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

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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.


Roller derby

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.

The second time the whistle blows, I'm rounding a bend and can't reach the wall in time. I careen into a cluttered corner and manage to stop the top half of my body by grabbing onto two stacks of safety cones on either side of me. But the bottom half of my body keeps going, straight for an unplugged floor-cleaning machine that resembles a mini-Zamboni. Unable to drag my foot — perpendicular or parallel — I hump the Zamboni.

The rest of the women seem to stop just fine.

Modern roller derby was born in Austin, Texas, in 2000, when a nefarious, unnamed troublemaker overheard a great idea at a bar and stole it for his own, according to two books written on the genesis of 21st-century derby. The idea was a revival of the sport of roller derby, hatched in the 1930s as an alternative to popular endurance-type entertainment like dance marathons and ice-sitting contests. The first iteration wasn't violent, but it grew to be when the promoter who started it, Leo Seltzer, realized that the crowd loved it when the skaters — both male and female — collided.

Seltzer took his show on the road, and eventually to television in 1948. Derby's high point came a year later, when 55,000 people crammed into Madison Square Garden for a five-day series, according to Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest Sport on Wheels, a book written by one of the founding Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, Catherine "Jayne Manslaughter" Mabe.

Derby remained popular throughout the '50s and '60s but fizzled in the mid-'70s, Mabe writes. Promoters occasionally tried to revive it, and Hollywood took notice with a handful of derby movies, including 1972's Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch. There were also a few short-lived television series, including 1999's RollerJam, which was canceled after three years.

But the revival that began at a bar in Austin was a far cry from the inline skates and scripted drama of RollerJam. The nefarious character, according to Rollergirl: Totally True Tales From the Track, by Texas skater Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan, wanted to stage a punk-rock, circus-like revival of the sport, in which ladies' looks were more important than their ability to skate. He set up four teams, recruited girls to head each one, and christened them with campy names like Hot Lips Dolly and La Muerta.

When the promoter left town without a trace, the teams decided to go on without him. They formed a league, recruited skaters and staged their initial bout in 2002.

First, though, they had to come up with rules. At its most basic, a modern roller derby "bout" works like this: Five skaters from each team take to the track. One of them is the "jammer," another is the "pivot" and three are "blockers." The jammer, denoted by a star on her helmet, scores points by lapping the other team's skaters. The blockers try to stop the other team's jammer from doing that by getting in her way. The pivot, who wears a stripe on her helmet, sets the pace for the blockers.

The game is rough. Players crash into each other on purpose, knocking one another off balance and often sending an opponent flailing into the sidelines or hurtling head-first onto the track. Blood, broken bones, torn ligaments and black eyes are common. After a few players lost teeth, mouth guards became standard issue.

It didn't take derby long to catch on. A few years after the Texas Rollergirls were born, other leagues started popping up around the country, including the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls in 2004, which began with very little understanding of what derby was.

"We really kind of had to feel our way in the dark," says Jen "She Who Cannot Be Named" Frale, one of the few skaters who remain from that first year. "We had seen pictures of other leagues, talked to a few girls here and there, but it's nothing like it is now. You couldn't just roll up into another town and be like, 'Hey, derby league of Smithville, USA, what up?'"

It took the RMRG nearly a year to recruit enough players to stage its first bout in July 2005 between the Red Ridin' Hoods and the Sugar Kill Gang. But over the next six months, a schism emerged between some of the veteran skaters and the new recruits, who weren't allowed to vote on league business. When a group of 26 women signed a petition asking for voting rights, they were asked to leave. At least that's how Julie "Angela Death" Adams, who was drafted to the Red Ridin' Hoods, puts it.

"We were shocked that this had happened, because the petition was initiated to make change for the better, not stir up trouble," says Adams, a 28-year-old unemployed video editor who grew up skating and playing hockey.

So the renegade girls decided to go it alone. "We were like, 'We're not going to stop skating, we love roller derby.' Thus the Denver Roller Dolls were born," Adams says.

For a while, there was bad blood between the two leagues. And since the breakaway Roller Dolls weren't yet part of the WFTDA, a nationwide association of roller derby leagues formed in 2004 to come up with a standardized set of rules and regulations, the team had trouble getting WFTDA-sanctioned leagues to bout them. Not that the RMRG was doing so well. At the WFTDA's first-ever interleague tournament in February 2006, the RMRG came in twentieth out of twenty teams.

"It was so fucking embarrassing," Frale, a 38-year-old judicial assistant, remembers. "I could have cried."

