Glitter vs. Grit

Rounding the corner, she looks ahead to a group of skaters, trying to catch up. It seems promising, but as she squats deep into the turn, a skate catches. She trips and goes down. Hard. A skater tumbles over her, and yet another over her. Four women end up tangled on the track. One gets up and screams in frustration.

But the skater who tripped is still down, lying on the track, her dark hair covering her face. She cradles her left arm. The skidding of wheels against the rough cement ceases, and the skaters take a knee. This is nothing they haven’t seen before. A few seconds pass before she extends her elbow forward, realizes her arm isn’t broken and hops up.

“Who’s the asshole who fell?” she asks with a sarcastic bite, her head dropping in faux shame.

In this warehouse space – lovingly nicknamed “The Bruisery” but undeniably unglamorous – four 20-member roller derby teams, officials and coaches gather every Sunday for scrimmages. The track is outlined with hand-applied fluorescent orange duct tape and patched up as needed. Foam-covered walls, old posters and a cement floor referred to as the “cheese grater,” for its effect on wheels, also fill the space.

But the real games – or bouts, as they’re called – are played in a different type of place, one that’s worthy of a professional matchup – the U.S. Cellular Arena.

Before these bouts, 34-year-old Anna Krajcik lays out her gear: helmet, mouth guard, elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads, her gold knee brace from a torn ACL and, finally, gold and red quad roller skates. She meticulously crimps her hair – even the pink-tinged ends – while listening to hardcore rock, lots of Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Zombie. The last thing Krajcik does is apply thick, red makeup around her eyes, “putting on my game face,” she says.

The arena’s lights dim as the skaters are introduced, and their images are projected onto the jumbotron above the track. When Krajcik emerges, she is Grace Killy, co-captain of her team. “Grace Killy is a larger-than-life persona,” Krajcik says, “and I put her on for games.”

Thousands have gathered for this March 24 event, courtesy of their $18 tickets, and the crowd roars. On the receiving end of those cheers: Milwaukee’s own Brewcity Bruisers.

The juxtaposition between the stage makeup and bright lights of the U.S. Cellular and the grit of the warehouse practice space represents the test of modern roller derby. Since the sport’s revival in Austin, Texas, in the 2000s, it has struggled with both a perception problem and a balance between athletics and entertainment. “There was a search for its identity,” Krajcik says. And that search is ongoing. Roller derby is pushing the definition of sport, slowly catching the eye of mainstream institutions, but it hasn’t completely cut ties with its theatrical past.

Therein lies the challenge: Can derby retain its DIY spirit and punk aesthetic while gaining acceptance from mainstream sporting culture?

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