By Chelsey Seidel
Edited by Frankie Mansfield
The crowd roars, rap music blasts, and the Columbia QuadSquad Allstars burst onto Jamil Temple's roller derby track in true bad-girl fashion. Fans at the track's edge hope for a high-five from their favorite skater.
But forget the fishnets, tattoos and leopard spandex. It's Sunday afternoon, and these women have come to play physical, raw roller derby as they prepare to face Virginia's Dominion Roller Girls.
Outside the arena, they are teachers, aquatic biologists, lawyers, mothers. But when wheels their hit the track, they morph into hard-hitting, adrenaline-pumping competitors.
Call her 'Mel A-Noma'
A co-captain of the Columbia QuadSquad Allstars, Melissa Engle's black fishnets and red spandex booty shorts are far different from her wardrobe as an aquatic biologist.
"I was one of those girls who didn't have a lot of female friends growing up – you know girls are kind of catty, but it's amazing how we all get along and how we have each other's backs," says Engle, who has been competing since 2007.
One of the smaller skaters on the team, her petite frame is outlined with muscle. The bright stars on her helmet's sides say she's the jammer, the one who scores by pushing through the pack with the help of her teammates and passing the other team's skaters.
Beware the ‘suicide seats'
The QuadSquad began in March 2007 with seven women. Now there are 55, including the 20-member Allstars that are the highest skill level and a 20-member "B" team called the Miss B-Havers. Dues are $30 a month. New prospects are evaluated during open skates at the Skate Station USA rink in Lexington. One of the requirements: Be able to skate 25 laps in five minutes.
"Sit along the track at your own risk! Skaters have been known to land in a few laps," the announcer shouts as people sit in the "suicide seats," where skaters flying off the track can land in your lap.
As the Allstars warm up for the bout, fans wearing T-shirts with their favorite skater's name, children with painted faces, parents and grandparents fill three rows of folding chairs along the track and high bleachers along the Jamil Temple walls.
It's Steve Crabbs' first time at a bout. He says his friends persuaded him to come.
"They said hot women, hitting each other, skating in circles and lots of collisions. And I'm like ‘I'm there!'" Crabbs says.
Knock 'em out, then eat
"Eva Las Vegas," Eva Foussat, says she never was a "girlie girl." She says she came to a bout in 2009 and by halftime decided she wanted to skate. Foussat had never played a sport, never skated, never been on a team.
"It's a sport where you can knock someone out and then go out for Mexican afterwards," Foussat says. "I like that a bunch of women can come together for this one thing even though we come from wildly different backgrounds."
"Leighthal" Leigh Cohen drives three hours from Winston-Salem, N.C., twice a week to play with the QuadSquad.
Cohen got involved with roller derby when a team in her area did a promotional event. But she chose the QuadSquad because of the bond she feels with the other skaters.
"The team has some amazing superstar role models for me, real personal heroes in derby. When I realized it was something I could do, I decided I had to go for it and not have any regrets, and it's been amazing," she says.
Tuesdays it's practice. Sundays like today, it's a bout. In between is her full-time job as a second-grade teacher.
"It makes it easy to make the drive when you are just in love with something. It doesn't feel like an extra job or an extra chore because it's something I'm looking forward to all the time. It balances the school life," Cohen says.
Less theatrics, more athletics
This isn't the roller derby of the 1960s and '70s with its staged fights and planned victories. The current version that re-emerged a decade ago in Austin, Texas, is less about theatrics and more about athletics, although some of the flamboyant costumes look like they came straight from an old-time, smoke-filled arena.
It's also about talent and empowerment, like giving girls 10 to 17 a way to channel aggression through the QuadSquad's Mini Derby League.
"I think a lot of times when you hit puberty a lot of that gets pushed out of girls," Engle says. "All of a sudden you go from being a tomboy to having to be very polite and proper. I think it's a great outlet to keep tomboyishness alive."
'A family, a dysfunctional family'
Two days after beating Virginia, the derby girls practice as Beyonce's "Naughty Girl" bumps the speakers during warm-ups. Knee and elbow pads slam the ground as they practice blocking and jamming. But they all smile through their mouth guards.
Co-captain "Holly Hunter" Stacey Russell-Franklin, in a Superman shirt and bright red tights, has been roller figure skating competitively since she was 12. Now, at 30, she balances roller derby with her job at a law office.
"It's a really nice thing, and we're all like a family, a dysfunctional family at times at that," Russell-Franklin says. "I was shy before I started roller derby, and now I'll pretty much talk to anybody because I'm so used to dealing with people with different attitudes and backgrounds."
She says the bond is sister-like, but stronger.
"We spend so much time together, we have to like each other. There will be helmets flying, and you might get mad in practice if you get hit. But we handle it like athletes instead of 60 girls," she says. "We love the sport so much, we don't have a choice."
It's a bond on the track that remains a mystery even to them.
"It's strange," Engle says, "you just look out for each other more. People I wouldn't talk to off the track are my best friends here."