By 2007, the friction that marked the early days of the rivalry was beginning to fade, however, as more and more of each league's founding members left roller derby because of skating injuries, pregnancies and out-of-state moves.

That year, the Roller Dolls joined the WFTDA with the blessing of the RMRG; there are now 78 leagues nationwide, including five in Colorado. (There are also five or six non-WFTDA-sanctioned leagues, some of which are working toward joining the association.) Both the Dolls and the RMRG have about 90 to 100 people involved in their league. Not many RMRG skaters remember the split, and those who do want to put it behind them. From what they can recall, neither side was entirely in the right.

For four years, the leagues avoided meeting on the track. When they finally did, it was in a bout that solidified this city's spot in derby.

It's a Wednesday night in January, and the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls are practicing the titty takeout. "I want to see your guys' technique on this!" shouts Sarina "DeRanged" Hayden, who's running the practice. "Good sternum hits!"

The RMRG leases an unheated Denver warehouse that serves as its home base and practice space. Tonight, it's loud. Pump-up music, including "Eye of the Tiger," booms from a stereo system against the far wall as the women line up to execute the drill on a track they laid themselves. A few injured skaters — including spokeswoman PJ "Dangerous Leigh A'Zon" Shields, who broke her right pinkie so badly at an earlier practice that she needed surgery to repair it — hang along the edges of the track, one side of which is lined with hand-me-down couches and gym bags.

After a February 6 intra-league debut at the Fillmore, the RMRG's traveling squad plans to hit the road for two bouts in Washington before returning to Denver for a March 6 matchup.

The women are skating around in pairs, one slightly in front of the other, practicing the drill. The woman in front ducks low and then pops up, digging her shoulder into the solar plexus of the skater behind her; done right, this move can be devastating.

"Whipity will ruin your life with one of her titty takeouts," Shields says.

Whipity is Whipity Pow, aka Angela Delagarza, a 32-year-old mother of four from Highlands Ranch. She's a whirlwind: small, agile and made of muscle. She's also prone to shouting, Howard Dean style. "I'm one of the crazies," Delagarza says. "If I'm blocking, I'm just thinking about, 'I want to seriously cause some damage to these people.' But if I'm jamming, I'm like, 'I'm not going to let those girls mess with me at all.' I feel like I will kill myself doing the best I can. I don't care what it takes."

Delagarza is one of the stars of the RMRG; she was named 2009 Rookie of the Year by the Derby News Network, a professionally run website devoted to all things derby that's maintained by three unpaid derby-obsessed volunteers.

But she's not the league's only standout. There's 29-year-old Hayden and her younger sister, Melissa "Psycho Babble" Hayden, both of whom learned to skate before they could walk at their parents' roller rink. The sisters transferred to the RMRG from the Colorado Springs Pikes Peak Derby Dames last July, along with Candy "Ecko" Jones, to escape "personality clashes" among the Derby Dames and because they felt that not everyone in that league was putting in the work to win.

The RMRG, the elder Hayden says, is different: "Everyone has one goal in mind."

To reach that goal, the RMRG's A-squad, the 5280 Fight Club, relies heavily on stars like Delagarza and the Haydens. (Most derby leagues have several "home teams," like the RMRG's Red Ridin' Hoods and Sugar Kill Gang, and two travel teams, a B-squad and an A-squad, whose members are the best of the best of their home teams. The A-squads compete in tournaments and for nationwide rankings.)

Whereas before the RMRG was "scrappy, tough, persistent — all those things you say about teams that play hard but don't win," the league has now "developed some talent that has started to really shine on their travel team," says Chris "Hurt Reynolds" Seale, one of the guys behind the Derby News Network.

"The RMRG has a few wild cards that can really make or break the game," adds Kaela "Bruister Keister" Dreller, who recently broke off from the Castle Rock N Rollers to form a new league in Aurora called the High City Derby Divas.

The rival Roller Dolls have also improved, but in a different way, Dreller says. "They have strategy."

It's an assertion that the Dolls are quick to confirm. "We're definitely brains over brawn," says Dolls founder Adams.

The Dolls' travel team is called the Mile High Club, and its co-captains, Ariel "Crash Dance" Quigley and Tracy "Disco" Akers, say the decision to focus on strategy instead of individual talent came after the 2008 season, their first as members of the WFTDA. That year, Akers says, "we got our butts handed to us."

