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Get a roll on

Mad Rollin' Dolls
The Mad Rollin' Dolls take a break from the Willy Street fair to ham it up for the cameras.

Photo courtesy of Papa Razzi

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By Margaret Broeren

Bruises are bragging rights worthy of documentation. Fishnet stockings leave a checkerboard-pattern on legs after skin screeches across linoleum. In this circle of friends, the ultimate thrill is knocking a surrogate sister three rows deep into the crowd.

By day, they are an environmental engineer, a chemist and a commodities broker, working in labs and offices, pouring over data and staring at computer screens. But once they leave the office, Anya Knees, Dutch Oven and Amazing Disgrace don skirts and skates as members of Madison’s all-female flat-track roller derby league, the Mad Rollin’ Dolls.

The Dolls are part of the do-it-yourself roller derby revival that started in Texas five years ago. Each league is a business, and the skaters spend extra hours off the track to keep it running. To these women, roller derby is more than theater or sport: it is an arena for self-exploration, an outlet for aggression and a close community where fun is the rule rather than the exception.

“When I cracked my chin open, I thought it was so funny that one person ran to get the first-aid kit, and the other person ran for the camera,” Amazing Disgrace recalls. “The camera got there first, and we laughed the whole way to the hospital. It was just so silly.”

For Dutch Oven, roller derby lured her in after attending only one bout, the first-season championship. “I felt like it was for me,” she says, her eyes widening. “I thought, this just might be my life’s calling. I could do this for a job.”

In her professional life, Dutch Oven is Marissa Rosen. Working at the University of Wisconsin’s Small Molecule Screening Facility, she talks to fellow scientists and collects molecules to be analyzed for their potential as therapeutic drugs. When she signed up for tryouts in summer 2005, Rosen was finishing her last year of the Ph.D. program in chemistry at UW-Madison. Now she’s a Reservoir Doll and represents the Mad Rollin’ Dolls across the country as a Dairyland Doll, the Mad Rollin' Dolls all-star traveling team.

Part of roller derby’s appeal was the chance to meet people who weren’t fellow chemists or grad students.

“I met people that I would never have met,” she recalls. “I was concerned about fitting in [with the derby scene] because I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t listen to punk-rock music. But it doesn’t really matter. I don’t feel like anyone judges me for being different.”

Despite her status as a Mad Rollin’ Dolls original, Jennifer Hamill also worried that she would be seen as an outsider. Hamill hadn’t been on dingy, day-glow orange-wheeled quad skates since high school, and her only knowledge of roller derby came in explanations from Crackerjack, the Dolls’ general manager.

“When Crackerjack said, ‘We’re going to learn to hit people today,’ I imagined boxing,” Hamill says.

But, as she gradually transformed from a shy engineer into the Quad Squad blocker called Anya Knees, her worries faded and her confidence grew. “You suddenly have these sisters,” she explains.

Derby girls’ bodies are tools used to knock those sisters out of the way, and watching a bout is evidence that any body type can be trained to inflict damage on another.

“Anya Knees started as this alter ego because I was really shy and quiet and not very wild or crazy,” Hamill remembers. “Before I went in, I wanted to be this thin, perfect person all the time. [Roller derby] makes you love your body, whatever your shape or size.”

She tells new skaters they won’t be the same person after a year in derby. “I feel like I’ve become Anya in other ways. It has brought more completeness to my life,” says Hamill.

Amazing Disgrace spends her days as Tess Rutz, a commodities broker who enters orders for clients on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Within the derby world, she keeps a collection of moments, the good days and the bad, in what she calls a montage.

The pyramid drill figures prominently within these memories. Designed for increasing speed and endurance, the mere mention of the word “pyramid” elicits quiet groans from even the strongest of skaters. In a pyramid drill, the women are divided into two groups and alternate turns completing laps around the rink. At top speed, they start at three times around — then four, five, and six. They don’t stop until they’ve worked their way back down to three laps.

"Since I started derby, there has not been a moment when I have not been dead last in the pyramid drill,” Rutz admits. As she struggled with her breathing through the last round of the drill, she could hear Crackerjack shouting at her not to give up. “I got into my own head for one second and said, ‘She wouldn’t be asking you to do this if you couldn’t.’ So I skated harder and started to pass a couple of people, and for the first time I ended up being not dead last in a pyramid drill.”

When Rutz walked into Fast Forward Skate Center in Madison for tryouts more than a year ago, she had every intention of securing a position on staff. Although she wanted to get involved in behind-the-scenes work, friends quickly persuaded her to give skating a try. It was her first day on roller skates — ever.

“If someone can do it, it can be done,” she says. “It’s either a matter of strength or mental capacity. You can work through all of it.”

All of it has included a broken wrist, a wrenched knee that turned a sick looking grey from bruises, and hours spent on derby administration committees that keep things running as smoothly as possible.

Pledging to have an injury-free season, Rutz is excited to see what she’s capable of doing for the Reservoir Dolls this year. “The joy of it makes me feel like a kid,” she laughs. “And, not doing the grown-up thing.”

The constant threat of bruises and scrapes doesn’t intimidate this group of women. Being grown-up doesn’t stop them from describing their colorful bruises as sunsets, or from snapping photos as their wounds change from blue to green to purple.

“Roller derby is kind of like fight club,” Rosen explains. “You get all these bruises, and then you go to work the next day.”

Some outsiders, and even some fans, claim that roller derby is violent. But just like any other contact sport, each hit has a purpose. In derby, it is to clear the way for the jammer so she can score points by moving through the pack.

“You take your aggressions out on the track,” Hamill says, “but you leave it there.”

When she began, Rosen was unsure she could touch people, let alone hit them. Now, she remembers a particularly rewarding practice during her first year.

“I had an awesome jam,” she smiles. “I hit two girls and knocked them both on their ass. I couldn’t believe it!”

Harnessing that kind of power is what makes roller derby so sexy. The short skirts may be a factor, but it’s small compared with the power that comes from the physical prowess and the intellect of the women on the track.

To learn more about MRD fun, visit

Mad Rollin' Dolls

At a practice session, the Dolls listen while their coach explains how to avoid injury.

Photo courtesy of Anne Shapiro

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