Editors' pick

D.C. Rollergirls Valentine's Day Massacre

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Editorial Review

By day, Angelita Thomas is a professional stage manager for theater companies around town. But at night, she's "fresh meat."

That's what the DC Rollergirls, the city's only roller derby league, call newbie skaters hoping to join their ranks on the track.

Miniskirted women skating at top speed, screaming and shoving each other in an effort to advance at all costs? Yep, that's roller derby. Rules keep the game from being super-violent, but jutting hips and shoulders make it plenty physical.

But beneath roller derby's rough-and-tumble reputation is a solid core of athleticism and training. Playing requires a level of comfort on eight wheels, the endurance to race around a track dozens of times at a crazy clip and enough strength to push past other skaters without being knocked down.

"It's not for the faint of heart," says league president Camille Morin, aka Camilla the Hun (players have a tradition of adopting fierce derby names). "I've developed a new appreciation for football players."

While a few members, including Morin, have been with the league since it was founded in 2006, most of the 50 or so gals have joined more recently and have gone through a two- to six-month training process to prepare for brutal competition conditions.

"The very first thing they teach you is how to fall," says Thomas, who responded to a recruitment drive and soon found herself falling repeatedly in a parking deck. "You have to get over your fear of throwing yourself on the cement."

The key to falling, she explains, is to go forward, not back. While it may feel counterintuitive, skaters' knees and wrists are protected by padded gear and can take the impact; a tumble on the rear could mean a broken tailbone.

Lesson two is learning to "fall small." On the track, skaters move in a tight pack, which means that one person's sprawling wipeout could take down the whole group.

Once beginners have mastered those basic skills, they move onto more advanced ones such as swerving, hopping and gliding on one foot. It's tricky stuff -- even experienced skaters have to work to stay in competitive condition.

"Core strength is really important; it makes you harder to knock over, and it's easier to knock others over," says Speedy Gonbraless. "Doing squats is key, too -- skater stance is a crouch with bent knees, so getting strong quads is vital."

The group warms up with laps before practice and ends with a set of calisthenics that includes pushups, crunches and leg lifts. And a lot of the players say they keep themselves in shape by lifting weights or doing yoga on their own.

But general fitness and ease on skates are different things"and the latter comes only through practice. The team meets four times a week to hone skills, strategy and confidence.

That's the way to win competitions, and to keep injuries at bay. Many of the women have tales of aches and pains " a pulled groin muscle, a tight shoulder " but, surprisingly, they're rarely serious enough to keep the skaters from practice.

And most of the women probably wouldn't stay away, anyway.

"It's so much more fun than the gym," says Blonde Fury, one of the league's longest-participating skaters. "Now I have an outlet for my competitive streak and a way to blow off steam, too."

--Amanda Abrams, Express (Nov. 2008)