Whipping around a tight oval track at high speeds, pushing away your opponents while simultaneously defending yourself from getting shoved to the floor. This is roller derby: a sport that combines the intensity of a racetrack, the hands-on teamwork of a football game, and the nostalgia of the 70s. And did you know we have our own team right here in Champaign County? Up until only a month ago, I certainly didn’t. So when I heard about the Twin City Derby Girls, my curiosity immediately perked up. Intrigued, I stopped in to watch their annual tryout session last Sunday (February 22nd).

When I pulled into the parking lot of Skateland, I had no idea what to expect. I’d taken part in the tryout process for basketball and volleyball, running endlessly to and fro across a court, but I wondered just what it took to be in a sport as unique as roller derby? My research explained that a match between two teams is called a bout. Essentially, there is one girl at the back of the pack when everyone takes off circling the track. She’s the jammer. Whoever’s team can maneuver their jammer to the front of the pack first wins the bout. Seems a bit difficult when you have eight girls clumped together in front of you. 

Upon entering the viewing area beside the rink, I was immediately welcomed by a few coach representatives. At the nearby tables sat a handful of hopeful derby-girls-to-be filling out various bits of paperwork. These ladies were all different in age, stature, and even skating experience. Some hadn’t been on the rink for more than a few months while others started roller skating in their early teens.

As it turns out, being a super skater isn’t the first requirement for joining the team. I sat down with Kristin (aka “Ninja Squid”), a former team member who would be evaluating the tryouts. She explained that basic skills like skating forward, turning, and stopping are really the essentials. After tryouts, the chosen girls would join a “Doppleganger” team in which they’d learn the more advanced skills and techniques for future bouts. What the coaching representatives are really looking for is attitude. Ninja Squid referred to it as a “derby can-do” positivity, a drive for continuous improvement both on and off the rink.

The more I asked about what it takes to be a derby girl, the more I began to notice a pattern in the answers I received. What coach representative Jamie (aka “Nikita”) looks for is persistence. “Just keep coming,” she advised. “Keep bringing it.” To senior member Therafist, who has been skating with the Twin City Derby Girls for six years, confidence is key. When you’re racing in a crowd, surrounded by opponents, “people hit you, push you to your limits, so it’s important you’re confident that you’ll be okay and [your teammates] will be okay too.”

The history of the Twin City Derby Girls revealed itself through the ladies I spoke with. Back in 2009, when the team was first assembled, there were no tryouts. Everything had to be learned over time. Six years later, the team has grown to include 55 members, 41 of those officially listed as skaters. The rest are coaches, administrators, and volunteers. The league is divided into a series of smaller teams, some of which travel as far away as Florida for bouts. They serve as a non-profit organization, raising funds and performing community service for various charities.    

Soon it was time to begin the tryouts. Team members and candidates warmed up together in a circle, doing various exercises like push-ups and crunches with skates strapped on. Then came the skill tests. Each woman was asked to individually display a certain skill while going around the bright green track, like crossovers and t-stops. During this section, the emphasis on persistence and confidence became clear. Even if you feel ridiculous or unsure while performing a skill you barely know, there’s still a level of self-assurance you need in order to play your part as a team member. It’s a balance between strength of mind and strength of body. 

In almost any sport, joining a team means joining a family. Roller derby is no exception. The second I entered the area around the rink, I could tell it was an open, welcome space. There’s a strong camaraderie shared among the women on the team. Though they may come across as tough and intense in the midst of a bout, they do genuinely care about each other. It’s an infectious trait. Even the tryout candidates were giving each other encouraging applause after every round of skill tests. Even the concept of derby names gives the team an element of closeness, like a sisterhood or a bad-ass band of superheroes. Everyone refers to each other by these individually created names. Even though they wore numbers on their backs, the applicants were encouraged to introduce themselves with a potential derby name. The reasoning behind this was so the other team members would remember them by nothing else. 

Before I knew it, the tryouts were over. Girls were wheeling off the track and sipping on Gatorade. Now I’m no expert on skating, but based on what I saw, the Twin City Derby Girls 55 person family could be gaining a handful of brand new members. It’s funny but, when I left, I felt a tinge of regret for not trying out for the team. If you are female, at least 18 years old, willing to learn basic skating skills, and possess a “can-do derby” attitude, I highly encourage you to try out for the Twin City Derby Girls team next season. Even if you don’t feel comfortable on wheels, league volunteers and supporters at bouts are most welcome.

For more information about the Twin City Derby Girls, the 2015 bout schedule, and other events, roll on over to the TCDG website and Facebook page.

Photography accredited to Steve Jerkovic, Jules Doyle, and the Twin City Derby Girls Facebook page.