IT’S A CHILLY Saturday morning at the Expedia parking structure, with icy breezes blowing off Elliott Bay. But the Galaxy Girls come away from their makeshift roller-derby practice track sweating. They don’t mind the cold; they’ve been dealing with it all winter. They’re just glad to be together.
The skaters show off bruises from falls and fingerprint marks on their arms left by other players’ grabbing hands.
“We turn pain into a trophy, in a good way. We turn our bad moments into something you can do better later on,” says skater Kiana Witwer (derby name Kiki Krusher — the names are part of the fun). This is the Seattle Derby Brats’ all-star travel team, a group of teens who have been skating for years. Kids as young as 8 skate in the league’s “Tootsy Roller” teams, and teams of varying age and skill levels go up from there.
As a full-contact indoor sport, roller derby suffered during pandemic shutdowns. In Seattle, that has come with economic woes, too. Seattle’s longtime league Rat City Roller Derby lost its practice and competition venue in Shoreline, the Rat’s Nest, when the building’s owner sold it. Things are restarting only slowly as they look for a new home.
But the folks who run the junior league were determined to keep it going. Like all kids, the derby skaters missed their friends and extracurricular activities when the pandemic hit.
“You could tell the relief in a lot of these kids when they got their community back,” says Jeanne McGrady, a former derby skater and longtime Derby Brats volunteer whose daughter Lauren is on the Galaxy team.
They found churches, schools and community centers where they could practice outdoors. When fall rains hit, they arranged to skate in the covered Expedia lot.
They’re used to making do, even as they wish they didn’t have to. “Derby was a pretty scrappy sport, anyway,” McGrady says.
Seattle Derby Brats includes about 170 skaters and 27 volunteer coaches. Vito Ramon Buckner has been coaching for 15 years. “These kids all want to be better,” he says, which makes his task fun. “There’s no obstacle that they can’t get by using their teamwork on and off the court.”
The derby world is indeed a world; it spans the globe. And anyone involved in derby is an immediate friend. (The Derby Brats proudly point out that Olympic speedskating gold medalist Erin Jackson is also a derby skater.)
Nobody cares where you come from or what you look like; on the track, all are equal. (While roller derby focuses on female and nonbinary skaters, male skaters are welcome in its open divisions.)
As they skate together, travel together, take — and deliver — hits together, and laugh and cry together, the kids grow into a family.
They learn to get back up again every time they tumble, building the kind of blooming confidence I couldn’t even imagine as a teenager. “We’re so comfortable with each other that we push each other to the limit. When I step out here, it reminds me of how strong I am as an individual,” says Mia Valencia (Mama Mia on the track).
Knowing their teammates have their backs, their confidence extends far beyond competition.
As Hazel Graham (aka Graham Reaper) says, “Nothing can stop us. No matter where we are, we bring our community.”