The skaters realized that if they wanted to win, they'd have to play for each other rather than for themselves. So in the off season, team leaders researched strategies, and in February 2009, at a multi-state tournament in Colorado Springs called the Four Corners Feud, the Mile High Club debuted its new style.

"The Denver Roller Dolls had a whole different look to them than the previous time we'd seen them in October 2008," Seale says of their performance at the Feud. "They had discovered discipline. They were acting as a tight unit. It was stellar, a sight to behold. It was one of those cases you see in sports where a team puts the pieces together, and all of a sudden they're competing at the top."

The Roller Dolls swept the tournament.

One of their most controversial strategies is known as "slow play." To execute it, the players "trap" one of the other team's blockers in the pack, thereby gaining control of the speed of the pack. Then they slow their skating to a crawl — or slower — making it easier for their jammer to pass the pack and gain points.

"We've practiced this so much that we can do it very, very slow," Adams says. "We never stop moving completely, but you can imagine how people who've never seen that before might get irate that we're not skating around in fast circles, knocking each other down."

Other skaters get annoyed too; the play has been called "demoralizing." But there's no doubt that it works.

By the end of the season, the Dolls had lost only one bout, to the Oly Rollers of Olympia, Washington, who went on to snatch the first seed for the 2009 WFTDA Western regional championships in October. The Dolls were seeded second out of ten teams, and RMRG was seeded eighth. Earlier that year, the two leagues had joined forces in a bid to host the match at Bladium Sports Center in Denver, where the RMRG bouted.

Examining the brackets before the tournament, the leagues thought it was unlikely they'd face each other. But on the second day, the RMRG upset the third-seeded team and the planets aligned. Co-hosting the tournament had proved that the leagues had left much of the bad blood behind them. But that new spirit of camaraderie now had to be put on hold.

Skaters on both teams were nervous. "The atmosphere in the Bladium was absolutely nuts because of the local rivalry," says Angela Palermo, an RMRG fan since 2005. "It was just delirium." Fans cheered and booed; some even waved nasty signs.

"It was really emotional," says 5280 Fight Club skater Sharon "Catholic Cruel Girl" Bankert. "It took a couple jams to get in the swing of it."

The game was close as the leagues' travel teams alternated the lead. In the end, though, the Rollergirls beat the Dolls 122-107 and took second place in the region. The Dolls finished third despite the loss, meaning both teams would head to the WFTDA National Championships — the so-called Declaration of Derby — in Philadelphia in November.

Because of how the twelve-team bracket was set up, the RMRG and the Dolls didn't think they would meet in Philly. But they were wrong again.

On the last day of the tournament at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the 5280 Fight Club and the Mile High Club bouted for third place in the nation.

This time, the match was less emotional and more decisive. Using their signature "slow play" strategy to great effect (and eliciting boos from some of the approximately 1,500 fans in attendance), the Dolls beat the RMRG 151-103.

But that's not to say the victory was without controversy. The day before, Sarina Hayden, a former pro boxer, was ejected from the tournament after she punched a Texas skater in the head out of frustration during a particularly nasty semi-final bout. As a result, she wasn't allowed to skate against the Dolls.

Hayden characterizes the punch as "a minor retaliation that led to a major consequence." She thinks her ejection influenced how the RMRG played against the Roller Dolls. "If we played them again with a full roster, we'd win," she says.

Still, both teams' cordial behavior at the bout put to rest any notions that there were leftover hard feelings between them. "It's a sports rivalry," Shields says. "You want your team to win." Off the track, the players are friendly, even friends.

But their promoters aren't. These days the ladies, who aren't scheduled to bout each other during the regular nine-month season, have left the fightin' words to someone else: their corporate partners.

In 2008 and 2009, the Roller Dolls split their bouts between the Fillmore and the Denver Coliseum. They never came close to filling the giant Coliseum, says league president Alison "Enya Biznass" Nishi, but they regularly drew crowds of about 1,500 to the Fillmore.

This year, however, the Dolls will leave the Fillmore for plush new digs in the 1stBank Center in Broomfield and a new arrangement with Kroenke and AEG. The Dolls' first bout of the season is March 20.

"I believe it's the next big exploding sport," says AEG Live Rocky Mountains president Chuck Morris, who grew up watching the roller derby of the '50s in Brooklyn and remained a fan. "I believed in it when I was ten, and I believe in it now."

