Roller derby is one of those sports that kind of feels like a myth. The goal is for one player to get all the way around the track. The catch is, that player (aka the jammer) has to break through a gauntlet of the other team's players (as well as their own teammates). It's a game of brawn and endurance, all elbows and body weight and balance. It's like all-female football. But on roller skates.
It's not mythical. It's a very real sport, and many of its roots can be traced back to Seattle.
Rat City Roller Derby has been around since 2004. It is a founding member of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the international governing body for modern roller derby. Out of more than 400 teams, Rat City Roller Derby is ranked 17th in the world. Its home turf, the Rat's Nest, is a semi-dilapidated warehouse turned arena off of Aurora Avenue in Shoreline.
The Seattle Derby Brats, a youth roller derby league that was founded under the auspices of Rat City in 2008, are even more successful. The Galaxy Girls, the Derby Brats' all-star team, are three-time national champions. Seattle Derby Brats, which shares the Rat's Nest with Rat City, introduces girls ages 8 to 17 to roller derby. Many of those girls say it has changed their life.
But a month after Rat City's last bout of the season on April 27, roller derby will no longer have a home in Seattle. The Rat's Nest building was sold last spring and will soon be demolished. Trent Development Inc. plans to construct a building with more than 240 units of housing, 20 percent of that affordable housing.
Rat City has been looking for a new venue, but their needs are specific and their funds are limited. They are an entirely volunteer-run organization. Does anyone with a warehouse want to save Seattle roller derby?
To play flat-track roller derby, you need, well, a track. It's big and oval, and it needs to be indoors. It's tricky because, even if a building is big enough, the space needs to be a "clear span" design. That's an architectural term that means there aren't any poles or beams in the way.
Also, the building needs to be in Seattle.
"We aren't interested in moving out of Seattle," said Marianne Holec, the board vice president for the Derby Brats. She mentioned the Seattle women's soccer team, the Reign, that shopped around to find a different stadium after theirs was deemed defunct. When they couldn't find anything, they uprooted and moved to Tacoma.
"It's already a challenge just being as far north as we are in Shoreline," Holec said. "If we want to continue with our mission of offering sports access to anyone regardless of financials, we have to stay in Seattle."
Loren Riccio (also known by her derby name, Scarlet Fever) is the business operations director for Rat City Roller Derby. Like the coaches and the board members, Riccio is a volunteer. "If we were to move out of Seattle, it would be damaging to our organization," she said.
As she explains it, the league has been searching for a new home in Seattle for several years. But they have yet to find anything viable.
Rat City Roller Derby will be kicked out of the Rat's Nest just after this year's regular season ends, but in the middle of the all-stars season. For preseason summer training and practices, they're looking to lease community centers and gyms. But that's a temporary fix.
"There are so many limitations to that," Riccio said. "We're hoping that we don't need to do that long-term."
Where have all the affordable roller- derby-size buildings in Seattle gone? If you have one in your backyard, or if you just inherited one in your great-grandad's will, or if you know a local billionaire who loves to roller-skate, Rat City would love to hear from you.
A 17-year-old skater in the Derby Brats named Jubi (who turns 18 on April 1 and whose derby name is Hail Skatin') originally joined after the first league she had skated for lost its space and moved out of Seattle.
"It was an amazing experience. I had a great coach and a great team, but we lost our space," Jubi said. "They weren't able to find a new one, and now their track is up in Monroe. That's why I transferred to the Derby Brats."
After her old league couldn't find a different home close by, she's nervous about having to relocate from the Rat's Nest.
"Having the experience of losing the other place," Jubi said, "I know derby's not going anywhere, Rat City's not going anywhere—they've moved a lot. But they've been here for so long. And they got the frickin' sign this year," she added, in reference to the brand-new "Rat's Nest" sign that was installed on the building recently. "I'm so sad."
She was hoping to become a Rat City Roller Derby member, but now she's not so sure.
I talked to Jubi and her teammates on the Ultra Violets (one of the Derby Brats' travel teams) at a Tuesday night practice. Jubi is a cocaptain of the team.
A crew of flushed, sweaty girls flopped around me in a circle. They took off their kneepads, unlatched their helmets, and extracted their mouth guards.
"Derby is special," said Kylie, a 14-year-old who's been in derby for four years. Her derby name is Kyrocraktr. "I think you feel special when you're in it because it's not that common. When you tell people you play roller derby, they don't know what it is." She laughed: "Or they're afraid of you."
