In the few moments before the starting whistle shrieks, Ginger Clobbers has words running through her head. They fuel the intensity of her mission in the contest of skill and power that's about to begin. All she thinks is: kill, kill, kill.
The thirty-six-year-old positions herself on an oval track laid out in red tape on the concrete floor. The tape separates her from the rest of the cavernous exhibit hall in the Raleigh Convention Center, a third of which is filled with people ranging from tattooed, vibrant-haired young folks to plaid-shirted parents and their kids. Some sit at the edge of the track, putting their cups of local craft beer at risk should a body come careening across floor. By the bathrooms, drag queens are teasing the tangles out of curly brown wigs and preparing for their moment of lip-syncing fame at halftime.
Clobbers focuses on four women directly ahead of her. When the game begins, they will press shoulders to shoulders, hips to hips, and kneepads to kneepads, locked in a grueling effort to keep Clobbers from breaking through their ranks and finding the freedom to go zooming around the oval's curve.
These women are roller derby players. It's Saturday, February 17, game day for the Carolina Rollergirls.
Before play starts, Clobbers may not seem too intimidating. She stands near the average derby height of 5'4", wearing her game-day black pants and black-and-red jersey, spicing up the look with a red kerchief around her neck. Her helmet covers braided hair, also red, and short bangs.
Before derby, Clobbers says, she was shy and self-conscious, often too timid to even pull the cord for her stop while riding the bus.
Now in her ninth season of roller derby, Clobbers was voted the "most terrifying teammate" by her fellow skaters. She's one of the most senior members of the league, which includes A-team the All Stars and B-team the Bootleggers.
Derby drew in Clobbers because it was one of the few competitive sports for adult women, offering a group of teammates that its players describe as a family or a sorority—even, sometimes, as a cult. But what makes derby special is that it is a sport for skaters, by skaters.
Clobbers and the Rollergirls, a group of about twenty-five women, most in their twenties and thirties, had arrived for this season opener, a double-header against the Greensboro Roller Derby, at eleven in the morning. In the six hours before the whistle, they transform a hall three times larger than their usual practice space into an arena with a track taped on the floor and chairs for at least six hundred fans. They do each other's makeup—a touch of red lipstick, maybe some eyeshadow—take team pictures, warm up, skate their hardest for two hours, end play at nine at night, pack up, hit the after-party, and then show up the next morning at nine for practice. It's draining. It's a time suck. And when it's time to pay the $55 monthly dues and purchase gear, it's not a cheap one.
But all around the world, in twenty countries on five different continents, women are making roller derby happen. Their sport is an outlet for teams, fans, announcers, deejays, and referees to engage, be aggressive, and act loud and bold and free. The derby community accepts the fact that they have stomachs, thighs, and butts, and that it doesn't matter what a skater does for a living. As long as she can show the world her all, she is enough.
"Every time I step away, it pulls me back in," Clobbers says. "Derby has changed our lives for the better."
Derby is an unfamiliar sport to some, and even those who know it may not understand its current form. The roller derby game of 2018 looks different than it did thirty years ago, when many of its current fans were kids.
The Rollergirls' Mirtha Barner, or Miss Merica, was one of those kids. She watched roller derby on TV in the early nineties and remembers the grudge matches, the elbows to the face, the flipping over rails, and other choreographed antics that made it much more like pro wrestling than the professional, competitive sport it became in the 2000s.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Uniscorn battles Crash Catch 'Em during the Carolina Rollergirls scrimmage.
The current version deals more in muscle power and tactics, hitting hard to score points instead of making a spectacle. Two teams of five women face off on the track. Eight are blockers, the main defense, and two are jammers, the main offense.
Clobbers is a jammer. She wears a black helmet cover with a red star, and it is her job to break through the other team's blockers to score points. After she dodges, sidesteps, or simply barrels through the group, she skates the length of the track and enters the fray again, earning a point for each member of the opposite team she passes.
As a blocker, Barner, a third-year derby player, uses her body to stop the opposing jammer but also to get Clobbers, her teammate, through the other pack. Play proceeds in two-minute sessions called jams. When a jam ends, five fresh players come on.
A history of rule changes has altered the game play to its current form, an evolution apparent to veteran players like Clobbers. Since the formation of the skater-led Women's Flat Track Derby Association in 2004, speed of play, training strategy, and penalty rules have been altered, shaping the current game dynamics. The number of skaters has also skyrocketed. WFTDA currently lists 422 domestic and international leagues, 339 of which have teams that meet WFTDA requirements to compete for rankings. In March, the Rollergirls jumped from 123 to 107 in the WFTDA rankings.
Renee McHugh, a tall referee with a shock of purple-blue hair that matches her name, Elektra Q Tion, joined the team nine years ago. Like Clobbers, she saw changes come and go in WFTDA and in her own team. Though she continues to be involved with the Rollergirls, the forty-eight-year-old quit skating two years ago. The team is different—younger, less intense—and she no longer feels she belongs the way she used to.
"They've got their own thing going on," she says, pulling on her black-and-white striped jersey.
In the game against Greensboro, the leadership, drive, and experience of skaters like Clobbers shapes the play, but the explosive energy of younger players learning to be a team shines through. After the whistle, Greensboro initially leads the charge. Their jammer breaks free of the Rollergirls for the first, second, and third jams. But in the fourth jam, Clobbers, keeping her body low and using her shoulders to drive through the pack, blasts past the Greensboro players and picks up three points.
She sets the tone for the rest of the game. Mayhem West, a tall, blonde jammer with a strong build and short shorts who joined the team in 2017, becomes the crowd favorite by racking up points, scoring up to fourteen in every jam she skates in.
The blockers thrust hips and butts into oncoming jammers, their skates honking as they brake in Greensboro's path. At times, it looks like a mess of bodies and confusion, inevitable when a game starts in a ten-foot space. But the beauty of derby comes through in the moments of clarity when a jammer emerges from the crush, tucks her body, and sets off, skates gliding over the smooth floor, the crowd breathing with her until she crashes back into the smash of bodies.
These relatively tranquil moments are a quick respite between the excitement of the rest of the game, as hard hits and take-outs keep the fans gasping and cheering. In the second bout, Barner hip-checks a fellow jammer as they speed around the track and sends her sliding into the "suicide seating." It doesn't bother the fans—in fact, getting close to the players is one of the reasons they come to bouts.
"We've been to hockey games and stuff, but you're always separate," says Frank Menius, a red-bearded, blue-haired man sitting next to his three kids. "[In derby,] you can get really close ... it's exciting."
Menius's kids, along with fans of all ages, run up to give high fives to the players as they skate around the perimeter at the end of the game. The Rollergirls celebrate a win of 264-138.
This Saturday, April 14, the Rollergirls return to Dorton Arena, their home track from 2006 to 2016. The Bootleggers will take on the Ring City Rollergirls from Kinston, North Carolina, at seven, after the All Stars play the Rouge Rollergirls of Fayetteville at five. Announcer Rippi Longstocking will commentate during the game. The forty-six-year-old English professor says she got involved with derby because of the incredible power, intelligence, and determination of the players.
"There's a lot of effort," she said. "Nothing makes me happier."