the thrill of the chase

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Rowdy crowd. Tight score. Sold out tickets. Standing room only. The crowd takes a collective gasp as the Charlotte Roller Girls snatch back the lead against their archrival, Cape Fear, in the first roller derby bout of the season.

written by liz mclaughlin
edited by nicole camack
photograph by louis keiner

Oh, the adventure! But suddenly the chase comes to an immediate halt. Timeout. Skater down – curled in the fetal position on turn two of the track! As the medics pour onto the scene, pins and needles hang the game in suspension. But finally, star player Rosemary “Rosie Cheeks” Gardener is patched up, and as she stands to her feet, thousands of loyal fans exhale and roar with applause. The frenzy’s back on, fast-paced as ever, and Rosie wears a smile that transcends the victory.

Unlike the classically graceful ballet and ice-skating that are dominated by women, or team sports like basketball and softball that take the backburner to their male counterparts, roller derby stands alone as a contact team sport dominated by women.

Like many of the skaters who have taken up roller derby, Rosie Cheeks had been yearning to play a competitive women’s sport since childhood, frustrated with her lack of play time on the co-ed soccer team she’d quit ballet to join. So, she did something about it. She saw a recruitment flyer, rented some skates, tried out, and is now team captain. Reminiscent of school yard brawls little girls had socialized out of them at an early age, the diversity of the team and the adoption of different quirky personas is testimony to the idea that in every woman there exists a secret yearning to break away from a lifetime of being told to “act like a lady”, and fight back.

The Charlotte Roller Girls consist of two teams: the All-Stars and the B-Dazzlers, and all types of women have thrown themselves into the derby grinder. Ranging from barely legal to baby boomers, from beauty school dropout to doctorate degreed, there seems to be no predetermining factor for those who contract derby virus and sign up for “Fresh Meat” training with their local roller derby league.

Punk aesthetic and attitude fused with edgy self-produced media content gives roller derby a unique kind of public image uncommon to amateur sport. Add a core unit of skaters, refs and a governing body that’s constantly improving the way the game is played, and an ambitious ‘skate ’til you puke’ attitude, and it’s evident why roller derby is something of a phenomenon.

I saw a hunger in their eyes, a hunger to compete, but at the same time a happiness, a joy in competing—pride that they’d played their hearts out,” says a former high school football player and coach.

There is no rest during bout season. Less than 24 hours after the game, the Charlotte Roller Girls are back at practice. Rosie Cheeks stands mid-rink, whistle in hand, instructing the skaters to “gear up.”

Lacing up their skates in a seedy warehouse in NoDa, complete with concrete track and humidity hanging heavy in the air. In this modest practice space, some of the fiercest females in Charlotte congregate weekly – blood, sweat and tears spilled on track, meeting to embrace a journey of self-discovery.

But no journey is without obstacle. Skaters often find themselves defending stage names and outrageous outfits, pointing to the hours of dedication and training it takes to make it onto a team, not to mention the thousands of hours of hard work required to run a league. But perhaps it is this marriage of the outrageous with the athleticism that feeds the derby frenzy.

“People still think it’s on a banked track, that it’s fake, that we skate on inlines or that we don’t train. They think we’re all mean, man-haters who get paid to play full-time and that we can just throw elbows or clothesline people without repercussion,” Rosie says. “But for the most part, people react very positively, despite not fully understanding it.”

With a motto of “fiercely competitive, community focused”, the Charlotte Roller Girls are an athletic league but are also a civic organization with a priority to give back to the community. Each year they pick an annual charity partner, and donate a portion of bout proceeds and their time as hands-on volunteers.

“The community aspect of derby is part of what makes the ‘for the skater, by the skater’ model so great. Without the community which supports our bouts, we’d be skating circles in a roller rink with no fans,” Rosie says. “It’s our fans and our community who make it worthwhile and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a two-way street.”

To take a trip into the wicked land of roller derby and experience this local phenomenon first hand, visit charlotterollergirls.com.

This interview was conducted early 2013.

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