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Women find friends, fun and bruises in roller derby

The thumping riff of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes blasts over the sound system, and fans know what’s coming.

The Venomous Vixens take to the concrete track, their theme song pumping up the crowd of several hundred inside a steel-frame building at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds.

Here comes Belle TaBitch, Sophie Smackdown and Mamageddon.

Meet Goodie Go Devil, Push N’ Daisies and Smashly Juggs.

And that’s Hooky Hellraiser, No. 666, in the skull face makeup.

Welcome to roller derby in Coeur d’Alene, a spectacle of fast-paced, sweaty and bruising action.

The Vixens – the all-star team from the Snake Pit Derby Dames league – is hosting a bout with the Rodeo City Rollergirls from Ellensburg, Wash.

The 14 Vixens circle their coach for the pre-bout pep talk. “Keep the pressure on,” instructs Eric Simmons, whose derby name is Pat A. Hoedown. “I want to control this pack the whole game. That’s how we’re going to score points!”

The crowd rises for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Hooky Hellraiser skates slowly around the oval clutching an American flag. Then cheers, whistles and horns fill the building.

It’s show time.

• • •  

Amateur roller derby, a full-contact, female-dominated sport, is surging across the nation. Snake Pit Derby Dames is in its third season. Spokane has two leagues, the Lilac City Roller Girls and Spokannibals. There’s the Cherry Bomb Brawlers in Spokane Valley, and a second league in Coeur d’Alene, North Idaho Roller Derby.

Leagues are active in three dozen other Northwest cities, and junior leagues are sprouting up, too. The Derby Dames recently organized one for girls ages 10 to 17.

Rose Preston, who skates under the name Belle TaBitch, is captain of the Venomous Vixens.

“It’s great. I get to knock girls around,” says Preston, a personal trainer in Sandpoint and divorced mother of two boys, ages 6 and 17. “You get your aggression out and don’t get in trouble for it.”

She was hooked after attending a friend’s bout. The energy of the crowd, the counterculture vibe, the physical challenge and camaraderie – it drew her in. “It’s an incredible sisterhood of diverse women,” she says.

Players range in age from their 20s to their 50s. There is no typical body type – they are petite or lanky, athletic or voluptuous. They are students and professionals, wives and mothers.

On the track they transform. Many wear tight shorts and tank tops, fishnet stockings and heavy makeup. They slap stickers on their helmets: “Free Punches in the Face.” “Skate Till You Puke.” “Bad Ass.”

Jada Bellrose, a founding member of the Derby Dames who skates as Pippi Headstomping, says she was instantly drawn to roller derby.

“It’s sort of empowering,” Bellrose says. “There’s nothing quite like it, where you can be strong and feminine at the same time.”

• • •  

An eclectic mix of groups has booked corners of the fairgrounds on this bout night: a fun run in the arena mud, a steak feed fundraiser and a gathering of motorcycle sidecar collectors.

The Jacklin building, where cows and pigs are on display during the county fair, is starting to rock. Fans fill metal bleachers and folding chairs. They include grandparents, children and sleeping babies.

Vendors sell Snake Pit souvenirs and cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Banners on the walls plug league sponsors – Quick Release Bail Bonds, criminal defense and divorce lawyers, Maximum Exposure Photography. The DJ plays “I Feel Good” by James Brown.

Elisa Smith, of Sandpoint, drove down to watch her daughter, Lark Patton (she is Kitty GotClaws), skate in the bout. She says she was surprised when Patton told her she was taking up the sport.

“My first thought was, honey your teeth are so pretty!” Smith says.

She’s a convert now. “It’s real exciting to watch. The whole crowd gets into it.”

The bout starts and the Vixens jammer breaks through the Rodeo City pack to take an early lead, 10 to 1. Then, a pileup: Four skaters go down hard.

The crowd eats it up.

• • •  

Roller derby at first glance is furious and chaotic – a race and wrestling match on wheels. The subtlety of strategy is easily overlooked in the scrum that stirs up spectators. To win requires precise teamwork and communication – a ballet of brute strength and skating finesse.

Each team has five players on the track. One from each team, the jammer, tries to break through the pack of opposing players, called blockers. Once a jammer is through, she scores a point for each opposing player she passes within a 2-minute jam.

Each team can score simultaneously, and the lead jammer can end a jam early by tapping her hands on her hips.

It’s far more complex than that, with a lengthy rule book dictating where you can hit an opponent, when a blocker can be penalized for being out of play, how a jammer can score points while airborne and much more. As many as seven zebras, or referees, keep an eye on the action from inside and outside the oval.

