Built, Not Born: Texas Roller Derby

The women of the Lone Star State’s banked-track roller derby league don’t give a F*CK about your rules.

When the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls take over an exhibit hall, it’s anything but quiet.

“Scrap-py! Scrap-py! Scrap-py!” the crowd yells, maybe a thousand deep. The Cherry Bombs’ jammer – another term for a roller derby team’s lead offensive player – looks out at the fans chanting her name and smiles before charging forward into a moving pile of arms, legs and torsos, trying to break her way through them. She doesn’t end up scoring any points on this particular jam, but it’s not for lack of trying. Tonight’s game determines whether the Cherry Bombs or the Putas del Fuego – or both, thanks to an intricate scoring system – will make it into the playoffs.

rack of helmets

At the edge of the audience, a woman in leopard print pants, a t-shirt and jean jacket weaves her way back and forth on skates through the people milling around just outside the track. She’s holding up a sign: it says “Ask Me Anything – I Know the Fucking Rules.” In the third quarter, she cruises past a penalty box sponsored by a local bail bondsman and stops when she sees that a player’s been injured. It’s Str8jacket; she’s down for the count, and it’s serious enough that a medic is tending to her leg. The crowd wails with support as she’s assisted off the track and led away for medical attention. A literal passing of the hat begins as an emcee explains into the mic that some rollergirls have medical coverage and some don’t. He calls the hat “roller derby insurance.” The audience quickly and collectively chips in $600.

I head to the bathroom near the end of the game, and, as I walk up to the sink to wash my hands, a blur of red and black whizzes past me in the background and whips into a stall at warp speed. Before I’ve finished drying my hands, it whips back out and into the exhibition hall again.

I’ve come out to see… if there’s still something to be said for this part-sport, part-spectacle now that Hollywood’s left it alone.

Things move fast around here. They have to. It’s Texas roller derby, and it’s made itself the stuff of legend. Now that the movie Whip It!, which was partially filmed in Austin and starred Ellen Page, Juliette Lewis and Kristen Wiig as TXRD badasses, has been out of theaters for five years and it’s been nearly a decade since A&E came knocking for its short-lived reality show, I’ve come out to see if the fans are still as rabid as they once were. If the fire’s still there. If there’s still something to be said for this part-sport, part-spectacle now that Hollywood’s left it alone.

I watch the Putas tidily win the game 70-37 from my new vantage point near a set of double doors. As it turns out, the strategic move of edging my way to the perimeter so I can beat the crowd back to the parking garage is wholly unnecessary. As the Putas celebrate on the track, the crowd doesn’t appear to be thinning out one bit. I shouldn’t be surprised. Whenever I glanced around throughout the game, watching the audience’s reactions as the bout progressed, I never noticed anyone looking like they’d rather be elsewhere. Not once did I see a face buried in a phone.

In 2014. Not once.

The following week, I have a seat at the Texas Chili Parlor with the Putas del Fuego team captain, Cora Zone (real name Monica), and the Cherry Bombs team captain, Maya Mayhem (real name Rali). The parlor has a long and storied past with the league, notably including a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic, Death Proof, in which a Puta and a Hellcat — one of the league’s other teams alongside the Putas, Bombs, Holy Rollers and Rhinestone Cowgirls — act as waitresses. It’s also a longstanding TXRD ticket vendor and friend of the organization in general. But we don’t spend much time talking about the league’s brushes with the entertainment industry, or about the parlor. Over two Mex marts and a Negra Modelo, we get straight to the business of being a rollergirl.

Says Maya: “I always tell girls as they come into the league, “Your personality has a lot to do with the way you play derby. If you’re completely outgoing and a ball of energy and nothing gets in your way, you’re gonna make a great jammer because that’s what jammers do. They break through walls; they’re super agile up and down the track. If you’re not that type of personality, if you’re more introverted or quiet and calm, you’re probably gonna make a better defensive blocker, more methodical and strategic.”

