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The women have also picked up the endorsement of original roller derby's most famous bad girl, Ann Calvello, 75, of San Bruno, whose green hair and quixotic temper during a four-decades-long career have helped make her an icon within the all-girl derby milieu. (Teams in one of the Texas leagues play for the Calvello Cup.) She showed up to offer her best wishes at a recent Derby Girls benefit held at a San Francisco nightspot; it raised $5,000 for the budding league. Much of the money came from a "spanking booth" in which male fans lined up for hours for a chance to pat scantily clad Derby Girl bottoms at $1 a pop. "I don't know if these girls are roller derby's future," says Calvello, "but I sure as hell like their style and what they're trying to do."
The hour is late -- almost midnight -- and new coach Lydia Clay, 63, a veteran of roller derby during the 1960s and '70s, is putting the women through their paces. It's Clay's second workout with the Derby Girls after agreeing to help them in return for gas money for her commute from Hayward. "These girls have heart, and I love that," says Clay, a whistle dangling from her neck. As the one-time team captain of the Red Devils (a perennial nemesis of the old Bombers) during derby's second golden era, Clay has skated before countless thousands of fans, from the Cow Palace to Madison Square Garden.
The mere fact that the women are willing to commute long distances to practice at such a late hour (the only time they can secure a rink to themselves) says much about their commitment. Except for Amy Jo Stewart, 24, aka Stitches Stew, who skated for two Arizona teams before moving to San Francisco last year, the women are without derby experience. A few hadn't put on skates for years before the Derby Girls formed and, for now, offer more devotion than talent. At the start of practice Clay has turned diplomat when the women press her for an appraisal of their collective abilities: "Let's just say that we've got a lot of work to do."
The girls are a long way from "bouting," as roller derby competition is called, and they know it. For that matter, they haven't even settled on which of the various renditions of the game they want to end up playing. In roller derby, the aim is to have a sprint skater, called a "jammer," circle the track and pass members of the opposing team (scoring a point for each one she passes) while opposing "blockers" try their best to prevent that from happening. Most of the nascent women's leagues have five players to a team: a jammer, three blockers, and a "pivot," who calls the plays and sets the pace for the team. At least one league, the L.A. Derby Dolls, after whom the Derby Girls appear to want to pattern themselves, uses only four players -- three blockers and a jammer.
Clay wisely decides to break the girls in slowly, ignoring for now the fine points of blocking and other aggressive maneuvers associated with competition in favor of helping them increase speed and get more comfortable skating in a crowd.
Even so, a few of the women are already banged up. A week earlier, one of the "new girls" fell and fractured a hip bone her first night out. "Injury is inevitable. You just try and be as careful as you can," opines Sandra Daly, aka Sandra Dee Molish, who, at 36, is the oldest Derby Girl. Hobbled by a nagging toe injury, she's one of the group's stalwarts, rarely failing to show up for practice despite being unable to skate for weeks. As a professional dominatrix, Daly's injury has also cost her in other ways. "I've had to send a couple of my clients with foot fetishes elsewhere, since I obviously can't slip into heels," she says matter-of-factly.
Considering their disparate backgrounds and lack of time together -- most of them have known each other barely six months -- the Derby Girls appear to be a remarkably close-knit bunch. "It's kind of amazing, but it didn't take us long to bond," says Heather Swain, 25, who goes by the nickname Spider. Like many of the women, the perpetually smiling Swain is into punk rock, admits to drinking heavily on occasion, smokes, and is generously adorned with tattoos. Among them is one that spells out "Max," who, she volunteers, "is the guy I was married to for a couple of months when I was 20."
She's been a Derby Girl since last December, when fellow skater Bozeman walked into Brain Wash, the combination San Francisco cybercafe and laundromat where Swain is a bartender, and began talking up the group. "I knew right away this was for me," she says. "It's a great way to get your aggressions out."
Bozeman (Iva Vendetta) is among the group's more zealous ambassadors. "Derby Girls is about skating and doing something physical, but it's also about a sense of community among women who by nature aren't traditionally joiners," she says. "Plus, bottom line is we're just having lots of fun." Her love of skating mirrors a life on the fast track. Having graduated from high school at age 15, she left her native Los Angeles to study at Oxford University in England before completing an undergraduate degree at Oakland's Mills College. She moved to San Francisco last year after graduate school in Chicago.