There are some pretty horrific images in the Carolina Rollergirls' online injury archive: The purple-black bruise on Kristi Kreme's thigh; the nasty case of “rink rash” on Shirley Temper's backside; the X-ray of the shattered shoulder — and cobalt chrome implant — that ended Harlot O'Scara's roller derby career.
Unlike her provocatively-nicknamed fellow competitors, Kelly Clocks'em has managed to skate by with just a few bruises and the odd skinned knee. In her nearly three years around the oval, the feisty 5-foot-2 skater — real name, Abbey Dethlefs — has taken down some pretty tough opponents, but there's one that proved too much for her.
“The economy is tougher,” Dethlefs, 28, said after skating in last week's Wicked Wheels of the East tournament, her last derby event for the foreseeable future. “I mean, it put me out of business.”
Laid off twice in the past year, with no health insurance, Dethlefs is one of a half-dozen Carolina players who've had to hang up their skates since the economy went sour. Others have had to bow out of road trips with the all-star team because they couldn't afford to travel or take the time off.
And other leagues and players elsewhere are feeling the same pinch — even as roller derby as a whole is prospering and actually enjoying a kind of mini-Renaissance with next month's release of a skater film starring Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page.
What most people don't realize is that roller derby — an amateur affair, with nonprofit, skater-owned teams competing for fun and bragging rights — doesn't pay.
On the contrary, it costs skaters hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of knocking each other around on the track.
“It's gas. It's baby sitters. It's equipment,” says Amy Callner, spokeswoman for Baltimore's Charm City Rollergirls. “It's all these things.”
“We're making choices about what we spend our money on,” says Linda Riker, aka Devil Kitty, co-captain of The Detroit Pistoffs, a member of the Detroit Derby Girls league. “I no longer have cable at my house. I don't have the Internet at my house. I've moved to a smaller apartment. I had to get rid of a bunch of my furniture to fit.”
Unemployment in the Detroit metro area recently hit 17.7 percent, and league president Riker says the group has lost about a dozen players because of the downturn.
It wasn't always like this for roller derby.
Promoter “Colonel” Leo Seltzer is credited with creating the sport in 1935 as a way to drum up business for the Chicago Coliseum. Derby's popularity waxed and waned for decades, but in its heyday, men's and women's professional teams sold out venues from California's Oakland Coliseum to New York's Madison Square Garden, and attracted huge followings on television and radio.
The version most people are familiar with is banked-track, a more theatrical brand of derby played on a raised, tilted oval. It's the style featured in Barrymore's directorial debut, “Whip It,” and on the short-lived 2006 A&E television show, “Rollergirls.”
But the vast majority of leagues out there — like Raleigh, Baltimore and Detroit — are flat-track. And the sport is growing.
When the United Leagues Committee was formed in April 2004 to discuss standardizing rules and promoting competition, there were 30 member leagues. Since changing its name to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association in November 2005, the organization has grown to 78 leagues with more than 150 teams in the U.S. and Canada. The association does not poll member leagues on attendance figures.
In June, the WFTDA hired its first full-time, paid employees — an executive director and insurance administrator. The sport has grown to the point that the organization this year doubled the number of regional tournaments to four leading up to the 2009 national championship Nov. 13-15 in Philadelphia.
Even if her Detroit team advances in this weekend's North Central Regionals, Riker won't be going.
The 33-year-old was laid off in February after eight years with Ann Arbor-based Borders Books. She's applied for more than 100 jobs, some at a $15,000 to $20,000 pay cut, but hasn't even been asked back for an interview.
That's one reason she recently stepped down from Detroit's elite travel team.
“I couldn't justify spending the extra money to travel if I was having a hard time making ends meet at home,” she says.
That scenario has played out on a larger scale.
Members of the host teams often open their own homes to visiting skaters as a way to defray travel costs. But even that isn't enough for some skaters.
“We have heard from many, many teams we've invited to play that they will not be able to, due to economic factors,” says Dethlefs.
It's all part of a vicious cycle. Less travel means less experience, which affects rankings, which, in turn, affects a team's ability to draw better opponents, which hurts attendance.
Since the Charm City Rollergirls were founded in 2005, the Baltimore league has offered members a hardship exception on the $35 monthly dues. This year, applications for waivers or reductions have doubled.
“People have junked their cars and they're having a hard time getting to practice,” says Callner, aka Lady Quebeaum — pronounced “kaboom.”
The league depends on dues to survive and compete. But with everything these women give up to participate, Callner says it's impossible to say no.
“We recognize that this is really important to people, and it's an outlet,” says Callner, 35, a single mother who's rationing gas to make it to practices and bouts. “And for a lot of people, it's what keeps them sane, even when times are tough.”
In recent years, roller derby has cultivated a wildgirl, punk rock image with its tattoos, body piercings, torn fishnet stockings, short Catholic school skirts and often saucy nicknames. A relatively tame sampling from the Carolina Rollergirls includes Kama Suture, Lady Smackbeth, Ms. Anthrope the Mordant, Holly Wanna Crackya and Penelope Bruz.
“There is a stereotype of what a roller-derby girl is, and each person that I know who plays breaks it in one way or another,” says Riker, a University of Michigan graduate and former national champion in the women's 200-meter backstroke. “I know people who might fit that stereotype who have their Ph.D.s.”
CNN recently profiled a 53-year-old librarian who's taken up roller derby.
No one would deny that the sport uses sexuality to fill the seats. But the skaters also want to be taken seriously.
At the tournament level, teams are ditching the kinky outfits for more traditional sports uniforms, says WFTDA spokeswoman Kali Schumitz, the alter ego of DC Rollergirl Lois Slain. A few mavericks are even skating under their given names.
“Some people are really into wearing fishnets and the silly outfits and having a funny name,” says Schumitz, 28, a local government reporter for the Fairfax County Times in northern Virginia. “But we're all there for the competitive aspects.”
And while flat-track leagues are busy planning fundraisers around the Oct. 2 movie release, they take great pains to point out the differences between their variety of roller derby and that which will appear on the screen.
“The Carolina Rollergirls' derby is NOT a wrasslin' style circus act,” that league's Web site states. “Staged fighting has been replaced with walloping take-outs. Our fast-dodging jammers are too hungry for points to slow down for silly acrobatics.”
Dethlefs adds, “These women are athletes … They put their hearts, souls and their bodies into it.”
There seems to be no shortage of recruits. But Dethlefs won't be there to help bring them along.
Unable to find a job in marketing or advertising, she went back to school. She's been commuting to practices and bouts from Richmond, Va., where she's studying for a master's degree in creative brand management.
Last Friday, Carolina fell to the Boston Massacre, 112-40. The CRG won two more weekend bouts, but Dethlefs and the team were out of championship contention.
It was an emotional end for Dethlefs. For the past three years, she says, derby has been her “No. 1 priority.”
“I mean, it's become just the hub of my social life,” she says. “I've gotten to know all of these women, who are all amazing. And we're so different, but there's such, like, an independent spirit about all of them in some different way that we all connect on so many levels.”
Dethlefs hopes to come back to the sport when she finishes school and the economy improves. But for now, she'll have to watch from the sidelines.
“I love it,” she says. “But it doesn't pay my bills.”