gordon. Huddling at the sidelines with their coaches, they discuss the battle about to take place, and then take to the track, rolling into the ready position with the knowledge that the fight will be furious.
This, however, is no war. This is roller derby.
Since 2006, the Bellingham Roller Betties have been serving up the hard-hitting action of all-female, flat-track roller derby to the local community.
Inspired by Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls, who began their league in 2004, the Roller Betties are one of 78 member leagues of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), and one of 23 league members in the WFTDA’s west division, which has more leagues than any of the association’s four divisions.
The Roller Betties have three teams: The Cog Blockers, FLASH, and Tough Love.
After competing at the Bellingham Sportsplex for their first few seasons, the Roller Betties have moved their ultra-popular bouts to a slightly smaller venue: Whatcom Community College’s Pavilion gym.
A mixture of speed and spandex, roller derby is a sport hard to describe—think the sex appeal of burlesque meets the physical contact of ice hockey—but ever-growing in popularity. It is likely the most intense roller skating you’ll ever see.
At the April 10 bout, there are two matches: FLASH are up against the Death Rattle Rollers, a team from Bremerton’s Slaughter County Roller Vixens, and The Cog Blockers will duke it out with another Bettie team, Tough Love.
Each match-up is constructed of two 30-minute periods in which there are an unlimited amount of two-minute scoring sessions known as jams. The two teams of skaters (five on each team) line up and, when a referee blows a whistle, the skaters take off.
A lead skater, the “jammer,” who wears a star on her helmet, breaks off from the pack once a double whistle is blown and scores points for her team by successfully navigating her way through the pack of skaters, while members of the rival team try to block her from getting through.
“It’s exciting,” says Amy Fenftemacher, 29, of roller derby. The sister of Tough Love skater Jane Bangarang, Fenftemacher says it’s fun to see someone skate professionally. “I like to roller skate myself,” she added.
So, would she give roller derby a try?
Only, she says, “If there was assurance that I wouldn’t fall down.” Judging from the competition so far, this seems unlikely.
Dehlia Dirty, a former Roller Bettie now “retired” from competition, is an avid supporter. Standing at the sidelines, she sports blonde hair, black boots, fishnets, large earrings, painted nails, and an elaborate tattoo on the lower portion of her left arm.
She holds up a large, heart-shaped paper sign featuring the words “Tough” and “Love” separated by a jagged, lightning bolt-shaped cutout in the middle, dividing the sign into red and white halves.
“I love these women,” she says. “I respect them.”
What attracts her to roller derby, she says, is the full-contact nature of the sport, and the fact that the many women who participate come from all walks of life. They range from nurses to teachers, students to mothers. They are women of a variety of ages, shapes, and sizes. There is, it seems, no stereotypical mold for a Roller Bettie.
And it’s safe to say that if anyone would think of not calling these women athletes, they would be wrong.
Danger Ally skates for Tough Love and has been a Roller Bettie for three-and-a-half years. The 37-year-old, whose real name is Ali Vail, operates a family photography business with her husband, and says the teams practice three to four days a week, for two hours each day.
Consisting of warm-ups, skill drills, endurance drills, team building scenarios, and scrimmaging, the teams have two league practices, one individual home practice, and one travel team practice each week.
They practice at Lynden Skateway in Lynden and Skagit Skate in Burlington, but when it’s sunny and dry outside, Vail says the Betties have been known to ambush various parking lots in the greater Bellingham area.
And their hard work is not limited to just the bout season.
“We hit it hard all year long,” says Vail, who trains all year with Crossfit. She says the only time the Roller Betties are not planning bouts or practicing strategies is the month after the season ends and two weeks at Christmas.
“These women work really hard,” adds Dirty, explaining that the players are required to be on a volunteer committee to help out doing whatever needs to be done. The entire organization is non-profit, and everyone involved—from the disc jockey to the referees—is a volunteer.
For Vail, the large time commitments make working her life around roller derby challenging.
“It’s a constant struggle knowing that I have to keep my job and family a priority over roller derby,” she says. “In a perfect world, roller derby would be a paying job!”
The financial commitments of roller derby are also something to take into consideration for those interested in the sport (there are several open tryouts each year for new members). According to the Roller Bettties Web site, buying roller skates will cost anywhere from $100 to $300, and participants will likely spend another $100 to $200 on pads and a helmet.
In addition, there are league dues—$30 a month—and “skater insurance” of around $50 a year. Factor in gas spent driving to and from practices, as well as their skating uniforms ($15 and up, says the site), and these women not only devote their time, they devote their money.
Shain King, 39, is attending his first roller derby bout. He sits on the floor at the exit of turn four, near the track’s several-foot high barrier, watching the action. A strength and conditioning coach who just started training with several skaters from The Cog Blockers to work on physical fitness, King takes note of how aggressive and quick the competitors need to be.
“It takes a lot of agility,” he says of competing.
It could also be said it takes a lot of guts, as injuries are commonplace in these contact-laden events. Vail says the most common injury to players is bruising, and the bigger they are, the better.
“It’s kind of like getting an award!” she explains, adding that some girls even name their bruises.
But it’s not all fun and bruises.
At the April 10 bout, several players go down hard and stay down. One of them, it is later announced to the crowd, ends up breaking her collarbone. One of the MCs then tells the crowd, “This is a real sport, folks.”
Vail says some of the more serious injuries include ankle sprains, knee injuries, fingers getting jammed or rolled over, separated, dislocated, or broken shoulders, and cracked ribs. She, however, has never been seriously injured.
“I have caused more injuries than having received them,” she says. “That’s why my name is ‘Danger’!”
Dirty says she once fractured the bone at the top of her shoulder, but adds that many of the same injuries found in roller derby could be incurred doing more common activities, such as riding a bicycle.
No matter what the injury, the Roller Betties have on-site EMTs at each bout to attend to downed players if necessary.
So, with all the challenges the sport makes for its competitors, what makes them want to compete?
“I’m attracted to the sport because I have a strong, competitive nature,” says Vail, adding that the sport is “mentally and physically addicting.” She says the most rewarding part of the sport is the confidence it builds in its participants.
“I have seen many girls come play [who] have never played a sport in their life, and now they are star players,” Vail says. “They are much more confident in themselves and this has spread out into their personal and professional lives.”
And what about the spandex?
“I hold spandex near to my heart,” she says. “Sports without spandex is like turkey without feathers…kind of ugly and uncomfortable.”