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At the whistle — two short bursts — Suzy Hotrod dashed past the opposing jammer, Eva Dead, and settled into a loping skater’s stride. Just minutes into the 2008 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s national championship game in November, Hotrod’s team, the Gotham Girls, were in an unusual position — they were losing, the first time they had been behind all tournament.
As a jammer, it was Hotrod’s job to score; she got a point for each Chicago skater she lapped. Ahead on the oval track, her four teammates got out of her way, but Hotrod quickly found herself trapped behind a wall of three blockers for Chicago— Ying O’Fire, Hoosier Mama and Nina Millimeter — who wanted nothing more than to send her tumbling into the crowd. As they rounded the turn, Hotrod feinted to the right, and the phalanx reacted, freeing up a sliver of space on the inside. With a leap she was free, and the crowd of several thousand roared at the nifty move. Now, to capture the lead, she had to make it through the pack once more.
In its earlier incarnation, which started in the mid-1930s and had all but petered out by the early 1970s, roller derby featured teams of professional skaters, men and women, whose races along a banked track were leavened by pratfalls and punch-ups.
Today more than 15,000 skaters compete in more than 300 flat-track leagues — the bulk of them in the United States but some as far off as Australia. (Leagues typically have three or four teams, plus an all-star squad that represents them in regional and national competitions.)
In its 70-odd-year history, roller derby has been many things, but never until perhaps now has it been a legitimate sport.
Viewed only as sport, the roller derby at the Northwest Knockdown produced few moments of genuine excitement. Most of the games were blowouts. In their opener, the Gotham Girls stormed out to a 23-1 lead against Duke City Derby from Albuquerque. New York dominated action within the pack, clearing paths for its jammers, who gobbled up points and then called the jams to a halt before Duke’s jammers could score. Frustrated, a Duke City jammer cut the track in an attempt to improve her position, but the referees — as many as seven of them, on skates, patrol a game — spotted it and sent her to the penalty box, leaving her team with no chance to score. For the full two minutes, Bonnie Thunders zipped around the track, earning the Gotham Girls points for each opponent she passed, including those in the penalty box. It was a 15-0 run, and the rest of the game, which finished 182-25, was more of the same.