The action stops when Paige Turner rises up on her knees, eyes wide, face frozen in misery. • It's nothing, really. She just got the wind knocked out of her. Soon, she's breathing normally again and the roller derby resumes. • "It's happened many, many times,'' she says, smiling, a few minutes later. "It feels like you're going to die sometimes.'' • Paige Turner is her battle name. When the 14-year-old from Riverview isn't zipping around the rink trying to knock other girls off their skates, she goes by Mikayla Woods. • It's Wednesday night at Downtown Skate on Busch Boulevard, and Tampa's two roller derby teams for youngsters, the Demolition Derby Dolls in red and Team Knockout in blue, are scrimmaging in anticipation of a public bout April 20.
Sweet Tart, Peaches 'N' Screams, Punky Bruiser, Darth Hater and the other combatants careen around the circle, cruising for a bruising. The best players will make up the traveling team, the Tampa Bay Junior Derby, and play the Atlanta Derby Brats in Atlanta in May.
What, you may ask, is the appeal?
"I think they like hitting people and getting to knock people down,'' says Christi Craig, mother of Peaches 'N' Screams — 10-year-old Della McAlister. And roller derby really builds confidence. "Oh, absolutely. She feels like a real badass.''
Panda Monium — Lauren Cuervo, 15 — allows that the combat is a big part of it.
"It's definitely the adrenaline rush, like, that's for sure. Everyone's pumped, and pumped to watch, and pumped for putting on a show for everyone else.'' But the Lutz teen, captain of Team Knockout, says she can't wait to get out there and bounce opponents around.
Friends at her school are aghast at the controlled riot in the rink.
"I try to tell them there's an actual strategy to it. It's not, like, just going up to someone and shoving them.''
The game, which started early last century, grew into a charade akin to fake wrestling, then died for a while and re-emerged last decade as a legitimate sport, one with rules, an event that is under consideration for an Olympics debut in 2020.
The object is to get a designated skater, the jammer, through the crush of the opposing team's players to start scoring points. That happens when the jammer breaks past each opponent for the second time. Meanwhile, teammates play offense and defense at the same time, clearing the crowd for their jammer and blocking the path of the opposing jammer.
Tampa's youth teams, part of a the junior derby league, started in 2009. They practice from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. At 8:30, Tampa's adult teams, the Switchblade Sisters, Black Widows and Cigar City Mafia, start their practice.
Girls ages 8 to 17 can play on the junior teams, and they are all sizes, from small and skinny to tall and formidable. The older girls go easy on the younger ones, giving them comparatively light bumps, but they don't hold back against each other. Players routinely are knocked sprawling to the floor, making good use of their helmets, mouth guards, and knee and elbow pads.
The rules prohibit hitting in the back, front, above the shoulders or below midthigh, essentially allowing them to bump each other only from the sides, using their shoulders and hips.
Panda Monium's mom, Karen Cuervo — who plays on the T-Recs, a recreational league — points out that roller derby is the only real contact sport for girls.
"Boys have wrestling, football. I think that's what draws a certain group of women and girls, because it's a physical outlet.
"I'm 46, and I just made it through the training program. I feel like I like to get hit, and it feels good to hit.''
The most serious injury since the juniors started rolling happened to Mekayla Bramlett, 14, a.k.a. Punky Bruiser. She broke her arm.
The Town 'N Country teen says her parents were wary about her continuing the sport, but she loved it so much they allowed her to keep playing.
"It's a big stress reliever,'' says Mekayla. If she's having a bad day at school, she can come to the rink and take it out on a competitor "and be perfectly fine. You won't get in trouble.''
Sweet Tart — Kacey Johnson, 14 — says her parents love it, though Dad is a bit more comfortable with the idea than Mom.
She can hear Dad in the stands, yelling, "Go, Sweet Tart!''
"And my mom's like, 'Oh, my God, my daughter's going to die!' ''
Kacey, a skater all her life, grew interested in the sport when she watched the 2009 roller derby movie Whip It! Then she heard that Tampa had junior teams.
"So then I went down to Walmart, got me a 99-cent mouth guard, got my skates and came to practice. And I did not know what was going on. I did not know what I was doing. But now I'm co-captain of the league.''
And a terror in the rink.
"Every time one of my teammates is down, I just say the word 'aggression!' Aggression is key to the sport. 'Aggression!' That get's them pumped up, that gets them ready to go. That's what I think in my head: 'Aggression!' 'Aggression!' 'Aggression!' ''
And there's the friendship, of course. That's one of the things Darth Hater — Kristina Georgatos, 17 — likes about it.
"It's great,'' says Kristina, captain of the Demolition Derby Dolls. "You have all these people you probably wouldn't have talked to at school. Wow, all these awesome people who want the same thing I do!''
It makes her want to be there every time, and she travels all the way from Largo.
"Like, the camaraderie is awesome.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.