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Atlanta Rollergirls Makes Norcross Its New Home

Atlanta's flat-track roller derby league, which moved its practice grounds to the Norcross area this year, is much more than just hitting other players for fun.

If you've seen the movie "Whip It" or remember roller derby as a '70s spectacle sport, you may have this misconception that the Atlanta Rollergirls practice a ruthlessly abusive sport that involves throwing elbows and pushing players over railings.

That's not entirely the case.

"One of the misconceptions is that we just get on the track and we're just knocking the crap out of each other," said Michelle Brattain, the head of public relations for the Atlanta team and also a third-year Rollergirl herself under the name Hate Ashbury. "But it's really a much more strategic kind of game, and it requires a lot of athleticism. I don't think a lot of people realize that."

Conceived in October 2004, the Atlanta Rollergirls is a flat-track roller derby league that currently consists of about 70 skaters on four home teams. The players overlap into three inter-league teams, which includes the Dirty South Derby Girls, the all-star team that competes against other flat-track women teams from other countries and states.

While the league has been in Atlanta for almost eight years, it just moved its practice grounds this year to a warehouse space in the Norcross area. Located on Wilwat Drive near on Jimmy Carter Boulevard, the practice area is where the league does everything from scrimmages, tryouts and workshops.

What's great about the Norcross location is that the building didn't need to be converted for the league's specifications for track size or floor material. They also don't share the location with anyone else, unlike their last practice arena at the All-American Skating rink in Stone Mountain.

"We looked for a long time for a place that was perfect for our needs, and we're happy to find it in Norcross," said Atlanta league founder Angela Ward.

Under the derby name Tanya Hyde (pronounced tan-ya, not tawn-ya), Ward is retired from skating but is still a coach, in addition to being the director and founder of the junior league, the Atlanta Derby Brats. The Brats, who also practices in Norcross, started in 2009 and is open to girls ages 7 to 17.

Even though the younger league limits the touch-contact among players, the Brats carries the same vibe as the Rollergirls but differs from more ordinary sports such as soccer and track.

"I've worked with kids in the past in different sports and stuff, and it's not the same at all," said junior league coach Cyndi Pittman, whose Rollergirl alias is Blackie Braless. She said she doesn't see a lot of girls drop out of derby because they want to do it and aren't forced into it. She even has had parents call her to say that they won't let their daughter go to practice that day because she misbehaved, and they know that not allowing their daughter to skate is a true punishment.

But it's much more than just fun for kids, though. Ward said she's had many parents applaud the sport for its benefits on their daughters' behavior and attitude.

"It's amazing for girls because it's positive, it encourages them to be strong, to be confident in their bodies, and they're surrounded by really strong women," added Brattain, whose 8-year-old started not too long ago.

And that confidence boost isn't just seen in the little ones, either. Even though Megan Gane, 29, grew up playing sports, she's learned a lot from being a Rollergirl for the past five years.

"I still play coed soccer every Tuesday, but it's funny how I've taken derby to soccer now," said Gane, whose name on the track is Sissy Splaysek. "I have no issues going against the biggest guys on the field and checking them if I have to and getting physical."

What's interesting about roller derby is that women essentially can join at any age. The oldest woman in the Atlanta league is 52 and on the all-star league.

"It's a unique sport because it is something that you can play at one of the highest levels just by hard work," added Gane. "You couldn't just pick up a soccer ball at 25 and make it onto a pro team."

A few training sessions won't get you on a derby team, though. Through a hardcore training regiment, the Atlanta Rollergirls give workshops on the basics of skating (learning how to fall safely, doing pivot turns, etc.) that will lead to tryouts. Those who make it past tryouts are known as Fresh Meat for five months and learn the skills of the actual sport.

For those unfamiliar with roller derby, the games are divided into two 30-minute periods with two-minute bouts called jams. In the jams, five players from each team get on the track, with four players known as blockers and the other player as a jammer. Both teams' jammers start behind the blockers, and the goal is for the jammers to race through the other skaters while the blockers try to keep them from passing. For every blocker from the opposing team that the jammer laps a second time, points are gained.

As Fresh Meat, players are given acceptable and not acceptable hitting moves, too: Rules say you can't hit anybody with elbows, forearms or hands, and hits above the neck, on the back or below the middle of the thigh are illegal. Shots allowed in the game include hitting an opponent with the hip, the side of body or the shoulder. Positional blocking, which can mean getting in front of someone and slowing down so that a player runs into her back, also is allowed.

Trainees get a better feel of how the sport is offensive and defensive at the same time, unlike a lot of sports.

"The switching back and forth mentally is very hard," said Lee Duh, who's head of training and known as Rebel Yellow on the field. "It requires a lot of awareness of pack play. Of all the people around you, you have to play dynamically with all your teammates to make sure everything's getting covered. The way the sport moves is pretty fast, so it's very spontaneous."

After learning all of this during the Fresh Meat phase, a final bout assessment is held to see who makes it and who doesn't. For those who pass, they automatically get on a draft team.

It's no joke that joining the home team is a huge time commitment, so to the busy woman who can't do it full-time has the option of being a part of the Rollergirls' recreational league. With no try outs or tests, the Rec League still gives the feel of derby in a relaxed setting.

"It's around once or twice a week that they get together and learn about roller derby, exercise, sort of get some of the best parts of roller derby out of it without having to rearrange their entire lives, which usually happens with the competitive teams," said Ward.

Considering all the sport's dedication and fun, Ward said the most interesting thing about roller derby is the people.

"It brings all kinds of people from all walks of life together," she said. "[It's amazing] that you can have a lawyer, a bartender and a preacher, who are all out there on the track, skating and working together to make this sport something that's taken seriously."

For Gane, who worked in video production, she plays for personal excitement, too.

"I love playing games," said Gane. "I love having that huge crowd and everyone cheering. I love that energy that you get from it, and honestly, it's just a really fun sport to play."

The Atlanta Rollergirls and the Atlanta Derby Brats practice at 1721 Wilwat Drive in the Norcross area. For more information on tryouts, the recreational league, and upcoming tournaments, check out the Atlanta Rollergirls website at atlantarollergirls.com.

If you're more of a spectator than doer of sports, the Atlanta Rollergirls has two home games coming up Aug. 18 and Sept. 22, both at the Yaarab Shrine Temple in Midtown. Atlanta also will play host to the International Women's Flat Track Derby Association 2012 Championships at the Georgia World Congress Center in November. 

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