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Brandi McCall does not like football. But when alumni from her college contacted her last summer and asked if she wanted to join a coed D.C. flag football league, she decided to give it a shot. The Prince George’s County native believed the league would offer a family-like environment, and she figured it could be a good way to meet new people in the area.
That didn’t happen.
“It felt like the group was already mapped out,” McCall says. “It’s like when you transfer to a school in the middle of a school year—that feeling. Everyone already has a friend group, and you can’t join into the friend group.”
She quickly left the league, and less than a year later, McCall went online and searched for local roller derby groups, which eventually led her to the DC Rollergirls’ website. McCall has always enjoyed skating—she celebrated her 25th birthday at the Temple Hills Skate Palace—so she decided to attend the team’s open house a few weeks after her March 16th birthday.
With the DC Rollergirls, McCall has found what her flag football experience lacked—a welcoming atmosphere. The club, a nonprofit, volunteer-run women’s flat track roller derby league in D.C., prides itself on providing a diverse and inclusive environment for individuals of all athletic backgrounds. Initially, she worried about the potential lack of racial diversity, but as practices went on, McCall, who is black, met more women of color. A college classmate skates with the advanced group.
McCall now practices with the league’s rookie team twice a week.
“It’s the most pain I’ve been in all my life,” she says, laughing. McCall credits the women for being “really inviting and encouraging.” It’s part of the Rollergirls’ charm. They make the physical agony worth it.
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Inside a dim, cavernous warehouse in Hyattsville, the squeaking sound of rubber wheels on concrete echoes off the walls. The sun is setting, and the faint overhead lights are all that illuminate the large makeshift roller derby track. It’s a little before 8 p.m. on a recent Monday, and the DC Rollergirls are preparing for their second bout of the season, against the Charlottesville Derby Dames, to be held at the DC Armory on Saturday, April 27. Skaters from both the DC Rollergirls “A” and “B” travel teams will compete in a mixed-roster, single game.
“Sprint! Sprint!” shouts Wynde “Scar Trek” Priddy. “Hustle! Hustle! Hustle!”
Priddy is DC Rollergirls’ training chair and one of the league’s most experienced players. She is leading an advanced scenarios practice tonight, and for the next two hours, will be the patient but firm voice guiding the 14 skaters in attendance.
The 36-year-old who hails from Texas started participating in roller derby in Denver 10 years ago, and moved to D.C. in 2015. She did plenty of physical activities—tennis, diving, gymnastics, and dance—growing up, but never played a team sport until roller derby. To Priddy, it looked like a physical and mental challenge, and the athleticism of the women felt empowering.
“There’s a cachet about it,” she says. “It’s fun. It’s fast. You feel the wind in your hair, like the feeling of riding a bike down the street.”
Now in their 13th year, DC Rollergirls follow the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) rules. Each 14-skater team fields four blockers and a point-scorer called a jammer, whose job is to get through the opposing blockers in jams that can last up to two minutes. Jammers earn one point for each opposing player they legally pass around the oval track. The bout consists of two 30-minute periods.
It’s not quite as violent as pop culture depictions, like the 2009 Ellen Page film Whip It or the televised bouts known as RollerJam that aired in the early aughts, but the contests are still physical, intense—and full of controlled chaos.
The sport’s appeal among many different kinds of women is evident. Even in this small group consisting of a mix of players from the group’s “A” travel team (All-Stars), “B” travel team (National Maulers), and players who are leveling up in order to scrimmage, there is a blend of sizes, athletic backgrounds, and ages. The oldest player on the Maulers is in her 50s.
“I think it’s been inclusive with different body types,” says Alexandra “Mississippi Blues” Williams, who joined DC Rollergirls last April and plays for its “C” travel team, the Capitol Offenders. “I’m a bigger person, so I’m always concerned about going into a new, physical environment where you’re doing something with your body and that judgement of you not being able to do something. A lot of times we have trainers and coaches who are of different sizes who will show you someone who is bigger, someone who is smaller [that] this is what it looks like with your body.”
The 33-year-old is one of several players on the teams who entered roller derby with minimal athletic background beyond school gym classes. Some, like Priddy, grew up around sports, but skaters like Diedre “Fractious Phoebe” Schofield, 34, avoided organized physical activity.
“I was always the smallest person, so no one wanted me for anything,” says Schofield, who moved from South Korea to Woodbridge, Virginia, with her husband and young son last May. “I was always the last kid to get picked, so I eventually gave up. I was like, well, they don’t want me to play sports, so I’ll do other stuff.”
Roller derby, she adds, has given her the confidence to try other things. Schofield started running, and periodically doing yoga. She goes to the gym about four days a week and currently weighs 20 pounds more than she did when she started roller derby in 2011, adding muscle to keep pace with the physical demands of the sport.
“It’s been very important to me that when I do move, I move somewhere where there is roller derby,” Schofield says.
Katie Prosen sat quietly against the concrete wall during the early April open house and listened as Melissa “Slamazon Prime” Benn and Colleen “Slay Belle” Dougherty gave an overview about roller derby to the few dozen people gathered at the Hyattsville warehouse.
Like Schofield, Prosen moved to the area with roller derby in mind. She chose her Ivy City apartment based on its proximity to the Rollergirls’ practice facility. There are leagues in Maryland and Virginia, including Free State Roller Derby in Montgomery County and NOVA Roller Derby in Leesburg, but the DC Rollergirls are the only team representing the District.
Prosen, 32, watched the sport in Boston, and only started competing after her 30th birthday, while living in San Francisco.
She recently came down with a bout of bronchitis, preventing her from practicing with her new team, but she agrees with McCall that the league is “extremely welcoming” compared to other sports. “Maybe because so many people are so intimidated by it,” Prosen offers.
But her reason for joining roller derby is simpler than that.
“[It’s] because of the badassery,” Prosen says. “It’s just so awesome. I want bad-assness in my life.”