Tryouts are held twice a year, they explain, and those two classes – one in fall and one in spring – feed into the pool of recruits, or “new girl class.” After tryouts, those who make it through are put through a training period and cuts are made at 30-day intervals for a couple of months. After that, the remaining skaters become hired guns, eligible to skate on any team that asks them, one game at a time. Eventually, there’s a draft, and that’s when each girl officially becomes part of a team. But the hired gun period, Maya says, is where everyone’s mettle is tested.

“There’s always the girl that everybody wants; every class has the top tier girl that continuously gets the requests from the teams… and then there’s the girl at the bottom that’s just trying to get recognized. Scrappy, she’s one of the girls I use as an example because nobody was really interested [in her]. Scrappy’s a star jammer on my team. [But in the beginning] nobody really wanted her…. Milla [Juke-a-Bitch] and Sab [A. Taj], they were getting all the offers, and Scrappy, little 90-pound Scrappy, she’s just waiting for an opportunity. And then she finally gets her break – she gets asked by the Rhinestones, she skates the entire game jamming, scores a shit ton of points against… I think it was the Hellcats… and just blew everyone out of the water, and immediately, it flipped and everybody wanted Scrappy.”

As it turns out, scrappiness is an asset, and not everyone’s steady on her feet in the beginning. Not even an eventual captain.

I definitely had an internal struggle to figure out who I was when I joined the league.
– Maya Mayhem

In 2006, after going to a Hellcats/Cherry Bombs game with friends, Maya fell in love with the sport. “I became obsessed with it,” she says. She bought a pair of “the Cobra skates at Academy that I think at the time were your only option” and tried out alongside more than 100 other girls after practicing on her own for months. But still, it took a while to find her balance in the league, both literally and figuratively.

“I remember having the worst time standing – just standing – on the banked track, at that incline, because at the time, my hip bones were like normal people, not like rollergirls’, at a slant,” she says. “I remember not being able to stand on the banked track. Cherry Chainsaw was one of our trainers – Cherry Chainsaw is legendary within TXRD and derby in general – and she was a hardcore drill sergeant: ‘I’m gonna scream in your face, I don’t care if I make you cry,’ but she loves you anyways… and so she would start talking about a drill or a scenario or a situation and we would all be in a pack, standing on the track on the incline, and I would be like, “Just hold on. Just hold on. Just hold on. Just hold on. I don’t wanna be the one to actually slide off of this thing. Just hold on.”

She did, and ultimately, her persistence paid off. Maya’s leadership skills were tested, she says, back when she was on the Putas years ago and was asked to take over for a team captain, Chola, who was moving to California. But it wasn’t an easy transition; it came with more than a little pushback from the rest of the team.

“I definitely had an internal struggle to figure out who I was when I joined the league,” she explains, “and Maya Mayhem sounds like ‘my mayhem,’ and there was a lot of mayhem in me that needed to come out, and derby was definitely the outlet for it.” Of her demeanor, she says, “I’m very quiet by nature. I came into derby and I was actually Maya the mute — I would not speak.” That changed over time, though, mainly because it had to: “I took over the Putas as captain,” she says, “because I was seen as the responsible one. But internally, I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m just following Chola’s lead right now.’ It was really difficult to follow her leadership. Everyone was sold on Chola. She was a great skater, she was a great leader, people believed in her. Following her leadership was definitely like, ‘How the hell am I gonna do this?’ It was impossible.”

But it wasn’t. Maya, an account manager at Dell by day, remained the Putas’ captain for two straight seasons – 2009 and 2010. As she says this out loud, Cora, who’s hearing it for the first time, is incredulous. A two-year run as a captain is an anomaly in derby world.

“It was a challenge,” Maya says, “but much like every other challenge that you encounter within derby, I didn’t want it to defeat me, and I learned a lot about myself. I grew as a person.”

“There’s this saying: ‘She’s a natural born leader,’” she continues. “I hate that saying. I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as a natural born leader. In order to be a good leader, people have to a) believe in you and b) be willing to follow. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not a great leader.” Maybe, she muses, “it just means you don’t have the right people to go with you.”