A bout can leave a player sore and bloody. Rink rash and muscle pulls are common. Skaters learn to “fall small” and make fists to protect their fingers from rolling wheels.

Stacie Riffe, who skates as Mamageddon, has broken a foot in practice and dislocated a shoulder in a bout.

“We’ve had girls leave in an ambulance with concussions, broken wrists,” she says.

It’s a rough and demanding sport. “That’s what we love about it,” Riffe says.

At halftime the Vixens lead 51 to 32.

• • •  

Two nights before, two dozen Derby Dames assemble for Thursday night practice at Skate Plaza along U.S. Highway 95. The roller rink, normally packed with kids skating to Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, is all theirs.

They lace up their quads, pull on helmets and pads, and warm up on the wooden floor under dim neon lights. Drills last two hours, ending with a scrimmage.

The skaters chatter and call out over the whir of their wheels, each taking a turn as jammer, threading and weaving through the pack.

“Come on, keep it up!”

“Outside, outside!”

Three tumble to the floor in a heap, cushioned by knee and elbow pads and wrist guards. In a second they are back up and racing forward.

“Get some speed and hit that girl,” barks Simmons, the coach.

Watching from the bench is Amy Bartoo, aka the Minx of Mayhem. She’s fresh meat – a new recruit making her way through the strenuous tryouts.

Two months into it, she has yet to be placed on one of the two inter-league teams, The Hissfits and the Diamondback Dolls. She’s not even allowed to practice with them until she passes her skills and endurance tests and a written exam.

“I’ve always loved skating but I’ve never had an outlet,” says Bartoo, 51, a public relations specialist for North Idaho Home Health.

She grew up on Fernan Lake, watched the Winter Olympics and took up figure skating at age 6. But the scarcity of ice rinks here has kept her from it.

Then she saw the Derby Dames skating in Coeur d’Alene’s Fourth of July parade last year, and she was intrigued. She showed up at practice in May, at once intimidated and motivated.

Her husband, a physical therapist, supports her pursuit of roller derby. Her high school son “is mortified.” And her rental skates have given her blisters. But Bartoo is determined to keep at it.

“It is kind of an underground, little-known slice of Americana,” she says.The night ends with a little fun. It’s the coach’s birthday, time for a spankdown. The skaters line up and he crawls through their legs as they take turns slapping his rear end. He got well more than his 34 years warranted.

• • •  

As it grows in popularity, roller derby is evolving. Players want it to be accepted as a legitimate sport, but they don’t want to abandon its theatrics and attitude. It’s a tradition that helped build a loyal following but also has stoked wrong ideas about derby and the women in it.

“We get to put on makeup before a bout, but we fight and compete just as hard as any other sport,” says Bellrose, 31, a single mother in Liberty Lake.

She has two sons, ages 4 and 7, and is a full-time student at North Idaho College, studying early childhood education.

“There are arguments pro and con as far as fishnets and all that go. A lot of girls lean more toward just sports attire and drop the whole girly side of it,” she says. “But I think it’s kinda cool. I am in my own way a feminist, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think it’s unique to the sport.”

In most sports women end up modeling themselves after male behavior, Bellrose says. “With roller derby, it’s not like that. We’re creating it as we go.”

Crystal Owens, a mental health therapist in Coeur d’Alene, joined the league a year and a half ago after seeing a recruitment flier.

“Just taking the initial leap can be difficult for some people, because there is a stereotype that we’re just beating each other up and that we’re partying all the time, and that’s not necessarily the image that we’d like to portray,” says Owens, whose alter-ego is Davy Rock-Hit.

“These are real women who are coming, they all have daytime professions. They’re mothers, they’re wives, they’re professionals. Absolutely, do they have an aggressive side, yes. Is that what it’s all about? No.”

Master Gardener and greenhouse owner Kari Glessner – has the jam of her life, lapping feverishly to rack up 20 points. The crowd erupts.

She credits great blocking by her teammates. “That felt good.”

The Vixens stay in command, finishing the night 111 to 95. “Rodeo City!” they yell in salute to the other team.

Fans step up to the track to trade high-fives with the victors. A few players crack open beers and reunite with friends and family. The crowd thins out while Vixens and volunteers clean up.

They head downtown to The Hogfish Bar and Grill to celebrate their win with drinks and dancing. “We usually win the after-parties, for sure,” Bellrose quips.

This is the support, the sisterhood, that comes from roller derby. Players build strength and self-esteem, as well as solid friendships.

“You can’t help but gain confidence playing this sport. You just have to. It just happens,” Bellrose says. “You learn that you can get knocked down over and over and still get up and still be happy, and whether you win or lose, you triumph. And that’s a cool thing. You can’t get that too often out of everyday life.”