A woman with pink hair and tattoos skates around the perimeter of the rink at Dad’s Broadway Skateland in Mesquite, a whistle in her mouth and a microphone in her hand.
At the sound of her whistle, 50 or so other skating women each lift one knee, simultaneously clapping their hands above their heads. She blows again, and they lift the other knee.
“That’s called ‘Pyro-bics’,” explains our guide, the roller derby athlete known as Cordelia ChaseHer.
The woman with the pink hair is called Pyro Maim Ya, aka 32-year-old Lakewood resident Dara O’Bannon. And she is the queen of the roller derby.
By the time Assassination City Roller Derby’s league practice is an hour in, three people tell me that O’Bannon “is a masochist”.
“She’s the one who laughs at our pain,” says the woman called Trigger Mortis, in the roller-derby tradition of pun names.
But when this Pyro introduces herself, she is all smiles and dimples. On the subject of roller derby, she is serious, but not without a dose of humor.
“I’m the cheerful sadomasochist,” she says. “I’m perky and I’m mean all at once.”
O’Bannon was four months pregnant when she first heard about Assassination City Roller Derby. And a few months after her daughter, Victoria, was born, O’Bannon strapped on some skates and got rolling.
Now, more than four years later, roller derby is at the center of her life. She is captain of the league’s all-star traveling team. She leads four two-hour practices a week as trainer for the league’s six teams. And she is the girl that every hot pants-wearing, fishnets-tearing, elbow-throwing derby chick aspires to be.
But clawing to the top of the derby world was painful.
When she’d been playing about a year, O’Bannon broke her leg in 11 places during a practice, and it took two metal plates and 17 screws to put her back together again.
Even though she was injured, she never missed a practice, but posted up on the sidelines to watch and study. Since then, she’s made it her mission to develop and teach techniques that keep injuries at bay.
O’Bannon is in school to become a certified personal trainer, and she’s run two half marathons in the past year.
“People think that we just come out here and put on fishnets and act tough,” Cordelia ChaseHer says. “But there’s so much more that goes into it.”
Everyone must attend at least one league practice per week, and each team schedules its own practices besides that. They sometimes work without air conditioning to save money (the players own the league). And occasionally, the grueling workouts cause someone to bend over and wretch in the rink.
All that work is for a few moments of glory on the roller derby track. Each team in the league only plays about a dozen games per year, and each “bout”, as the games are called, lasts one hour.
“The bouts let you bring out your inner rock star,” says Lunatick Tick Boom, aka Aundrea White, who is in her first season of roller derby. “To hear fans scream your name when you make a good play is an awesome feeling.”
Since joining the derby in November, White has dropped 40 pounds, and now at a muscular 260, she shows a lot of promise, her league-mates say.
“The great thing about derby is that nobody’s body is wasted,” says Cordelia ChaseHer, who weighs about 100 pounds. “Everybody’s body works in their favor, never against them.”
Roller derby was popular in the 1970s and even wound up as the spectacle of a few TV specials. But it had a revival in the late ’90s, and now it is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Since last year’s roller-derby movie “Whip It”, which Drew Barrymore directed and acted in, the sport is more popular than ever.
The Assassination City Roller Derby league has sold out every bout this season, and they draw a standby crowd of people who wait for spectators to leave at halftime so they can get in to watch the second half.
And the women of roller derby are more diverse than the tattooed, tough girls that come to mind. Players include women from 18 to older than 40. There are single moms, stay-at-home moms, a medical student, a nurse and a Harvard graduate.
One astounding thing about this league is that, even though derby is a rough sport requiring dozens of women to work together, these chicks don’t beef among themselves.
“I’ve never had friendships like this before in my life,” O’Bannon says. “I’m the strongest, most confident version of me, and I owe it all to roller derby.”