My mom knows I’m a Puta, but we don’t talk about it very much. She’ll ask, ‘Are you still doing your roller skating thing?’ She doesn’t say roller derby. She doesn’t mention the team name.
– Cora Zone

Cora, who owns a small business, nods and notes the importance of “a really strong leader that’s gonna say, ‘I know you don’t want to do this shit, but I’m gonna make you do it. It’s gonna make you stronger.’ And I think they [the skaters] appreciate that. It’s like pulling teeth for a while, but… [when it comes to helping people grow], they need a little bit more discipline, they need a little direction, they need somebody who isn’t going to give into them and fold.”

Speaking of refusing to fold, it comes up that the league’s nomenclature – its embrace of tongue-in-cheek vulgarity, its in-your-face rebellion against everything prim and proper – causes problems for the girls out of context.

Of one of her fellow Putas, Cora says, “Her parents have disowned her at least once because of the team name. They don’t mind her so much playing roller derby; they just don’t want her playing roller derby for a team that calls themselves putas.” And as for her own mother, she says, “Depending on if your family knows what that means, if they care, and if your family is Hispanic specifically, yeah… I mean my mom knows I’m a Puta, but we don’t talk about it very much. She’ll ask, ‘Are you still doing your roller skating thing?’ She doesn’t say roller derby. She doesn’t mention the team name.”

Maya adds, “You affectionately call each other, ‘Hey Puta.’ There’s no weight on the word. You call the girl next to you a ‘Puta’ because that’s your sister. You love her. It doesn’t mean [the same thing] anymore. You’ve taken all the negative power out of the name.” Still, not everyone gets it – particularly, they say, older generations.

“My mom will never get it,” Cora concedes. “It’s kind of a term of endearment, and other people will see it that way as well. I think our fans definitely see it that way.”

The sense of sisterhood that imbues itself throughout the league is one that seems to stick, often permanently. “I always say, you either leave the state or get pregnant,” Cora laughs. “Those are the only two things that completely take you out. Even girls who have injuries, like shoulders, knees, ankles, feet, whatever, they’re still hobbling around, like, ‘I’m coming back! I’m coming back!’ If you get pregnant or if you leave the state, those are the two legit reasons you completely separate…. Emotionally, you always want to do this. Emotionally, you never want it to be over.”

It’s important… to be accepted for exactly who I am, a little bit off my rocker, all the time.
– Train Wreck Tina

“Surgery, screw, screw, screw, rod…”

Trainwreck Trina is showing me her scars. We’re having coffee at Jo’s and she’s remembering the injury like it was yesterday. She doesn’t even have to think about the exact date before reciting it aloud.

“February 17, 2013. About 18 months ago. I was a hired gun and it was the first game of the season, and I completely did it to myself. I think pride got in the way, because even though we fall down over and over and over and over again, when I felt like I was going to lose my footing, instead of just falling I tried to not fall, and in the midst of that, I completely snapped my shin bone 100 percent. I had a spiral compound tib-fib fracture on my right leg.”

The game hadn’t actually started yet – the Hellcats were just skating around the track during their introductions when it happened.

“I was so embarrassed for falling,” she says. “So I tried to stand back up, and my leg would not catch because it wasn’t connected.” Her legwarmers kept the fall from breaking the skin, she says, but the internal injury was serious. The medic that night taped her leg to a board and sent her to the hospital. It turned out to be one of the more catastrophic breaks a person could receive, second only to maybe a spinal break. Had she not gotten proper treatment, it would have affected her mobility for the rest of her life.

But she wasn’t through getting knocked around. Even though she’d just been taken out by the same headline-making injury Indiana Pacer Paul George suffered this summer during a scrimmage for Team USA, she didn’t leave the league. She was still a hired gun, not yet on a team of her own, and she was determined to stick it out through the draft. Months later, another skater tripped her on the track, breaking Trainwreck’s ankle — on the same injured leg. She put on a boot for the next several games and kept the break a secret. When the draft came around, the Cherry Bombs scooped her up. The reason she refused to quit: she didn’t want to give up the camaraderie she’d built with the other girls.

