Marks and scuffs left by years of roller skating cover the aging and dimly lit floor at St. Louis Skatium, which is the practice home of the area’s next aspiring world champion.
Twice a week, amid physical and sometimes fierce workouts, the same surface is coated with the DNA of falling athletes who go by such names as Cloak n Dragher, Jamheiser Bush, Cruella and LuxFurious, to name a few.
The Arch Rival All-Stars are a hard-core group of roller derby athletes who will play Nov. 15-17 in Montreal for the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association title against nine other teams.
They play a variation of the older banked-track derby, combining speed, athleticism and full contact — often with the floor.
“People are falling, getting hit and we use our entire bodies to block,” said Chelsea Stone, known as Smarty McFly on the track. “Within the rules, we’re trying for controlled chaos, I guess. I don’t want to ever injure somebody, but I don’t mind sucking their soul.”
The All-Stars are the top team in a St. Louis organization that includes upper-level travel teams, a four-team league and junior competition. They are ranked No. 5 in the world in the WFTDA among 365 teams internationally. The names are for fun, but the game is serious.
The players come from all walks of life. Stone is a senior billing coordinator. The team includes a teacher, massage therapist and economic developer. Players have been known to travel long distances, with one driving from Nashville to practice for a couple of months. The player known as Splatter commutes from Murphysboro, Ill.
Some have been in the sport for more than a decade, moving from city to city and playing for multiple teams. For most, it becomes a labor of love with no financial gain.
“I was a teacher, and I wore roller skates to school one day,” said Brooke Clark, aka Vicious van Go Go. “A co-worker said, ‘My wife started roller derby. You should try out.’ I had no idea what it was. I went to a game and spent the whole time screaming and super engaged.”
Clark went to tryouts and has been playing for 13 years. She has played for teams in Texas, Wisconsin, New York and St. Louis. She never moved specifically for roller derby but always sought out a team immediately.
Sarah Arnosky, who doubles as Bricktator, played several years in San Francisco before moving to St. Louis for graduate school.
“You have people from all backgrounds,” she said. “When I grew up, I was always part of a team. Once you get past the college level into real adulthood, how do you find that community?”
This is a tight community. Players become known widely by their skating names, so once they have established a moniker it doesn’t change, even if their team does.
Stone started playing in St. Louis, moved to Chicago and played there, then returned to the Arch Rival organization. The sport is as much a part of her personality as her career.
“I feel it’s helped me to be a better person and find what my mettle is — to push myself in a different way,” she said. “We play this sport and spend all our money doing it and get to feel like a rock star for a weekend. You go to tournaments and have fans, and it’s kind of cool to be in a different world.”
It’s a world with the potential for significant injury. Stone tore an anterior cruciate ligament in 2012 and has injured both posterior cruciate ligaments. After getting hit in the face while wearing a helmet without a visor, she added the visor and now has a helmet sponsor.
“CTE is a real thing, and we expose ourselves to a lot of impact,” she said, referring to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The athletes come in all shapes and sizes and with differing skills that are needed. The point of roller derby is for the jammer to pass as many opposing players as possible during a session called a jam. Other players are blockers.
A jam starts out as an immense scrum with the jammer trying to break through the mass of humanity. Arnosky is a jammer with a background in soccer, hockey and figure skating.
“When I first showed up to play, they said ‘you’re a jammer’ because I’ve got the figure skating background, and the skating part came naturally to me,” she said. “Building on the skating, I’m lifting, doing agility and conditioning work to take my game to the next level.”
Arnosky is fast and athletic and has the ability to spin past blockers, and uses flying leaps to cut corners without landing out of bounds.
She is known to fans when the team travels, which it has done this year to Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Canada. Last year the WFTDA sent the team to Spain to play in a qualifier for the world championships.
Some expenses are paid by the WFTDA, but most of the money comes out of players’ pockets. Ultimately, the All-Stars hope to walk away with the Hydra trophy, which would make the entire process worthwhile.
Win or lose, they’ll end the season with a gathering at a cabin in the woods. Then the entire year-long process will begin again with the start of league play at Queeny Park.
“I work a job, I do well and I’ve gotten raises, but my passion is this sport,” Stone said. “There are people here who do cool stuff during the day, but this is what we’re passionate about.”