Skating to the Season’s End

Posted April 25, 2008 at 4:52pm

Three days a week, dozens of women gather at the D.C. Armory. Clad in knee, elbow and wrist pads, they chase each other around a flat track on roller skates. Some get bloody noses, and others tear ligaments, but none of this stops them. These women are the D.C. Rollergirls.

“A lot of people remember roller derby from the late ’80s, when it was kind of a combination of wrestling and roller skating,” said Kathleen Barnes, who plays for the Cherry Blossom Bombshells and goes by the derby name of Deja Bruise. “This isn’t like that.”

Barnes said the D.C. league is sanctioned by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which has strict rules about engagement. “You’re not going to see any hair pulling or punching,” she said.

Instead, the D.C. Rollergirls focus on the game. The sport is fast-paced and involves a lot of contact. Each team has five players on the track at any given time: four blockers and one jammer.

The blockers from both teams race around the track in a pack while the jammers, who begin behind the pack, try to skate through the blockers to score points. Points are scored when a jammer makes it around the entire track. The catch is that the blockers are allowed to hit each other and the jammers from shoulder to knee, making it difficult to stay up on skates.

“You kind of get to test your limits as far as your threshold of pain goes, and you’re really pushing your body as far as it can go, which you don’t get to do very often,” said Emilia Formoso, also known as Guantanamo Babe of the Cherry Blossom Bombshells.

The league has four teams — D.C. Demoncats, Cherry Blossom Bombshells, Secretaries of Hate and Scare Force One — each with up to 15 skaters, whose day jobs range from government employee to police officer to graduate student. The league was formed in February 2006. Since then, the Rollergirls have made a name for themselves, drawing about 1,000 people to each of their games, known as bouts, at the armory.

Many of the women who play the sport have suffered serious injuries, though they continue to play. During last year’s championship bout, Barnes broke her leg. But she said her adrenaline was so high that she continued to skate. “Not only are you skating for yourself, but you’re skating for all of your teammates, and that pushes you,” she said.

Jen Eskin, who goes by Blonde Fury for the D.C. Demoncats, broke her nose when her face collided with another player’s skate. She also tore a ligament in her shoulder, but neither injury stopped her from playing. “I keep coming back,” she said.

Jessica Schulze, who plays on Scare Force One and is known as Trampon in the derby, said she never has broken a bone of her own. But she has broken four other players’ bones. She admits that the contact is what draws her to the sport.

“I’m not a violent person, but I definitely need an outlet,” she said. “Everyone needs an outlet, and if I can get my thrills by hitting things, I’m kind of a happier person. I’m telling you, I’m a hitter!”

Despite the risk of injury, many of the women say the sport connects them with their inner child.

“On my 21st birthday I made a promise to myself that if I ever had an opportunity to do something that my 13-year-old self would have thought was cool that I would do it,” Barnes said. “A 13-year-old Kathleen would have thought that this was just the best thing in the world, so I had to do it.”

Barnes has been playing on roller derby teams for more than three years. She began on a team in Atlanta and then found a home on the Cherry Blossom Bombshells when she moved to Washington last year.

“I’ve always enjoyed skating so that was the major draw, and then I also like challenging myself,” she said. “I like the exhibitionist aspect of it as well. I also enjoy being around like-minded, independent, strong women.”

Five Ho, a former Capitol Police officer who plays for the Cherry Blossom Bombshells, said the camaraderie drew her to roller derby.

“I hadn’t had girlfriends probably since high school,” she said. “It’s funny because it’s a wide mix of people. You have people that are teachers, you have people that work in bars. It’s a very eclectic group. You maximize your interest level.”

This season will culminate in a championship bout between the D.C. Demoncats and the reigning champion, Scare Force One, on May 3 at the armory. The Cherry Blossom Bombshells will also face off against the Secretaries of Hate for third place.

Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at dcrollergirls.com.