Before taking the job with AEG, Morris had run the Fillmore for Live Nation and liked what he'd seen from the Dolls. So when he moved to AEG, he kept them in mind. And as soon as AEG and Kroenke acquired the Broomfield Event Center last summer, he says, "I called them." In fact, Morris wooed the league, taking the players on a tour of the new venue and treating them to dinner. He even showed up at the national championships in Philadelphia to cheer for the team. He admits he really wanted them to say yes.

Meanwhile, the Fillmore was left without a derby team — a real loss, because the bouts it had hosted for the Dolls had been popular. Fillmore general manager Sean O'Connell won't say how popular, but profits were split between the Fillmore and the non-profit Dolls, who, like the RMRG, spend their money on expenses such as travel and practice space.None of the skaters get paid.

So O'Connell moved quickly. "We had gotten inquiries from the Rollergirls when we were partnering with the Denver Roller Dolls," he says. "We kept things exclusive with the Dolls for those couple of years, but after they had the opportunity to move all their bouts to one spot, we reached out to the Rollergirls."

The Rollergirls had been bouting at the Coliseum and the Bladium, which could only seat about 800 fans, so they jumped at the opportunity, says spokeswoman Shields. "We didn't want to go outside the Denver area at all. When you look at places that are appropriate for the sport and have the proper seating and things like that, it pretty much came down to the Fillmore. We're excited about it."

In fact, the RMRG sold out its first Fillmore bout this year, a February 6 home-team face-off between the Dooms Daisies and the Sugar Kill Gang. At between $17 and $25 a ticket (depending on whether fans bought them through a skater or online), sales totaled more than $35,000. The league also sold out its popular party buses, which take fans from bars to the bout and back to the bars for $27 a pop.

But is there room in town for two leagues?

Many observers say there is, but Morris, for one, is quick to add that he believes the Dolls are the more viable one. "There are two leagues in this town," he says matter-of-factly. "Without knocking the other one — because I think everyone who plays girls' roller derby is great — to me, this is the premier league here, the Roller Dolls.

"You're going to see and hear a lot more about the Roller Dolls than you ever have before," he adds. "We're willing to put up serious promotional money to spread the word." Morris says he's already pulled in Channel 2, the Deuce, as a big-name sponsor.

Kroenke will take care of many of the logistics involved in staging the bouts, and Kroenke executive vice president Paul Andrews says he wants to turn the Dolls into the next Colorado Mammoth; the little-known lacrosse team that Kroenke bought in 2002 is now selling out games at the 18,000-seat Pepsi Center. "If we can even have a smidgen of that success with the Roller Dolls, it will be very successful," Andrews says. "They're on the edge of something great, and being in a world-class, 6,000-seat venue in Broomfield should change the dynamics of the fan experience from where they had been playing."

Neither the Dolls nor Kroenke or Morris will discuss the financial details of their deal. "We take care of almost all the financial obligations," Morris says, and "they get a serious part of the profits."

It's an arrangement that's caused buzz nationwide.

"It's a very big deal," says the Derby News Network's Seale. "There are cases of a venue getting on board as more than just a you-pay-us-a-fee-and-you-can-have-your-event-here, but I can't think of anything on the scale of AEG and Kroenke; that definitely got my attention. We are very interested to see how this works out for everybody. I think there is an opportunity for companies with resources like that to turn this into a great big win. The question will be which companies are going to have the vision to not just assume control of the whole thing."

The Rollergirls, meanwhile, still largely handle their own promotions, but the skaters get help from Live Nation's e-mail distribution lists, website and ticket agent. They've also added a new party bus this season, from Longmont's Left Hand Brewing Company; the other party bus takes fans from the Skylark Lounge to the bouts.

Both teams' promoters are positioning themselves with thinly veiled words like "original" and "premier," to emphasize why their team is Denver's true derby team — and the one to watch in 2010. Live Nation vice president of booking Peter Ore, for instance, talked in a statement announcing the Fillmore's partnership with RMRG about how the venue hosted roller derby in the '30s. Then he came out swinging: "We're proud to continue that tradition with the region's first flat-track league and the only derby to call Denver home, the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls."

Derby may be on a roll, but it's clear the sport still has a way to go.

"Roller derby? Sheesh! It's news to me if it's becoming more legitimate," says Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising, a San Francisco sports-marketing firm. He adds that despite the modest popularity of last year's Drew Barrymore-directed derby flick Whip It, he's "not seeing a heck of a lot of uptick in roller derby or any kind of indication that it's becoming more than an alternative to pro wrestling. I've gotten more calls about mixed martial arts."

