Michelle Townsdin (Dita Von Teeth) skates around the rink during a bout against the Petersburg Ragnarok Rollers on April 27, 2019. // Photo by Zack Jimenez
People boisterously cheer from cramped gym bleachers over the sound of blaring rock music as roller skaters determinedly hustle past each other on a makeshift track. This isn’t your typical skateway. Bright outfits, crazy face paint, wacky names, and helmets and pads mark the skaters as roller derby athletes.
This was the scene at the second competition of the season for the Bellingham Roller Betties, Bellingham’s women’s roller derby league. Founded in 2006 by a group of local skaters, the league is currently in the middle of their twelfth season.
Roller derby is a full-contact sport in which one skater from each team , the “jammer,” races around an oval track in order to earn points. The catch? The jammer has to evade four players from the opposing team, known as “blockers.”
One fan of the sport, Holly Tobosa, said she sees the athletes as role models for her own daughter and likes to bring her to the bouts.
“I like to bring her. It’s really positive, [there’s] a lot of strong women,” Tobosa said. “We just love it- the pace of it, the body positivity, the intensity, the sportsmanship, and the music.”
After the Betties first-ever game in 2007, things took off quickly. Dottie Hazzard works on the league’s marketing committee and coaches Team F.L.A.S.H, one of the three hometeams that make up the Betties. She said the crowds started getting too large so the league had to move away from competing at the Lynden Skateway and relocate to Whatcom Community College’s Pavilion & Student Recreation Center.
Since then, things appear to have worked out. The competitions draw in a diverse crowd. A large ensemble of the young, old, and everyone in between filled the majority of the bleachers on the April 27 doubleheader.
According to the league’s webpage, volunteers set up a “Bitties table” outside of the gym, offering activities such as arts and crafts and skater autographs for younger fans. In addition to having family seating options available, the venue also offers a beer garden for fans 21+.
Hazzard said there are many different volunteer options that people can sign up for, and most of them don’t require a pair of skates.
The Betties appreciate help with setting up the gymnasium on bout days and working concessions, ticketing, and merchandise booths. Other volunteer opportunities include security at the beer garden and taking down the track after the bouts, Hazzard said. Volunteers also get free admission to the bouts, where tickets typically cost $15.
For those interested in competing, the league hosts an eight-week long training camp called “Booty Camp” every August for $40. Although Hazzard finds the price pretty affordable, she admitted it can start getting expensive considering the added cost of the needed equipment. However, the league does offer equipment for people to try out for free for the first few days.
Those interested in joining shouldn’t worry about their possible lack of skating experience, Hazzard said.
“If you’ve done track, you’re going to do great. If you’ve done weightlifting, you’re going to feel confident. If you’ve been a couch potato for the last 20 years and you just want to make some friends, you’re still going to be fine,” Hazzard said.
Upon finishing with training, athletes then become members of The Grit Pit, the league’s skaters-in-training program. Once in The Grit Pit, athletes become eligible to be drafted by one of the three hometeams: Team F.L.A.S.H, Tough Love, or the Cog Blockers.
After coming away with a tight win over the Petersburg Ragnarök Rollers from Alaska on the April 27 bout, Tough Love skater Shammunition expressed appreciation for new members.
“A lot of people that already play derby hop around leagues and then also, though, we really love fresh meat coming in and learning the game and growing on that pool because once you start it’s like you can’t stop,” she said.
If there’s one thing Hazzard wants potential players to know, it’s that the sport is extremely inclusive to people of different backgrounds and experiences, she said.
“The key to [roller derby] is that anybody can try it,” Hazzard said. “When I first started skating, I was skating with someone who was doing their Ph.D. in molecular chemistry and somebody who was the mother of four children … There’s just this wide variety.”
You can catch more derby action at the league’s next doubleheader on Saturday, May 18 at WCC’s Pavilion. The first bout between the Cog Blockers and the Snake Pit Derby Dames from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho starts at 5 p.m. and Team F.L.A.S.H will take on Tough Love at 7 p.m.