By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It happened about a year ago. They had been dating off and on for a decade, ever since high school. She'd been gaining weight and he'd been treating her like shit. She cheated on him and used the self-esteem boost to dump him. When he found out why, he called her a whore. And that was that.
But it only got worse. He started dating one of her ex-bridesmaids, a friend she'd had since middle school. And guess what? That bridesmaid got pregnant and became his new fiancée, not three months after he and Heather had split. That was supposed to have been Heather's life, but it was gone, and it hadn't fled far.
"After we broke up I lost all hope," she says. "I became the most irresponsible person in the world. It was just bad. I was pretty much at my lowest point."
Heather lost half her friends, threw away a few more and starting drinking a lot. She began a series of questionable, short-lived relationships. And it's not like her home life offered a lot of pick-me-ups: Her parents were deceased, her grandmother diagnosed with throat cancer, and her grandfather not really there.
But one night at Fitzgerald's she learned about an upstart roller derby league. A couple of women were getting together skaters, hoping to create an all-female league on par with one in Austin. Heather had been a dedicated ice-skater when she was a kid, but a broken hip took her out of the game and jump-started her weight problems. Roller derby, she figured, could be a good way to shed some pounds while shaking off her problems. Plus it had that whole hipster retro thing going on. She signed up.
Heather's always been a tomboy, a guy's gal. When she considered checking herself into a mental hospital after finding out her ex-bridesmaid was pregnant, it was a man, the owner of Montrose Skate Shop, who talked her out of it. But it was a woman, another skater who goes by the name Pseudo Punk, who took care of her, nursed her back to health.
And that's when Heather, a.k.a. Rippin' Red, became complete. That's when she became a rollergirl.
Mention roller derby to the average person, and odds are you'll hear "Oh, you mean like wrestling?" But derby began as an endurance contest. When Chicago promoter Leo Seltzer invented the sport in the 1930s, he was trying to draw people away from dance marathons. He had coed teams skate thousands of miles around a large track, traveling roughly the distance between New York and Los Angeles, and a map on the wall showed their progress.
A few years later Seltzer noticed fans got most excited when the participants crashed into each other -- you can blame this learning curve on NASCAR not yet being invented -- and that's when derby became a full-contact sport. Seltzer shrank the track and changed the rules to up the carnage: Now eight skaters, four from each team, circled in a pack while two "jammers" sprinted around, trying to pass as many opposing players as possible (see "The Deal"). The sport took off and Seltzer eventually passed the league down to his son.
Over the years, roller derby did become more and more "like wrestling." Fights were commonplace (and faker than fake), and just about every bout went down to the wire. In other words, the fans loved it. But high overhead costs gutted the league by the early '70s, and several attempts to revive the sport were short-lived.
That is, until 2000, when a group of women in Austin got together and stripped the sport down, making the track flat and the matches real. Originally called Bad Girl, Good Woman Productions, the Austin league was filled with women who were the antitheses of the rollergirls of yesteryear. Gone were the tans, jumpsuits and Farrah Fawcett feathering of the past; in were the tattoos, fishnets and Bettie Page bangs of riot grrrls. They'd come a long way, baby.
Jen "Ellis Dee" Loving, spokeswoman for the Texas Rollergirls, a group that split from BGGW Productions in 2003 to form its own league, is a big fan of flat-track. One, she says, you can skate flat-track anywhere there's good flooring. And two, "Spectators sit all along the track and never know when a rollergirl might come flying into their laps."
The Austin skaters are the vanguard of a slew of all-female, DIY leagues, including ones in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Madison, Atlanta, San Antonio and now Houston.
Sprint around the rink. Slide on your knees. Do 25 push-ups. Hop up. Sprint again. Only three more rounds to go. You can do it.
Red's getting tired. She goes down crooked on a knee-slide and drags her thigh across the polished floor, the dull screech silencing the cheers of "Go, Heather. Go, Red." She stares at the Snoopy flags hanging from the rink's ceiling, grimaces, flips over and pushes up.