Mad Cowgirl (Maddie) sought a sport requiring little hand/eye coordination — aerobic exercise in an empowering environment — and she found much more. She discovered derby before Whip It brought the sport mainstream attention. Maddie became a referee with the Mad Rollin’ Dolls (MRD) and a founding member of the recreational league, the Mad Wreckin’ Dolls.
Roller Derby harks back to the late 19th/early 20th century when roller skating was new. Skaters would race around tracks to gain points when they lapped their opponents. Derby lost mainstream favor around the middle of the century, even after becoming more of a contact sport. The sport began it’s most recent revival in 2001 when a group of women in Austin, Texas strapped on skates and began coordinating a league.
When my friend (who I know as Ann) strapped on her skates she became a passionate athlete and inspired member of a community of bad-asses. Maddie introduced me to this spectator sport that manages to be amusing, inspiring, and unique within the arena of women’s sports. For these reasons, I began exploring the Mad Rollin’ Dolls for a 10-minute documentary.
The derby founders in Austin designed the sport for spectators, donning short skirts and edgy personas. The founders named the organization Bad Girl Good Woman (BGGW). Due to personality and business conflicts within the league, BGGW split. Skaters in Austin endured the drama to become the Lonestar Roller Girls (TXRD), where they now play on a banked track.
I enjoy the research I conduct for this project. I have interviewed interesting women and absorbed as much media as I can find on the subject, including a few documentaries. Hell on Wheels chronicles the beginning of derby in Austin. The doc does, admittedly, contain some catty bickering, but the excitement and stress of starting a movement from grassroots carries through. Brutal Beauty – about the skaters in Portland (Rose City Rollers) – includes the softer side of its characters and the people who support them. An interview between skater Cadillac and her boyfriend shows that men (support staff and fans) celebrate women at the center of this rough sport. The ultimate message from some skaters in Brutal Beauty inspires: “Derby saved my soul.”
The Mad Rollin’ Dolls, Madison’s own league, began saving souls eight years ago. The original dolls met, fundraised, and promoted the budding organization in 2004, and began with a full season of bouts in 2005. Their slogans include: “hurt in a skirt,” “real hits, real women, real roller derby,” and “find the derby in you.” The group runs on local sponsorship and volunteer power, including refs, announcers, and support staff at bouts. Papa Razzi explores his photography hobby by taking professional grade photos at bouts, and this man has two daughters who’ve broken legs in derby!
Through my interviews with veteran players I see that roller derby players often commit body and soul to the sport and the community. I went to my second bout last Saturday and the event sold out. The women I’d interviewed blew me away with their skill on the track and leadership on the sidelines. I found myself on the edge of my seat (literally gripping the riser where I filmed) in hopes that Mouse, of the MRD Reservoir Dolls, would make up a large point differential to win against a visiting team from Chicago. Mouse scored 23 points during one jam temporarily reviving the crowd and her team. I cheered.
Derby grows everyday as it enters its second decade. Flat-track roller derby has a governing organization, with hundreds of leagues, tens of thousands of players, and even more fans who support them. Websites now broadcast bouts for international viewership. The first roller derby world cup took place in 2011. Now there’s talk of an Olympic bid. These athletes become faster and fitter to compete on an international scale.
My growing fixation on this game proves that I have morphed from derby researcher to derby fan. I look forward to telling the stories of the MRD athletes I admire in my film, but I can’t wait to return to a bout without my camera to yell from the stands.