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These Roller Skating Women Get 'Down And Derby'

Alex Cohen may be a public radio reporter by day, but by night she goes by her roller derby name -- Axles of Evil.

Cohen first fell in love with roller derby in Austin, Texas, several years ago, while reporting a story on the sport. Since then, she has skated as "Smother Theresa" with the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls' Holy Rollers in Austin and Axles of Evil with the L.A. Derby Dolls.

Cohen has joined forces with another L.A. Derby Doll, Jennifer "Kasey Bomber" Barbee, to write Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby.

Cohen -- who describes herself as "5-foot-2 on a good day" -- says she never expected she'd get involved in such a rough-and-tumble sport. "I have never been athletically inclined," she tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "I was always the theater and speech and debate geek. When I started doing derby, I was amazed to see I really liked beating people up."

It's not all about brute strength and size, though. "If you're a good skater it doesn't matter what size you are," Cohen explains. "People are most intimated by ankle biters" -- skaters close to the ground who are very quick and hard to pass. After all, on the track, it's all about speed.

Derby Doll K.T. Wiegman -- also known as Trixie Biscuit -- is 37-year-old photographer who was a sergeant in the Army Reserve. She says that for her, derby was destiny.

"I've always been a bruiser," Wiegman says. "I was the catcher on the softball team that was like: 'Go ahead. Slide into me. Try it. See where it gets you.' "

Much like Cohen, Wiegman lives a relatively tame life away from the derby track. "I knit. I'm a mom. I have a dog," she says. "I have a little house with everything but a white picket fence."

Roller Roots

If anyone can be credited with "inventing" roller derby, it's a man named Leo Seltzer. Marathon roller skating competitions had been around since the 1880s -- for men. But decades later, Seltzer had the idea to put women in skates and send them on the road in his 1935 Transcontinental Roller Derby. This "traveling circus" of derby guys and gals piled onto team buses with trainers, announcers and trunks full of skating outfits, Cohen explains.

"A lot of it was born out of the Depression," says Cohen. "People wanted to earn a buck and this was an opportunity to do that. You had young kids that gave up their lives, traveled the country, became families with each other. ... They got paid no money but it was their chance to see the country, their chance at this tiny little sliver of fame."

Among the biggest crowd pleasers were rivalries between two opposite types: the sweetheart and the mean girl. Co-author Barbee says derby's original rivals brought out passion in the crowd that has never been surpassed.

Members of the U.S. roller skating team practice together before a derby in May 1953.
Ron Burton / Keystone/Getty Images
Members of the U.S. roller skating team practice together before a derby in May 1953.

It all started with two gals back in the 1930s, Barbee explains. The beautiful, fashionable Gerry Murray -- "the Betty Grable pinup of roller derby" -- who was pitted against Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn -- "a 4-foot-11 spitfire plumber's daughter." The young women were just teenagers at the time, and crowds loved to cheer for Gerry and boo for Toughie.

At one game, a female fan became so incensed by an aggressive move by Toughie that she ran up to the track -- and threw her baby at the skater. Thankfully, Toughie had lightning-quick athlete reflexes and caught the child.

"For me, that's derby in a nutshell," Barbee says. "I want those kinds of fans" ... but minus the baby throwing.

Sport Or Spectacle?

The key to the continuing fascination with women's roller derby is the mix of bold sexuality, in-your-face violence and a certain playfulness.

Perhaps it's best demonstrated in derby names: Georgia O'Grief, Tequila Mockingbird, Iron Maven, Rita Ploy, Ruth Enasia, Judy Gloom ... To help keep things straight, there's a central Internet registry of the thousands of roller derby names all over the world.

It's hard to find a name that hasn't been taken, says Sheila Noonen a 33-year-old, high-school English teacher. She held a brainstorming session with her mother and grandmother at a family reunion and finally settled on the name "Haught Wheels" -- but not before finding that "Bonny and Collide" was already claimed.

The derby announcer -- who gets to say all these names -- narrates the action and adds a touch of humor to keep things from getting too serious. (Jimmy Fallon played the derby announcer in Whip It, the 2009 film with Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page.)

It isn't hard to pinpoint the appeal of roller derby as a spectator sport: women in short skirts and fishnet stockings ... beating each other up. Wiegman says some people are drawn to participate in derby for the glamor, the drama, and the performance -- but they don't last.

"Do you want to be a derby doll or derby skater?" she asks. "Are you here to look pretty in a little skirt, or are you here to go out there and work? Our training process is very long, arduous -- it's difficult, it's extremely competitive, and those people wash out."

Roller derby faded out in the late '70s and was pretty much nonexistent in the '80s and '90s. Just a few years ago there were only a handful of leagues -- but now roller derby is back and bigger than ever.

There are more than 17,000 skaters in more than 400 leagues worldwide -- including the L.A. Derby Dolls. Every few weeks fans pack into The Doll Factory to see the skaters fight it out.

Noonen says people show up for the spectacle, but they stay for the sport.

"When they watch the game, they realize it's not theatrics. It's not an alligator pit." she says. "It's actually a very difficult and highly choreographed game. You have to work very hard for every single minute of that hourlong game. I think that's what brings people back."

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