May. 19, 2008
Crouched into the shape of a bullet with legs, I feverishly pump my eight wheels up the track. Around corner two, my targets come into sight: the opposing team's blockade of four blockers. Once a hole opens up, I must pierce through it without getting hip-checked into the crowd.
Of all my adventures, the one requiring the most testosterone also requires me to wear a miniskirt. Tonight, I'm a member of the Sin City Rollergirls, a league of 50 women who skate counterclockwise around the Las Vegas Roller Hockey Center thirsty for blood.
I'm not only a member, I'm a jammer. The job of scoring points for my team, the Notorious V.I.P., rests entirely on my ability to lap members of the Tommy Gun Terrors. (Each of the 48 Women's Flat Track Derby Association leagues comprises two home teams that square off either against one another or leagues from other cities. The Rollergirls' next inter-league bout is Oct. 4 in Salt Lake City.)
"Faster, Amanduh!" yells my captain, Slurpee 7*11. (All players go by nom de skates. Mine derives from "A Man ... Duh!")
Launched as a serious sport in the '30s, roller derby achieved its peak prominence 40 years later, as a pro wrestlinglike farce relying on grudge matches and preplanned hits. Although some of its aspects remain less-than-serious, Version 3.0 -- created in Austin, Texas in 2001 -- whips derby back to its genuine, and brutal, roots.
Probably the biggest difference, however, is that the sport is no longer coed.
"There are no balls in derby," Slurpee explained earlier. (To be honest, I'm not sure that my addition breaks this rule.)
By day, the ladies of derby lead what seem like normal lives. Slurpee's alter ego is Christine Skorupski, a mild-mannered Clark County public information officer, wife and mother of a 5-month-old boy.
"There's a lot of stress in my life," Skorupski said. "But you get on the track and it all goes away. You skate hard, you hit somebody and you feel relief."
Uh-oh. The hole I saw approaching corner four isn't quite the hole I thought it was. And it's filling fast with Krista "Flamingo Jones" Hurst-Penny, who is having her own problems. On her way from the vertical to horizontal plane, the off-balance skater clips my Crystal Palace rental skates, removing from them the majority of my own body mass.
Light blue polypropylene track tiles fill my visual field. They grow larger and larger until ...
"OOOOH!" the crowd groans as I smack down.
There are two scores in roller derby -- the points on the scoreboard and the number of injuries sustained.
"Bruises are a badge of honor," Slurpee explained.
If so, my butt will be honorable for days.
"Get over it, crybaby!" Skorupski screams as I struggle back to my feet.
She has a point. Next to jammer Niki "Black Belt Bettie" Patterson, I have no right to complain. Later tonight, she will take a spill that duplicates mine in nearly every respect but the outcome: a broken collarbone.
And she's lucky. Last August, attorney Tahirah Johnson, skating as Tequila Mockingbird for Chicago's The Fury, was partially paralyzed when another player skated over her collarbone.
"It takes a certain type of person to want to do this," Skorupski said.
Utterly crazy would be that type.
Skorupski, 30, discovered the Rollergirls -- who formed in 2005 -- via their Web site while shopping for a pair of speed skates two years ago.
"I had heard of roller derby, but I didn't know that much about it," she said. "It sounded like a great idea, though, because this is such a difficult town to make long-term friendships in."
Skorupski immediately signed up and paid $300 for new gear, along with $400 in yearly dues and required insurance. (Not only are derby girls not paid for placing their lives in jeopardy -- unlike most other professional athletes, the "Jackass" guys and yours truly -- most actually have to pay to do it.)
Within two weeks of her first practice, Skorupski featured in her first bout.
"I was a rink rat when I was a kid, so I knew how to skate," said the Huntington Beach, Calif., native. "They just had to teach me the sport."
The opening-jam whistle blows.
"Are you guys ready for roller derby?" the announcer, a man who calls himself Ol' Derby Bastard, asks the crowd.
OK, so there's something I didn't tell you about my debut as a Sin City Rollergirl. It occurred before the actual bout, during a demonstration of the rules to the audience.
Both my teammates and my opponents were skating at half-speed.
The Rollergirls agreed to let me play for real, but only if I passed a basic skills test. And after three nights at their practice rink in West Flamingo Park -- during which I was less a jammer than a slightly moving goalpost for them to circumvent -- it was decided that even administering this test would not be safe.
Without a wall in front of me, I still can't come to a complete stop.
"This is how you're gonna help the team," Skorupski says after the demonstration and I skate off the track (and into a wall to come to a complete stop).
She points out a tray of plastic champagne glasses, instructing me to fill them with sparkling apple cider and hand them to fans seated on the sidelines.
I am to finish out the bout in the pivotal position of cocktail server.
I start back for the dressing room, eager to ditch my blue wig, miniskirt, belly shirt and knee socks. (While surfing other teams' sites, incidentally, I made the disturbing discovery that I am not the ugliest currently active derby girl.)
Skorupski stops me.
"No you don't," she says. "You're not changing out of uniform."
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.