Atlanta Roller Derby: A league for women, by women

Members of Atlanta Roller Derby: (L-R) Anna Benbrook, aka Gucci Maim; Shaylyn Mackey, aka Arithrottle; Marilyn Brooks, aka Walt Hitman; Kae Mcgowan, aka Erykah Badoozie; Nikita Raper, aka Human Missile Crisis; Liz Kearney, aka Cpt. Smack Sparrow; and Ashleigh Henne, aka R2DEATH2, in action Aug. 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Albright for Atlanta Roller Derby)

Members of Atlanta Roller Derby: (L-R) Anna Benbrook, aka Gucci Maim; Shaylyn Mackey, aka Arithrottle; Marilyn Brooks, aka Walt Hitman; Kae Mcgowan, aka Erykah Badoozie; Nikita Raper, aka Human Missile Crisis; Liz Kearney, aka Cpt. Smack Sparrow; and Ashleigh Henne, aka R2DEATH2, in action Aug. 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Albright for Atlanta Roller Derby)

In the real world, the women of Atlanta Roller Derby are engineers, ICU nurses, veterinary nurses, teachers.

On the track, they’re something else – a little rougher, rowdier and more frightening.

They’re DeathSkull, Gucci Maim, Sins and Tragedies, Rosie Derivator, Madditude Adjustment, Walt Hitman, Captain Smack Sparrow, R2DEATH2.

In the back warehouse of an unassuming building off Veterans Memorial Highway in Mableton, women in quad roller skates wearing helmets, mouth guards and elbow, knee and wrist pads slam into each other and, occasionally, the concrete floor.

The door of the warehouse is propped open and an army of oscillating fans tries to keep the warm air in the muggy building moving on a rainy summer night.

Three tracks are tapped out on the concrete floor, pinnies and helmet covers hang from makeshift clotheslines along the wall and a skate ramp – with a “Skate at your own risk” sign tapped to it – is pushed against one of the walls.

When some hear roller derby, they think of women skating around a banked track in the mid-1900s in glitter and fishnets fighting in theatrical WWE-style performances.

And while some of the aspects of the derby played then remain, the contest has transformed into an all-female, full-contact sport played on a flat track. There are rules, officials, regulated competition and an international governing body, the Women’s Flat Trak Derby Association (WFTDA), which Atlanta Roller Derby helped found in 2005 with 20 other founding teams. Atlanta Roller Derby is the 22nd-ranked league in the world, according to WFTDA.

“We’re not just a bunch of women in fishnets that elbow each other,” said Kayla Hargrove, who’s derby name is Sara Bellum. “We definitely are a big community of people that care about one another and are strong athletic women.”

The contemporary iteration of women’s flat track derby originated in the early 2000s in Austin, Texas, after about a three-decade lull in the sport’s popularity, according to the WFTDA’s website. The WFTDA now represents over 460 flat-track leagues on six continents.

Roller-derby leagues, including Atlanta Roller Derby, are women-owned businesses run by the skaters who take the track on the weekends. Each skater is assigned a job within the league: marketing, recruiting, training, merchandise, ticket sales, laying the track before a bout.

“I really liked the idea of putting women first,” Kate Robinson, or Hermoine Danger, said. “Every board position is held by a woman – skaters. It’s really empowering to be in a community, especially in a world where we don’t have many women-only spaces.”

Danger, like most of the women who skate for Atlanta, was drawn to the female-focused community of roller derby, inspired by films such as Drew Barrymore's 2009 "Whip It."

"The thing that I love the most about roller derby is that it's probably the only sport in the world that when you say 'roller derby' people think women," she said. "Instead of NBA and WNBA or soccer and women's soccer."

Atlanta Roller Derby’s Donita Green, aka Camille LeBLOXX, (center) skates among opposing players from Savannah on Aug. 3, 2019. (Photo by Chris Albright for Atlanta Roller Derby)

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Atlanta Roller Derby has four home teams -- the Apocalypstix, Denim Demons, Glamma Rays, and Toxic Shocks – which compete against each other at the Yaarab Shrine Center on Ponce de Leon Avenue from February to September.

The league also has three travel teams, made up of players from the home teams: Dirty South Derby which competes internationally representing Atlanta Roller Derby, the Rumble B’s, the league’s B-team squad and a regionally-competitive team, and the Jukes of Hazzard, which competes locally and serves as a development team for newer skaters.

Atlanta Roller Derby has hosted intra-league home bouts and other league teams beneath the chandeliers and high ceilings of the Shriners’ temple since 2008, when they started selling out every bout at a smaller skating rink in Stone Mountain.

The Friday before Saturday bouts, skaters lay out 10, seven-foot-high pallets of plastic squares that make up the track, and after the bouts, they take it all up themselves.

In addition to their home and travel teams, Atlanta Roller Derby has a junior team for young women between the ages of 7-18. At the start of the most recent session, 60 girls showed up, Shannon Nowlan, or DeathSkull, who runs the junior league, said.

One of the juniors, 15-year-old Tui Brattain, or Category, started skating with her mom when she was five. Her mom wanted to join the league and brought her daughter with her. Once Category was old enough to join juniors, she did. Now, her mom practices right after her on Monday nights.

The junior travel team, which features Category, practices on the middle of the three tracks on Mondays. On the back wall and to the right of the track are two dark-gray couches and metal chairs pulled into a circle. That’s where the juniors’ parents sit during practice, talk and even drink beer together sometimes, DeathSkull said.

Category, who’s grown up around strong, tough women – like her mom, said the sport has influenced how she thinks about female athletes.

“I know sports have always been strong women playing sports,” she said. “It wasn’t weird to think there’d be large groups of women playing in a sport that was dominated by women.”

Donita Greene, or Camille LeBloxx, models what a strong, tough woman looks like for her daughters. And even her 15-year-old son has started to understand and respect roller derby and his mother’s participation.

“They see their mom as this tough person that does whatever she wants to do,” LeBloxx said, beaming. “They love it; they support it. They think their mom’s pretty cool because of it.”

Donna McDermott, or Abracajabya, a member of Dirty South Derby, said being a part of roller derby normalizes strong, tough women.

And the league is explicit about being inclusive to all women, including transgender women, intersex women and gender-expansive skaters. Earlier this year, Atlanta Roller Derby, which used to be called Atlanta Roller Girls, changed its name to emphasize its values of gender inclusivity held both by the Atlanta-based league and internationally by WFTDA.

Abracajabya said that diversity and inclusion are values that are central to Atlanta Roller Derby.

“We try really hard to maintain a culture of being honest about when something needs to be changed or listening to other members,” she said. “That’s not to say we don’t have stuff we need to work on because everyone has stuff they need to work on, but we do try.”

For many Atlanta skaters, the league has provided more than just an athletic outlet, or models of strong, female athletes, but a community of friends and chosen family to do life with.

“If someone’s willing to lay their body on the line for your body, then they’re willing to lay their heart on the line for the hard stuff that you’re going through,” Danger said.