Emily Sokol/Milwaukee’s Breast (left) and Anna Krajcik/Grace Killy (right).
Photo by Kat Schleicher
Rounding the corner, she looks ahead to a group of skaters, trying to catch up. It seems promising, but as she squats deep into the turn, a skate catches. She trips and goes down. Hard. A skater tumbles over her, and yet another over her. Four women end up tangled on the track. One gets up and screams in frustration.
But the skater who tripped is still down, lying on the track, her dark hair covering her face. She cradles her left arm. The skidding of wheels against the rough cement ceases, and the skaters take a knee. This is nothing they haven’t seen before. A few seconds pass before she extends her elbow forward, realizes her arm isn’t broken and hops up.
“Who’s the asshole who fell?” she asks with a sarcastic bite, her head dropping in faux shame.
In this warehouse space – lovingly nicknamed “The Bruisery” but undeniably unglamorous – four 20-member roller derby teams, officials and coaches gather every Sunday for scrimmages. The track is outlined with hand-applied fluorescent orange duct tape and patched up as needed. Foam-covered walls, old posters and a cement floor referred to as the “cheese grater,” for its effect on wheels, also fill the space.
But the real games – or bouts, as they’re called – are played in a different type of place, one that’s worthy of a professional matchup – the U.S. Cellular Arena.
Before these bouts, 34-year-old Anna Krajcik lays out her gear: helmet, mouth guard, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads, her gold knee brace from a torn ACL and, finally, gold and red quad roller skates. She meticulously crimps her hair – even the pink-tinged ends – while listening to hardcore rock, lots of Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Zombie. The last thing Krajcik does is apply thick, red makeup around her eyes, “putting on my game face,” she says.
The arena’s lights dim as the skaters are introduced, and their images are projected onto the jumbotron above the track. When Krajcik emerges, she is Grace Killy, co-captain of her team. “Grace Killy is a larger-than-life persona,” Krajcik says, “and I put her on for games.”
Thousands have gathered for this March 24 event, courtesy of their $18 tickets, and the crowd roars. On the receiving end of those cheers: Milwaukee’s own Brewcity Bruisers.
The juxtaposition between the stage makeup and bright lights of the U.S. Cellular and the grit of the warehouse practice space represents the test of modern roller derby. Since the sport’s revival in Austin, Texas, in the 2000s, it has struggled with both a perception problem and a balance between athletics and entertainment. “There was a search for its identity,” Krajcik says. And that search is ongoing. Roller derby is pushing the definition of sport, slowly catching the eye of mainstream institutions, but it hasn’t completely cut ties with its theatrical past.
Therein lies the challenge: Can derby retain its DIY spirit and punk aesthetic while gaining acceptance from mainstream sporting culture?
Back in the Bruisery on that early spring Sunday, Krajcik is without the makeup and crimped hair. “Most derby players want to be seen as an athlete first and an entertainer second,” she says. “I definitely consider myself an athlete, and I try to live like one on a daily basis.”
Changes to the game also focus on athleticism. Later that practice, skaters huddle around Shari Comstock, aka Romaniac, and discuss changes to the minimum skills requirement set by the sport’s governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. In spring 2013, the organization adopted a new skills test for the first time in four years. Participants must now jump higher while wearing skates (from 3 inches to 6) and skate faster (from 25 laps in five minutes to 27).
It’s a direct reaction to the changing sport, says Juliana Gonzales, executive director of the WFTDA. Although she says veteran skaters won’t be troubled by the new test, all skaters must pass it to skate in WFTDA-sanctioned bouts, which usually are contested between travel teams featuring a league’s top skaters. “From our perspective, it’s not that radical of a change,” she says. “[Skaters] on all-star teams haven’t thought about those skills in years.” Even so, the adjustment reflects an increase in the skill of derby skaters. “The whole sport is moving toward that more competitive, athletic place,” Krajcik says.
The requirements keep inexperienced skaters out of bouts. Moreover, Gonzales says, leagues can use the minimum skills test for other purposes. The Brewcity Bruisers, for example, use those parameters during tryouts for their four home teams: Maiden Milwaukee, Crazy 8s, Shevil Knevils and Rushin’ Rolletes.
