Correction to This Article
The Oct. 7 Magazine article about roller derby said the NBC television series "American Gladiators" was short-lived. The show ran from 1989 to 1997.
Cover Story

Fight Club

By day, the ladies of Scare Force One manage offices, direct fund drives and research neural functioning like typical Washingtonians. At night, they step into their alter egos and roll with the punches.

By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, October 7, 2007; Page W14

ANGELA WALL IS SPRAWLED ON THE GRIMY GROUND LEVEL OF A PARKING GARAGE IN ROSSLYN. Along with the rest of her team, she is lacing up her skates and adjusting the Velcro straps of the various guards and pads and other equipment that mark the transition from regular life to roller derby. Wall, 33, captain of the DC Rollergirls team Scare Force One, is known to the league by her derby name, Condoleezza Slice. She finishes adjusting her gear and ties her long brown hair back under a bandanna printed with a pattern of little white skulls. Slice is broad-shouldered and solid, and the cumulative effect is menacing. She tugs on a pair of gloves, even though it is hot and muggy in the garage.

"Slice," someone asks, "did you hurt your hands?"

Members of the DC Rollergirls roller derby league.
Members of the DC Rollergirls roller derby league. (Melina Mara - Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

"No, I'm working tomorrow," says Slice. "And I just got my nails done."

Like Slice, who is a technician and manager at a cat hospital in Alexandria, the rest of Scare Force One's skaters lead double lives, created in part by the colorful alter egos that skaters give themselves upon joining the team: There is Harley Quinn (Rachele Huelsman), director of development for a nonprofit; Helena Handbag (Yvonne Dailey), a freelance graphic designer; Trampon (Jessica Schulze), a peroxide blonde who is an executive at a professional skin-care line; as well as Demabrat, Madeleine Allfight and Dame Nation. But daily life often bears little resemblance to derby life, a world where women in miniskirts and fishnet pantyhose regularly bruise each other, break bones and go home with the pattern of their fishnets imprinted in road rash on their flesh.

For Slice, the traits that have made her a good manager at the cat hospital -- patience, organization, time management -- are ones she has also found useful in the more mundane aspects of running a team. The Alexandria resident says she was "president of every club imaginable" in junior high and high school, but, until now, she had never been a "captain of adult women." As the DC Rollergirls league moves through its first season, the biggest challenge for her is one she has never faced: to take a group of strong-willed women who have made a living out of thinking for themselves and help them think like a pack.

In the garage, Slice and her team begin a version of the progressively exhausting "suicide" drill, in which they sprint to the far end on skates, throwing themselves, at intervals, onto the concrete and then doing sit-ups. The garage is a sandpapery expanse of gray studded with concrete pillars and splotches of motor oil, and it is unsparingly lit, like the inside of a refrigerator, with fluor-escent lights in wire cages. The team's shouts echo off the walls.

The league's four teams are basically building themselves from scratch. "Ninety-five percent of us haven't skated since middle school," says Slice. Practice is a mix of endurance drills and strategies and exercises for form, technique and "pack awareness," that elusive ability to move in a unified bunch, like a school of fish. During one drill, the skaters speed up until they are hurtling around the concrete pillars in an attenuated pack; at the far turn, they bunch up; there is a clashing of wheels, and one skater takes a header into the curb.

"Let's line back up!" calls Helena Handbag, when the pack stops to fuss over the woman who fell. "I hate wasting time," she says under her breath.

"So, does everyone agree with the strategy of taking the weakest people out first?" Slice asks near the end of practice, wiping her forehead. "The people that stand straight up -- we need to be hip-checking them. Pay attention to those girls you can knock down."

The air in the parking garage is thick and unmoving, and by 10 p.m., everyone is sweating; their shirts and shorts are patchy with oil and grime from the floor. "Time to stretch!" says Harley Quinn, 28, who lives in Arlington, and the women spit out their mouth guards and bend over their hamstrings.

"Oh, my God, I have B.O.," says Trampon, 25, of Springfield.

"You are so flexible!" Harley Quinn says to Slice, who is pretzeled in a crouch, her face a few inches from the concrete. "Weren't you a cheerleader?"

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