Derby has grit. It values strength, agility, and tenacity. But even with all of that full contact and bruise accumulation, there's a deep vein of camaraderie. The girls are taught that it's not only okay to fail, it's encouraged.
That allows them to take risks and try new things, said Benji Mincy, who coaches the Ultra Violets.
Many girls have found a home in the Derby Brats. Mincy said that for a lot of these girls, many of whom might not have the best home lives, this is their happy place. It's where they find empowerment and strength.
"Some of them come in thinking they're a little girl, but then they find their power, especially when they play against older people or boys," Mincy said.
For Hazel, who is 13, the highlight of 2019 was blocking against a boy who was 17 years old and huge. With muscles like he had, he could easily have been 26, she said. Hazel smiled around her braces, regaling me with the story. The boy kept pushing Hazel, who was on defense, off the track.
"Then I said, 'I can do this all day,'" Hazel recounted. "And I knocked him out. But I was so busy celebrating that I didn't notice him get back in and score."
The Pacific Northwest is where junior roller derby is thriving most. The Seattle Derby Brats and the Portland Roller Girls have two of the largest junior roller derby leagues in the country. The Galaxy Girls, the Derby Brats' all-star team, won their first national championship in 2015. They've defended it ever since.
But now Rat City Roller Derby is going to be homeless. That's a loss not only for Seattle but for the larger roller-derby community.
"For a program like ours to be struggling to find track space, it's so unfortunate as the premier example in the country," Holec said. "Even with Title IX, there's just not as much opportunity, especially that's specifically dedicated to girls."
By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports twice as often as boys do. Roughly 40 percent of teenage girls don't participate in sports, compared to 25 percent of teenage boys, according to a study by the Women's Sports Foundation. "Girls and teens from low-income families are still participating at significantly lower rates than boys and teens from more affluent backgrounds," the study says, "with certain sports having greater gender and economic divides than others."
Rat City and the Derby Brats emphasize that anyone, no matter their financial situation, can participate in derby. There are testimonials about the Derby Brats volunteer leaders covering costs for concussion tests or buying new skates for girls who can't afford them.
"We see how transformative sports are in the lives of teens," Holec said. "It helps increase their self-esteem and make stronger social connections. These are such important components and foundations in girls right now, especially as we see an increase in anxiety and depression. Seattle Derby Brats is filling a critical need."
Rat City has more than 130 members, and the Derby Brats has more than 200 kids. The Derby Brats did no advertising last year, and the league filled up in two weeks. Currently, there are 90 girls on the waiting list.
For many—including 13-year-old Savannah, who juggles basketball practice and derby practice, and 17-year-old Marley, who lives in Woodinville—moving to facilities out- side of Seattle would be nearly impossible.
"It's such a priority for me, I'll manage to get there," Marley said. It's already hard enough for her to get to Shoreline. "But I don't want to drive six hours."
I sat in a coffee shop with Allyson Madere, a first-year derby mom, and her 9-year-old daughter, who wanted to be known only by her derby name, Slaughtermelon. Since the fall, Slaughtermelon has been a skater in the Derby Brats' Tootsy Rollers division, for 8- to 12-year-olds. Slaughtermelon was shy when we met, casting her eyes down at her hands or up at her mom for the most part.
But when I asked about derby, she perked up."I read this book called Roller Girl, and it's a graphic novel about roller derby," Slaughtermelon said. "I wanted to try it."
Madere chimed in to say that Slaughtermelon hadn't just read Roller Girl, she became obsessed with it.
"She told me just last week that the only thing she loved more than roller derby was her family," Madere said. "There's a lot of passion in this and, as a mom, it's really exciting to see kids get so passionate about something."
Madere and Slaughtermelon will stick with Rat City wherever it moves. They're hoping it's not far. In addition to being a Derby Brat, Slaughtermelon also takes piano lessons and is a Girl Scout. But when she grows up, Slaughtermelon wants to be a Rat City member.
"I've seen her confidence go up so much," Madere said. "The way they coach is so incredible. She's gotten a lot fiercer."
For now, Rat City and the Derby Brats are still hunting for a viable location to move to. Their time at the Rat's Nest is quickly coming to a close. There are bouts on April 6 and April 27, and the last public event will be the Summer Slam ("a full day of junior derby and a chance for everyone to say goodbye to the nest") on May 19.
If you're curious about what they do, you should consider attending. Come out to wish them good luck, or to say farewell to the venue, or to give it a good once-over before you donate a warehouse of your own to the cause.