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Denver's roller derby rivalry could start the sport rolling across the country

Tryouts for the Denver Roller Dolls aren't scheduled to start until 7 p.m., but when I get there at 6:10, the dirt parking lot of the Wagon Wheel Skate Center in Brighton is already filling up. From the outside, the facility looks like any other big white barn on this dark country road — save for the words ROLLER SKATING on the front.

On the inside, though, it looks like 1985. The black carpet in the lobby is decorated with graphics of neon roller skates, and a disco ball hangs over the rink. There's a prize counter where skaters redeem tickets for cheap plastic rings, and an air hockey table pushed up against the door to the snack bar, which serves pizza and nachos.

From the counter, I borrow a pair of size-seven brown skates with orange wheels, and a derby girl with a Magic Marker writes the number 28 on my arms and on a piece of tape that she sticks to my back. I riffle through a giant Tupperware container of battered knee pads and wrist guards and find some that (sort of) match. I choose a helmet — a white plastic one with a thick chin strap that's dotted with holes and looks like the mask Jason wore in Friday the 13th.

The Rocky Mountain Rollergirls sold out their debut bout this year at the Fillmore.
TONY GALLAGHER
The Rocky Mountain Rollergirls sold out their debut bout this year at the Fillmore.
Gabrielle "Fonda Payne" Begeman (left) of the Dolls skates toe-to-toe with Portia "Frida Beater" Hensley of the Rollergirls last November in Philadelphia.
TONY GALLAGHER
Gabrielle "Fonda Payne" Begeman (left) of the Dolls skates toe-to-toe with Portia "Frida Beater" Hensley of the Rollergirls last November in Philadelphia.

A few warm-up laps around the dimly lit rink later, I'm sitting toward the back of a pack of 49 women who are stretching inside a circle marked on the floor with pink electrical tape. About a dozen Roller Dolls in spandex stand in a line in front of us. One of them has a microphone. She introduces herself as Wicked Sister.

Then she introduces her boobs. "I'm a 34D," she says with a smile.

Wicked hands the microphone down the line. A surprising number of her teammates are 34Ds. Fonda Payne stuffs her bra before bouts. Slick Vick says she's "36, 24, 36. Ooooh, yeah!" Bea Ware introduces herself and then pulls the microphone closer to her mouth so her voice booms. "And I don't wear a bra," she says.

The women inside the pink-tape circle whoop and cheer.

All 49 are competing to join the Dolls, who finished third in the nation at the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) national championships last year.

But their recent success doesn't end there. The Dolls also signed a contract in January with Kroenke Sports Enterprises, owners of the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center, and promoter AEG Live, the massive subsidiary of Anschutz Entertainment Group, to play in the revamped, 6,500-seat 1stBank Center (formerly known as the Broomfield Event Center).

A day after the Dolls announced this deal, their crosstown rivals, the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, who finished fourth at nationals after falling to the Dolls, announced one of their own: They'll partner with promoter Live Nation to play in Denver's 2,000-seat Fillmore Auditorium, where the Dolls used to play.

It's no surprise that the competing announcements came out within 24 hours of each other. The two teams have been going at it, on and off the track, for five years, ever since a group of skaters broke off from the RMRG to form the Dolls. While the personal rivalry has died down somewhat, the professional one has only increased, especially after last year's finals. And the sponsorship agreements have upped the stakes.

Partnerships with such marketing heavy-hitters are rare in the world of roller derby, and Denver's two leagues are among the first to navigate deals that could steer them away from derby's grassroots beginnings and toward a goal of legitimizing a sport that's still seen by some as pro wrestling on roller skates — but with hot chicks.

"Four years ago, the common perception of roller derby was a bunch of girls skating around in fishnet stockings and hooting and hollering for their friends," says David "Hambone" Hyatt, a derby husband and referee who's studying sports management at New York University and working with the WFTDA toward securing big-name sponsors and TV coverage of roller derby in the coming years. "The stamp of approval from Kroenke and AEG and Live Nation is a big stake in the ground that we should be taken just as seriously as any other growing sport."

At the Roller Dolls tryouts, it's clear that the skaters themselves already take the sport seriously. The first test tonight is stopping, and some of the Dolls demonstrate two types: the toe-stop, which involves dragging one foot parallel to the other, and the T-stop, which involves dragging one foot perpendicular to the other, like a T. The wannabes, some wearing short shorts and perky ponytails while others sport cut-off T-shirts and arms covered in tattoos, hop up from the circle with varying degrees of skill and begin skating around the rink. A whistle blows.

I try to perform a toe-stop but wobble and chicken out instead, reaching out for the wall, which is covered in shaggy orange carpeting that looks like a well-worn version of something that might have been found in the Brady Bunch living room. I grasp the little furs between my sweaty fingers and slow myself to a creep.

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