Roller Derby: A demanding full-contact sport

Two skaters demonstrate proper blocking techniques.
Two skaters demonstrate proper blocking techniques.

Maul E. Crue was in a bad place that night in August 2008.

She had left her fiancé and the house they owned in California and moved cross country to Providence. She had no job, no friends and no way to get to the one place she wanted to be: Providence Roller Derby tryouts 40 miles away in Narragansett, R.I.

So in a spunky move you might say foreshadowed her inner roller derby persona, she got her hands on $100 and hopped in a taxi.

"I really wanted to play," she says, in obvious understatement.

Since that night, Crue, 27, has been skating with PRD, a flat-track league that draws members from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

You could say she's found her groove, and it rolls fast and counter-clockwise.

That doesn't surprise Trophy Knife, 24, a Providence Roller Derby member who is in charge of league recruitment and was helping run a tryout in Narragansett several weeks ago.

"Roller derby finds you at the right time in your life," says Knife. (We'll get to the names later.)

And the Providence league has found dozens of women at the right time in their lives since its founding in 2004. Among its roughly 50 members are women between 20 and 49 from all walks of life, including undergraduates, nurses, a Harvard medical student and moms. Crue is a nutritionist, Knife a student and volunteer. The nonprofit league is skater owned and operated.

"For skaters, by skaters," Knife says.

Anyone who makes the league must participate fully, attend a few practices a week and help stage bouts, held in the spring and summer at an outdoor rink in downtown Providence. The league comprises three home teams and two travel teams, which have played across the U.S. and in Canada, and hopes to host a team from London in the spring.

Connecticut has its own roller derby league, CT Roller Girls: Daughters of the American Derby Revolution, founded in 2006 and also nonprofit. Its activities are centered in the New Haven, Waterbury, Woodbridge areas, making the R.I. league more convenient for many in this region.

For the record, modern roller derby is not much like the campy, smash-and-bash TV staple of the 1970s. The biggest misconception, Knife says, "is that roller derby is all about violence, that it's the sport where you beat the s*** out of each other, or we're all gay or we all have tattoos." Still, it remains a demanding, full-contact sport with high turnover, which is why the league recruits new players every year.

"It ends up not being for everybody but somehow we end up with the right people," Knife says.

And by that she doesn't just mean strong skaters.

"It's the total package: you have to be committed, supportive," she says.

It's a commitment Daneen Blanchette of Norwich and her friend Andrea McElwee of Griswold say they feel ready to make.

Blanchette, 42, and McElwee, 34, who waitress together at Chili's in Lisbon Landing, say they had been talking about trying roller derby for some time and decided to attend the recent open tryout.

"Everyone said, 'Oh, you'll never do it,' " says Blanchette. "My daughter thinks I'm crazy; my boyfriend says I'm too delicate."

Regardless, the two hoped to attend skills clinics that lead up to an assessment in January, when the women find out if they make the league.

McElwee noted that she and Blanchette appear older than many of the women contending this night. "That just means we have more years of aggression" to skate out, she jokes.

Kidding and bravado aside, the women say they were drawn to the athleticism and bond between the women at the rink.

THOSE NAMES

Part of that bond is forged through the assumption of new identities, literally. Choosing a roller derby name is serious stuff. You can't just roll into a practice and start calling yourself Aunt Maim. Knife says a name must be registered in the sport's database and it can't be taken by another skater. Before registering, a player must prove her roller derby skills at two assessments.

"It's quite a process," Knife says.

Once a player has her name, that's her identity.

"Never," Knife says when asked if the women ever use each other's "government names," as they call the monikers their parents gave them.

"I think a lot of people are looking for an aggressive outlet," says Knife, and the new identities help make that acceptable. "Or they have a need for camaraderie or for being the badass. It's very transformative."

That transformation can be internal and external.

Knife says it's not unusual to see a woman change the way she dresses from her first tryout to when she becomes a full-fledged member. Out go the baggy workout clothes and in come the fishnets, short-shorts and sassy T-shirts.

Crue appreciates that roller derby allows for that.

"You have the ability to be tough and be considered hot. We have several girls who wear push-up bras and show the goodies. It's done wonders for my self esteem."

And for her the change goes deeper. "The people in the league have been the most supportive group for me at a difficult time," she says.

In the weeks following that August night, Crue says the only thing she got off the couch for was roller derby. For her, it was about reclaiming her sense of self after realizing the life she was living was not her own.

Now she says, "I love my life here, love my friends. … I had no idea it was going to have that big of an impact on my life."

What is Flat Track Roller Derby?

• It's a sport played by roller skaters on a flat, oval track.

• Bouts consist of two 30-minute halves played in two-minute intervals.

• Halftime is 15 minutes.

• Each team has five skaters on the track at one time: Four blockers and a jammer, who must lap them to score points.

ON THE WEB:

World Flat Track Derby Association, wftda.com

Providence Roller Derby,
providencerollerderby.com

CT Roller Girls, ctrollerderby.com

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