Local News

Roller Derby catching on in Alaska’s First City

It all started last November when Jill “Tundra Thighs” Walker, Malika “Mafreaka” Brunette and Stephanie Sanguinetti went to one of the weekly Saturday open skates at the Ketchikan Recreation Center. They had talked about roller derby, and wondered whether they could get something like it started in Alaska’s First City.

They tried a few roller derby moves, decided they liked it and so started Rainforest Rollergirls, an all-woman flat-track league.

One of their more enthusiastic recruits, Dawn “Sea Wolf” Rauwolf, said, “It’s so much fun, it’s really good exercise and the kind of chicks who come out to play are like, they see the poster and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I want to be there!’ That’s exactly how I was. I was like, ‘OK they’re starting roller derby? I’m there.’”

Roller derby has been around for a while, and got a little boost in the 1970s when Raquel Welch starred in the cult classic “Kansas City Bomber.”

The sport is picking up again, perhaps in part due to the more recent movie, “Whip It,” with Drew Barrymore. Ketchikan is the latest community to join a growing system of Alaska roller derby leagues. The AK Roller Derby website lists 14 active leagues, not including Ketchikan, with two in Juneau and one each in Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell.

Some of Ketchikan’s fresh meat – the term for new roller derby recruits – participated in boot camps with a Wasilla roller derby veteran. Walker said they have mini practices mid-week and full practices on Saturday afternoons.

So what’s the appeal? Why roller derby?

“It’s really fun and it’s empowering,” Walker said. “I can’t explain exactly how it is, but you’re skating and you’re like, ‘I’m awesome and I’m going to kick some butt. And have my butt kicked.’”

Part of the unique fun of roller derby is coming up with a special name. Walker laughed as she explained the origin of hers.

“My friend and I were joking around about being strippers in the North Pole, and I was like, ‘If I’m a stripper in the North Pole, my name is going to be Tundra Thighs,’ and it just translated very well into derby,” she said.

About 40 women have signed on to the league, but about half that number show up at practices. It’s a full-contact sport, so injuries do happen. There already have been some sprains and breaks, but the league is trying to keep those to a minimum.

“We have a scholarship set of gear. We’re trying to push everyone getting gear who is serious about it,” said Jennifer Hamilton. “Otherwise, you’re going to have a broken wrist when you fall down. For a rookie package, which includes all pads, skates and a mouth guard, it’s usually $350. We’ve been buying it from Shocker Khan up in the Anchorage area.”

And Jennifer’s roller derby name is: “Chupaflor Lotus. Chupaflor is hummingbird in Spanish, and hummingbirds are really fast.”

So, for those who aren’t familiar with the rules of flat-track roller derby, here’s a quick, basic tutorial: It’s an oval track, and two teams send out five women per bout. Four of those are in the pack, and one is the jammer. The jammer scores a point for each woman from the opposing team that she passes.

That means the jammer should be pretty fast and agile. Pack members block the other team’s jammer while trying to open up space for their own team member to score.

Walker predicted that she’s not going to be a jammer.

“I’m not extraordinarily fast, and not amazingly agile either, so pack is kinda where I feel I belong,” she said. “I could take up some space and booty check. That’s been one thing with these derby practices is my booty has taken on a life of its own. It’s amazing the muscles that you feel growing. You’re just like, ‘Oh my God. My legs are intense.’”

A real competition is far on the horizon for Rainforest Rollergirls. Walker guesses next fall or early winter.

Rainforest Rollergirls has an active Facebook group where organizers post information about upcoming practices and events.

Roller derby participants stretch out before a recent practice.

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