“I’m a recovering drug addict,” she says with a level tone. “Coming into Austin in 2012, I moved here to finish my master’s degree at UT, and I didn’t have any friends.” She goes on to explain that, at the age of 38, “I’m one of the oldest, and I don’t drink or party, so I’m an outsider already.”

“I know you say that, but you’re not. It doesn’t even matter,” interjects Juicy Cooter, the Puta who’s sitting with us, a bottle of Ruby Redbird in her hand. She’s boldly and, true to form, irreverently, chosen a derby name that’s a phonetic riff on the velour sweat pant empire known as Juicy Couture. “Alcohol or drugs, it doesn’t matter,” she continues, motioning to Trainwreck with a smile. “This bitch is crazy.”

“I tell people I already did all mine, so the residual effects will always be there,” Trainwreck adds. “And somebody has to drive bitches home.”

Aside from her perpetual DD designation, Trainwreck – real name Katrina – also drives the track itself back and forth to bouts. On game weekends, she picks up two rented 26-foot trucks and, along with a second driver to shuttle her back and forth, she drives them each to the warehouse. Before the girls show up to load everything, she drives a forklift — for which she’s gotten certified since joining the league – and loads the trucks, then runs the load and makes sure drivers have been secured to take them to Palmer Events Center. Post-game, after teardown, she oversees the reloading of the track back onto the trucks and drives them back to the warehouse. On Sunday mornings, the trucks are returned to the rental facility. During the week, she juggles any remaining logistics along with her job, marriage, kids and school, all on top of the 8 required practices every skater must attend each month, plus games, where they’re either competing or working “bout duty” at the event.

Years ago, Katrina was facing the prospect of 25 to life for robbery. At one point, she was homeless. Now, with an associate’s degree in human services/addiction and a bachelor’s degree in community and mental health under her belt, she’s completing her master’s degree in social work; she’ll walk the stage next May.

This November, she’ll be nine years clean.

“Coming from a place where there wasn’t a lot of acceptance,” she says, “the things I did, I suffered a lot of consequences for. To just have that place where I can still act out and I can still be crazy and I don’t have to wear business casual… to have all of that is important. It’s important. And to be accepted for exactly who I am, a little bit off my rocker, all the time.”

Coming into derby, everyone has a place.Everyone’s beautiful. It doesn’t matter. You’re accepted for who you are.
– Juicy Cooter

Cooter (real name Jenne) agrees that acceptance into the league can be deeply transformative, even therapeutic. “When I found out my first time that I got into my round of new girls, I cried,” she says. “The stage where I was in in my life, I had severe, severe depression… [trying out] was one of the first things I’ve ever done for myself, and even right now it’s making me tear up. When I got in and got that phone call, I just started crying.”

“Everyone accepts you for who you are,” she continues. “Everyone is needed to make it work. With me being 5’10, 5’11 and curvy, coming from a very ‘richy’ kind of middle class background, where it’s all stick-thin white girls, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, well, you’re the big girl or whatever.’ I hate that. I hate the ‘big’ word. But coming into derby, everyone has a place. Everyone’s beautiful. It doesn’t matter. You’re accepted for who you are.”

Jenne, a marketing student, handles PR for the league. She and Katrina explain that some of the medics are skaters. The event staff at every bout – the ticket takers, merch booth workers, people who put up and take down the track – a five-hour and two-hour job, respectively – are all fellow rollergirls and non-skating members who volunteer.

Like all the best things in Texas, I surmise, this do-it-yourself operation is completely made from scratch. And it takes all sorts of cooks in the kitchen to keep it running.

“That’s the biggest hesitancy with people,” Cooter says when I mention that I’m probably not the rollergirl type, but rather, more a candidate to be a superfan in the stands. “They think that because they’re small or they’re quiet, they can’t do it.”

“Or old,” Trainwreck tosses in.

“But I think with our league, and with any league, you need people of all different statures and personalities. It doesn’t matter what size you are. How do they say in Whip It?”

She pauses until she remembers: “Put on your skates and be your own hero.”





Photography: Chris Wiley


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