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Academic and B.A.D. Girl

9 October 2008 No Comment

By Angela Kilduff

They may compete in fishnet stockings, revealing uniforms and roller skates, but the women of roller derby dismiss the prevailing stereotypes that their sport is only a game of campy theatrics.

“I can’t ever really tell if people respect it,” said Jenny Carlson, who skates as Jennacologist for the Oakland Outlaws.

Carlson, 26, is a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Between teaching undergraduates and working toward a doctorate in sociology, she manages to make time for the “hellacious process that is training for roller derby.”

On October 11, Carlson skated with the Oakland Outlaws as they took on the Richmond Wrecking Belles in a championship competition. Both teams belong to the Bay Area Derby (B.A.D.) Girls, the local roller derby league that is rising in rankings nationally. Although they were behind at half time, Oakland turned the tides and beat Richmond 90 to 79.

Carlson asked, “Are we a sport or are we a spectacle?” It is a complicated question in terms of roller derby’s long history. The theatrics and staged brawls made famous by San Francisco Bay Bomber star Ann Calvello in the 1970s are no longer the norm.

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) sets standards for the sport. Its membership includes more than 50 leagues nationwide, including the B.A.D. Girls, who are currently ranked sixth in the nation. As the WFTDA site states, roller derby today is real and athletic. Skaters adopt “skate names” that capture an attitude or attribute, and then they throw themselves into this full-contact sport. In terms of practice, Carlson said that a good skater spends at least six hours a week on the track.

During the final practice before the bout, The Richmond Wrecking Belles skate while the Oakland Outlaws talk in the center of the rink. Carlson, at left, wears the pink helmet.

During the final practice before the bout, The Richmond Wrecking Belles skate while the Oakland Outlaws talk in the center of the rink. Carlson, at left, wears the pink helmet.

When it comes to presentation, Carlson said anything goes.

“There’s the possibility as an athlete to wear make up or not, to flaunt your femininity or not,” she said. Players in any league will be all over the spectrum.

Until she laced up her skates, Carlson said, “I was turned off by athletics.” Now sports consume her free time as well as academic research: her dissertation will focus on female collegiate athletes and their range of participation in different sports.

On campus, “People think it’s like this cool crazy thing. They see me as the roller derby girl,” Carlson said. Through her, UC Berkeley graduate student Kate Mason, 26, became a fan. Mason, also pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology, originally “had a sense that it was more like hockey.” After attending a bout – the term for a game – Mason said, “I realized it was more like a sport and less about trying to beat each other up.”

Roller derby draws women from a range of careers and callings. Carlson described her teammates as “accomplished.” Tricia Gillespie, who skates under the name Chesty Gillespie, agreed.

“We have so many professions on our league.” Gillespie, 29, is an aesthetician by day and co-director of events for the Bay Area Derby Girls. She listed off the careers held by fellow skaters, which include cartographer, media professional, cinematographer, media graphics, teacher, electrical engineer and fashion designer.

Gillespie, an Oakland Outlaw, said that Saturday’s championship competition against the Richmond Wrecking Belles was “a very hard bout to be fought. Every single girl is going to give it 150%.” It was the last home game of the season.

“Half of them just went to regionals and are very tired,” Gillespie said, referring to the 2008 WFTDA Western Regionals in Houston. The B.A.D. Girls placed second and will go on to nationals in Portland, Ore. in November.

Carlson is not on the travel team, but said, “I think I’m going to road trip up there.”

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