Elbows and Alter Egos

Roller derby rolls into Orlando, drawing seemingly mild-mannered women with a vengeance.

Her victory on the roller derby track complete, Cupquake exits the hardwood and leaves it to the person who knows her best to assess the damage.

The night’s physical toll: a banged-up knee and a sore tailbone. Nothing major, Kate Dunn concludes. Only moments before, Cupquake was barreling along an oval-shaped course as fast as her skates would take her, fighting off opposing players, scoring points and taking her share of spills onto the unforgiving floor. The demanding performance helped her team, the Sunny-land Slammers, defeat the rival Serial Thrillers by a score of 47-43.

Now that Cupquake has finished her victory lap, she returns to her more low-key persona —that of the 22-year-old Dunn. Still wearing her pink team shirt and black fishnets, she apologizes for her sweaty handshake and takes a swig of bottled water.

Dunn is a member of the Orlando Psycho City Derby Girls, a startup women’s roller derby league that began hosting competitive games late last year. On this night in January, more than 300 people have paid to attend the league’s fourth-ever public match, at Universal Skating Center on Goldenrod Road in east Orange County. The spectators range from derby girls on other teams to friends and families of the competitors in tonight’s “beatdown” to curious outsiders. There are families with young children sitting beside tattooed twentysomethings sipping beer. There’s music blaring over the loudspeaker from a group called Eagles of Death Metal. There’s a Harry Potter-themed costume contest for the kids.

For newbie fans, there’s even a pre-match primer on the rules of the sport.

They learn that tonight they’ll see a five-on-five competition where women ranging in age from 18 to mid-40s with monikers like Bonez, Bloch Ness Monster and Tiger Beatdown will race around a course, jockey for position and attempt to keep a designated teammate known as a “jammer” in the lead. If the jammer stays ahead of the pack, she will earn her team points, while illegal maneuvers like throwing elbows or hooking an opposing player’s arm will result in penalties. It’s a full contact sport in which the physicality resembles hockey, the constant threat of danger echoes NASCAR and the girls’ over-the-top personalities are reminiscent of professional wrestling.

As the action begins, some spectators take seats on the hardwood floor around the track, just inches away from the hum of speeding roller skates. You have to be at least 18 to sit in the aptly named “wreck zone,’’ presumably old enough to deal with a bumped, out-of-control skater careening toward you. On this night, none of the competitors end up in the audience, though the crowd is buzzing after the player Knock ’Em Over Clover of the Serial Thrillers twice leaps over skaters who have fallen onto the track.

Some in the crowd hold signs in support of their favorites. Others, like Dunn, have their own personal cheering section. About 10 of her friends have come out to support her tonight. They already know all about Cupquake, her derby alter ego, and how the name was inspired by her day job—as a pastry chef at Walt Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin resorts. And they know how hard she’s worked to get here.

Women who participate in the Psycho City league must pay league dues; successfully complete a grueling “boot camp,” where they learn the basics of derby; and finally be drafted by a team in the league. The practices are no cupcake either. A few nights before the tilt between the Slammers and Thrillers, a league practice session starts out like a normal open-to-the-public skate, with girls coasting around in a friendly clockwise circle. Hell on wheels it’s not. But things quickly pick up, as the team members break into physical drills, hard skating and intense training.

Dunn takes a break from the scrimmage to talk about the friends she’s met and relationships she’s forged through roller derby. Her wrinkly white practice T-shirt is pushed aside so she can tuck her mouth guard under her sports bra’s shoulder strap. Again she apologizes for her perspiration. She admits she’s not as aggressive off the track as she is when she takes on the role of Cupquake. “You let it all out, out there,” Dunn says. “I don’t normally go up to people and, you know, shoulder block them.”

In the 1950s, roller derby was a staged event choreographed for sports entertainment, much like professional wrestling. But it has recently undergone a revival as an athletic contest thanks to the 2009 Drew Barrymore-directed movie Whip It, starring Barrymore and Ellen Page. The Psycho City Derby Girls group started in October 2009 with the help of Sharisse Roberts, who competes under the name Felix Bashit (pronounced Bash-it). She’s also spearheading an expansion for the league, which would introduce mixed-gender match-ups.

Among those training for their first match is Katie MacDonald, a 24-year-old student at the University of Central Florida who, by day, is studying for her master’s degree in history. Her more aggressive side gets to come out when she becomes the character Guantanamo Slay. At the practice, MacDonald is suited for combat, wearing pads, skates and black shorts adorned with orange jack-o’-lanterns. The chatty brunette is not quite ready for prime time—at the Slammers-Thrillers matchup, she watches the action eagerly from the scorer’s table—but she beams a big smile when talking about her plans to obtain a Ph.D. and teach at the collegiate level. She’s equally excited about the opportunity to play an exaggerated persona in the heat of battle.

MacDonald’s dual identities of scholar and skater might sound diametrically opposed. But the truth is they encapsulate the culture of roller derby quite well. The sport is a cross-section of American culture that’s just as much pink fishnets and punk-rock music as it is fitness and friendship. On a derby team, a young and rebellious “wild child” might be paired with a thirtysomething mom taking a break from her rambunctious children.

“Whether you consider yourself to be aggressive or not, you do take on an aggressive side, and just have fun and kind of let loose,” says MacDonald. “I think that’s what kind of attracted me to derby.”

There’s also an element of danger and excitement that’s appealing to participants like her. “Does it sound sick if I say that’s what drew me to it?” she asks.

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