The increase in athleticism has coincided with a push toward the mainstream sports realm. Roller derby is even bidding for a place in the 2020 Summer Olympics. In September, it will go against baseball and softball, wakeboarding, squash, sport climbing, karate, wrestling and the martial art of wushu for one spot.
Two months after the International Olympic Committee votes, the WFTDA championships will be held at the U.S. Cellular Arena. The WFTDA oversees 176 member leagues and 103 apprentice leagues (leagues-in-training). Its top 40 teams (the Bruisers are ranked 32nd) compete in divisional playoffs, and the top 12 will compete in Milwaukee for the title. “It’s going to really put Milwaukee on the map,” Comstock says.
The Bruisers have been a full-fledged member of WFTDA since 2008, less than three years after holding their first practice in December 2005. “If you could put on roller skates, you were in,” says Emily Sokol, who skates under the name Milwaukee’s Breast. Christina Blanchard (aka Servin’ Justice) recalls how, during that first year, she coached women who couldn’t skate unless their hands gripped the side wall.[PAGE]
There’s a notable absence of glitter and stage makeup during practice.
Much has changed. The four home teams still play each other during the season, but a year after its debut, the league created its all-star team, which skates against other cities in what’s called interleague play. Since then, the league has continued expanding. Included among the additions: a second travel team called the Battlestars; a robust training program for “fresh brew” newbie skaters; a recreational league; and even roller derby for kids, who are dubbed the Micro Bruisers. This “junior” league started in 2012 and trains children ages 8-17 on the basics of roller derby.
In 2006, the first bouts were held at the Milwaukee County Sports Complex in Franklin, which has about a 1,700-person capacity, and the league had an operating budget of just $20,000. Today, the Bruisers are drawing crowds that reach 3,700 at the U.S. Cellular Arena and working with a $300,000 operating budget. Support from community organizations such as the Wisconsin Center District, which oversees the U.S. Cellular Arena, and Visit Milwaukee have been instrumental in the league’s growth and attracting the WFTDA championship.
But at the core of the league are the skaters, who are responsible for every facet of the entirely volunteer-run nonprofit. Comstock jokes that derby is her second full-time job. “For most women involved, this is an outlet,” she says. “Both physically and mentally, I’m stronger.”
That outlet comes at a price. Skaters pay to play – $40 a month in dues plus the cost of equipment maintenance and travel. “I’d personally love to see derby evolve to the point where leagues are able to subsidize their members’ equipment and travel for competition, but I’m not sure that I want to see an NFL-style professional league,” Krajcik says. The “bigwig-behind-the-curtain” model contradicts derby’s pro-women, pro-DIY, pro-empowerment philosophy, she says.
At that March 24 interleague bout, the Battlestars handily beat the Fox City Scream Puffz, 345-86, and the Bruisers beat Appleton’s Paper Valley Roller Girls, 217-150. Before each bout, the Micro Bruisers took the track, complete with micro-sized helmets, pads and skates.
Dressed in all black, Melissa Radtke, a retired Maiden Milwaukee skater, stands near the bench during a Micro Bruisers bout and coaches the next generation of roller girls – and even a few boys. Years earlier at age 40, she laced up a pair of skates for the first time since she was a kid and tried derby on a dare. After 13 weeks of tryouts, she was drafted onto the Maidens, her team for three seasons.
With blonde hair and glasses, Radtke’s daughter, 9-year-old Gnarly Charlie, is the smallest skater on the track. She skates with proper form, low and steady, as her mother yells from the sidelines, a clipboard tight in her grip. Charlie’s small frame makes her a good “jammer,” the skater who scores points (see sidebar at right). She dodges and evades other skaters when she gets her turn with the star on her helmet.
After the two-minute “jam,” Charlie skates over to the bench to rest, and her mom gives her a pat of encouragement. The bout will continue, as will the progression of roller derby. By the time Charlie laces up skates as a member of a full-fledged roller derby team, it may be a whole different game.