How She Rolls

Photo: Ryan Kurtz

Bex Pistol is a hip-slamming, shoulder-shoving roller-derby mama.

Which is not obvious when the mild-mannered, strawberry-blonde mom is amusing her 2-year-old daughter, Lindsay, with a wooden alphabet puzzle in their suburban Cincinnati home. Colleagues in information technology at Procter & Gamble know her as Becky Hansen Christian.

But at the Gardens on a Saturday night when the Silent Lambs are skating, if you ask to see Becky, the rest of the Cincinnati Rollergirls—Flannery O'Slaughter, Susie Shinsplintski and June with a Cleaver, to name a few—don't know who you're talking about. Becky has morphed into Bex, the 5-foot-3 1/2 gal with a garter inked on her thigh and a glittering little six-shooter dangling from a chain at her throat. "I'm not covered in piercings and I don't have pink hair," says Christian, '99. "I do have the tattooed garter—but it's fake. Most of the rest of the tattoos on the team aren't fake."

Neither is contemporary roller derby, a contact sport that—for all its punk trappings—is about skating skill, strength and strategy. The roller derby your grandpa watched on TV in the '60s owed more to manufactured entertainment than athletic achievement; it was like the WWF on wheels. Now roller derby is a popular pastime that was ascending in popularity even before it was portrayed in the 2009 movie Whip It. The Cincinnati Rollergirls are one of about 350 teams in the nation, according to the website of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.

In a roller-derby bout, two five-member teams try to outskate each other on a flat oval track. Four players from each team form a pack that gets a head start racing around the track. Behind them are two jammers, one from each team. Each jammer tries to skate around or through the pack as many times as possible in a two-minute period, scoring a point for each opponent she passes. Pack members try to block the jammer of the other team while clearing the way for their own jammer. The race action is like NASCAR without the cars.

"It's more sport than theater," says Christian. The players don't get paid—in fact, they pay monthly dues to support the team, which is player-owned. And while the action is intense and injuries not uncommon, the games "aren't as violent as people think."

Four years ago, Christian's husband, Derek, called her attention to an announcement of tryouts. The first Rollergirls session was free. "Like any recreational drug, they got me into it gradually," she says. "Now I pay ridiculous amounts of money for skates and [spend] enormous amounts of time practicing."

Her skating experience was limited. When she tried out for the Rollergirls, she couldn't even perform a cross-over, the essential skill for rounding curves on skates. When she raced her sister, Ellyn Hansen Vollmer, '96, a few years ago, Becky got beat. (Alter ego Bex wants a rematch.)

Christian credits sisterly competition with her drive to attend Stanford. Both followed the example of their parents, Fred Hansen, PhD '71, and Susan Blackall Hansen, PhD '72. Lest you wonder how a Stanford education prepares one for life on the roller derby track, Christian has the answer. "Time management. I was always working to fit everything into my SU schedule. Now those skills come in handy when I'm juggling family, work and derby. Derby is very time-consuming."

The Rollergirls practice six hours a week, in A and B teams called the Black Sheep and Silent Lambs. The skaters "felt like the black sheep of the roller derby world" in 2005, when the team was created. "No one knew who they were and they had a lot of work to do to become nationally ranked," Christian says. Now ranked 15th among national teams, the goal is to hit the top 10 this year. Average attendance last year for the Rollergirls was 1,300.

This year's opening game drew 3,200 fans, including several hundred who paid extra to sit within an arm's reach of the track. The crowd included everyone from toddlers to "Bikers for Kids" in black leather and chains to date-night twentysomethings.

A limo-load of 18 people from a nearby town was there to support their police dispatcher, a rookie in her first game. Andrew—who wasn't sharing his last name—wore a red thong over his jeans and availed himself generously of the $1 beer.

"I can't see through you, Andrew," said one woman, as the game began.

"Stand up," he growled back. "This ain't a sit-down sport."

His companion Doug used red-and-black women's bikini underpants (worn over khakis) as a holster for beer cans. Doug identified himself as a village councilman, adding that the mayor was also in attendance.

In the second bout, Bex glided to the track as the jammer. As the pack took off, she waited on toe-tips for the whistle that sent her into the jam. Bursting forward, she jostled through the hips and shoulders of the opposing team. Teammate Geez Louise held off an opponent as Bex surged through a small opening. Using the hem of another Rollergirl's jersey, she sling-shot her way to the front of the pack only to come up against the well-muscled shoulder of a hefty opponent. Bex teetered, went down, but quickly regained her wheels to finish that bout as the lead jammer.

There are injuries. In the last five seconds of the Silent Lambs' opening game, one skater fell and then skidded across the floor. She waved gamely as she was carried off on a stretcher, but the news was bad: Her right leg was broken. She broke the same bone last year and likely won't return as a skater.

Bex Pistol hasn't suffered anything more serious than bruises and sprains. Christian does "everything possible" to prevent injuries, such as putting in two days a week of training in addition to team practices. "I live with the constant knowledge that I could get hurt," she says, but she's hooked. "This has become my social life. The people are really great. All of us are in really good shape, but we come in all sizes. It's very empowering for girls. . . .

"It's really adorable and flattering when little kids come up and ask for my autograph. They don't know I'm just a mom who does IT. They think I'm a superhero."

SUSAN CABA, a 1997 Knight fellow, is a journalist based in St. Louis. She doesn't skate but wants to answer to Susie Bruisey.