Roller Derby: The sisterhood of the skates

NEW YORK Mon Sep 28, 2009 10:33pm BST

1 of 4. The Gainesville Roller Rebels compete against the Beach Brawl Skater Dolls at the Alachua County Fairgrounds, Gainesville, Florida, July 11, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Dana John Hill/Handout

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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) No joy at the gym? Try a little girl power.

Women are flocking to roller derby to find camaraderie, thrills, and enough physical conditioning and true grit to do a warrior princess proud.

"There are very assertive women who need an outlet for more than just running on a treadmill," Karla Addesso, a referee for the Florida-based Gainesville Roller Rebels, said in an interview.

Maybe it's feminism's third wave, or the lure of the counter culture, but the full contact sport is enjoying a resurgence. More than 400 home-grown leagues have sprung up across the United States since 2001.

Devotees also hope a new movie that will be released in the United States on Friday will respect their passion as it spreads the word.

"I know the actresses had to learn roller derby," Addesso said of the film, titled "Whip It."

"It's about a young woman who wants to do something a little out of the ordinary," she said. "We support that message."

Addesso, an entomologist whose derby name is Damsel Flies, is an example of the broad spectrum of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s who've found fulfillment by jamming, blocking and whipping it.

"You get very physically fit," Addesso said. "You skate for six hours a week. Do not be on the Atkins diet when you're on roller derby. You need carbs."

The team's 12-week training program stresses strength training and learning how to fall.

Addesso said it's a modern sport that suffers from an outdated image.

"In the 70s it was played more for laughs and to see women fight," she said. "The hardest thing for people to get is that it's not like the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). It's not scripted, not about elbowing."

These days the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, founded in 2004, sets rules and standards, which are enforced by seven referees per game.

Dr. Mark Hutchinson, professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, seems to think the sport needs every one of them.

"Roller derby is an exciting, action-packed, collision sport for women, said Hutchinson, a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine. " To be successful, you have to be in good shape.

"Compared to other collision sports, such as football and rugby, roller derby athletes are moving at a higher rate of speed," he said.

And that increases the risk of injuries.

Catherine Seemann (a.k.a. Ms. Rebel), who founded the Rebels in March 2008, played until a double knee injury knocked her off track.

"People always say to us, 'Why are you doing this, when so many of you are broken?" she said. "But I'm not really the gym type. This is a real kick. You're in the limelight. It's very empowering, very neat."

She sees the movie as a double-edged sword.

"It's the Hollywood aspect." she explained. "There is a bit of entertainment in roller derby. When people get excited they showboat. But it is a sport. We have rules, penalties. It's not a free-for-all."

The Gainesville Roller Rebels have yet to see "Whip It," but they've studied the trailer.

"There's this one clip where (actress) Ellen Page, says, 'I'm in love with this!'" Seemann said. "And everyone cried a little bit."

Then they pointed out all the illegal moves.

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