One of the tri-state's most successful sports teams plays at historic Cincinnati Gardens, is composed of a squad of highly dedicated and skilled athletes, and practices an incredibly physical sport that encourages drawing blood out of your opponent. I'm not talking about one of the area's football teams, but rather Cincinnati's all female roller derby league.
Over the past several years, the Cincinnati Rollergirls
have worked to become one of the region's most successful non-franchise sports franchises. With alter-ego monikers such as Hannah Barbaric and Sadistic Sadie, all 16,579 skaters registered on the derby names registry offer a glimpse of their inner raging personalities.
I recently sat in on a weeknight practice, where Liz Taylor Borntrager, aka "The Librarian," and the Rollergirls' be-luchador-masked announcer, "The Tank," walked me through the basics. Although the Cincinnati Rollergirls have been in existence since late 2005, they only joined the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) in 2007. Since that time, the squad has clawed its way up to their current rank of #4 in the North Central League. There are four national leagues, comprised of nearly 60 sanctioned teams. At this pace, they appear well on target to achieve their goal of becoming one of the top 10 teams in the country.
The 2006 reality program Rollergirls
, which followed the Austin, Texas team who revived the sport in 2001, created a local and national renaissance of interest in the derby. For most of their first three years, it seemed the team spent more time explaining and establishing the sport in Cincinnati than playing. However, 2009 seems to be the "Year of the Skater" in the eyes of The Librarian. The constantly-expanding team has shown steady professional growth, has reached a more competitive level than ever before, and fans are flocking to their matches thanks in part to an aggressive and clever marketing campaign.
The Cincinnati Rollergirls consist of two micro-teams, the Black Sheep and the Silent Lambs, who practice together every week. According to the Rollergirls' website, the Black Sheep are the all-star/travel team and the Silent Lambs are the alternate/reserve team. Even with this technical division, however, the team views itself as a singular entity, stressing the importance of all players to the success of the whole.
So where exactly does the roller derby fit into the realm of established sports leagues in the United States? As The Tank pointed out to me, some of the biggest sports of the past decade have been mixed martial arts and the X Games; both are fast-paced and based on the promotion of "characters." The derby offers all this and much more. The matches are enticing and feature athleticism and a dash of pageantry.
Although the skaters' characters and alter-egos are one of the most entertaining aspects of the game, they seem to currently be something of a hot button issue amongst the athletes. I wondered aloud to The Librarian whether or not she thought the significance of role playing and theatricality had something to do with the fact that roller derby is a predominantly female sport. And while she admitted that the "rock-n-roll" personas allow women the opportunity to come out of their shells, be stronger, bolder and more confident, she paired this observation with the acknowledgment that above all else, their aim is for recognition as a legitimate sport. In other words, some athletes are concerned that, although unique and entertaining, the tradition is pigeon-holing the sport as a campy fad, instead of allowing it to advance and gain broader acceptance.
However, one aspect that does lend some legitimacy, at least in the case of our local Rollergirls, is their home turf: the Cincinnati Gardens. Originally the home of local high school and college basketball teams as well as professional hockey and boxing, the Rollergirls are especially proud to contribute to its heritage. While the WFTDA is known to have some pretty interesting venues – old theatres and airplane hangars among them – opposing teams who have bouted at the Gardens have insisted that we lay claim to one of the best in the league.
Derby ladies work just as hard off the track to be role models and ambassadors to the community. Not a single player gets paid to play – in fact, it's the reverse. Derby athletes pay to join the team, and every single penny their events bring in either goes to team expenses or charitable donations. But it's not only the athletes themselves who forego a paycheck – referees, coaches, announcers and even trainers are all in it for nothing more than the love of the game.
The roller derby community is known for its ferocious loyalty to one another marked by a dedicated, cooperative, DIY punk rock spirit. In a league created "for the skaters, by the skaters," the Cincinnati Rollergirls work together to promote, improve and earn recognition for their sport, while bettering their community while providing real efforts to give back – all with a bit of sass. Sarah Stephens is a local dame, who, in addition to writing for Soapbox and CityBeat, is currently penning a book about Cincinnati's brewing history. When not writing, she's either traveling or dreaming of her next trip.
Contributing photography by Jason Bechtel and Jeff Sevier