Paul Swangard, the director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, is a bit kinder, but he makes the same point. "It's got some grassroots appeal; it's got the storytelling of wrestling; it's got a unique set of characteristics. For a lot of people, it's a fun night out," Swangard says. "But it's not a sport that seems to be, at least in my expert opinion, on the cusp of being the next great emerging sport."

What signifies whether a sport is on the cusp of being the next great thing is the type of advertising it attracts, the experts say. The crossover point for roller derby will be evident when companies whose products aren't inherent to the sport, like roller skates or knee pads, start ponying up some cash — and not just because the owner of that business is a friend or a friend-of-a-friend of a skater.

The two Denver leagues have a mix of sponsors. Some, like Brothers BBQ, which sponsors the Roller Dolls, do it because they know a derby girl or two. Others, like TattooFinder.com, a Denver-based national website that also sponsors the Dolls, do it because they want to feel good about supporting a local sports team — and their ideals align most closely with the punk aesthetic of derby.

Left Hand Brewing decided to sponsor the RMRG because it wants to reach a new demographic: hip women in Denver, says marketing head Aly Dratch.

Argonaut Liquors sponsors the RMRG for the same reason: to reach, in the words of owner Ron Vaughn, "young, hip, snowboard-y PBR people that are into tattoos." But Vaughn admits he's never tracked whether his ad dollars are working. "I would guess I get some business out of it," he says.

Most local sponsors say they donate somewhere between $500 to $2,000 a year, both in cash and in trade — not enough to help put derby on the sports map. But Hyatt, who's working to develop big-name sponsors for all of the WFTDA's 78 leagues, says promotion deals like the Denver ones could help roller derby get there in a few years.

"The holy grail of what we're looking for is partners who will not only pay cash for bouts, but will take that investment and duplicate it elsewhere with a media buy or an ad campaign to show off to their targeted consumer base that they're aligning their product with roller derby," he says. "Having big names like Kroenke and Live Nation legitimizes the sport as a whole for sponsors to be able to say yes, this is going somewhere; it's going to work for my brand, and I want to augment my sponsorship."

But talk of future legitimacy frustrates most skaters, who see their sport as legitimate already. Derby in 2010 is a far cry from derby in 2004, they say, when gimmicks such as pillow fights and penalty wheels that doled out punishments like spankings were common, and mid-bout catfights were staged. Some skaters have even abandoned their campy derby names and flashy outfits during tournaments. Others talk with optimism about the day roller derby is featured in the X Games or the Olympics.

"We are athletes, 100 percent," says Quigley, co-captain of the Mile High Club. "We wouldn't be here practicing from 8:30 to 10:30 two, three, four nights a week if we didn't want to win."

Even at tryouts, the Dolls make it clear that commitment is key to excelling at roller derby. Commitment, and at least a little bit of skill,

Unfortunately, I lack the latter. About the only task I don't completely fail at during Roller Dolls tryouts is the interview. One by one, the 49 wannabes are called by number to sit down with one of the Dolls in the carpeted snack bar of the Wagon Wheel Skate Center. Against a backdrop of slushie machines, we're asked a battery of questions.

The first is a doozy: "How do you handle conflict?" From there, we're asked about our strengths, our favorite dolls and which style of fighting we most identify with. "In a catfight," Tara "Kish of Death" Kish asks me, "what do you go for first?" "The eyes," I tell her without hesitation — and without ever having been in an actual catfight.

After the interview, we do sprints. In groups of five, we're told to skate eight laps around the pink electrical tape as fast as we can. I'm the slowest one in my group; by the time I'm on lap four, one girl has already finished. And by the time I start lap six, I'm the only one still skating. As I bow-leg my way through the turns on the last two laps, a small group of fellow wannabes gathers around to cheer me on. "Come on, Melanie!" they shout, reading the name written in marker on the tape on my back. "Just two more!"

The next day, I get an e-mail from Slick Vick. Of the 34 women who made the team, I'm not one of them. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you that you did not make the Denver Roller Dolls," it says. "You have the heart of a derby girl, but you still need to get out to the local rinks and practice a bit more before we can subject you to this dangerous sport."

Which is a nice way of saying "You're not good enough to skate with the big girls. We're going places, and unless you can keep up, eat our skate dust."

I can't say I blame them.

For a slide show of Denver derby girls, links to bout videos and more on derby-girl nicknames, log on to westword.com. Contact the author at melanie.asmar@westword.com.

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