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ROLLERGIRLS KNOCKED OUT - BY RECESSION

Many skaters in the amateur leagues have lost their day jobs.

Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. - There are some pretty horrific images in the Carolina Rollergirls' online injury archive: The purple-black bruise on Kristi Kreme's thigh; the nasty case of "rink rash" on Shirley Temper's backside; the X-ray of the shattered shoulder - and cobalt chrome implant - that ended Harlot O'Scara's roller derby career.

Unlike her provocatively nicknamed fellow competitors, Kelly Clocks'em has managed to skate by with just a few bruises and the odd skinned knee. In her nearly three years around the oval, the feisty 5-foot-2 skater - real name, Abbey Dethlefs - has taken down some pretty tough opponents, but there's one that proved too much for her.

The recession.

"The economy is tougher," Dethlefs, 28, said after skating in last week's Wicked Wheels of the East tournament, her last derby event for the foreseeable future. "I mean, it put me out of business."

Laid off twice in the past year, with no health insurance, Dethlefs is one of a half-dozen Carolina players who have had to hang up their skates since the economy went sour. Others have had to bow out of road trips with the all-star team because they couldn't afford to travel or take the time off.

And other leagues and players elsewhere are feeling the same pinch, even as roller derby as a whole is prospering and actually enjoying a kind of mini-renaissance with next month's release of a skater film starring Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page.

What most people don't realize is that roller derby - an amateur affair, with nonprofit, skater-owned teams competing for fun and bragging rights - doesn't pay.

But it costs skaters hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of knocking each other around on the track.

"It's gas. It's baby sitters. It's equipment," says Amy Callner, spokeswoman for Baltimore's Charm City Rollergirls. "It's all these things."

"We're making choices about what we spend our money on," says Linda Riker, aka Devil Kitty, co-captain of the Detroit Pistoffs, a member of the Detroit Derbygirls league. "I no longer have cable at my house. I don't have the Internet at my house. I've moved to a smaller apartment. I had to get rid of a bunch of my furniture to fit."

Unemployment in the Detroit metro area recently hit 17.7 percent, and Riker says the league has lost about a dozen players because of the downturn.

It wasn't always like this for roller derby.

Promoter "Colonel" Leo Seltzer is credited with creating the sport in 1935 as a way to drum up business for the Chicago Coliseum. In its heyday during the early '70s, men's and women's professional teams sold out venues from California's Oakland Coliseum to New York's Madison Square Garden, and attracted huge followings on television and radio.

The version most people are familiar with is banked-track, a more theatrical brand of derby played on a raised, tilted oval. It's the style featured in Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It, and on the short-lived 2006 A&E television show, Rollergirls.

But the vast majority of leagues out there - like Raleigh, Baltimore and Detroit - are flat-track. And the sport is growing.

When the United Leagues Committee was formed in April 2004 to discuss standardizing rules and promoting competition, there were 30 member leagues. Since changing its name to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association in November 2005, the organization has grown to 78 leagues with more than 150 teams in the U.S. and Canada.

In June, the WFTDA hired its first full-time, paid employees - an executive director and insurance administrator. The sport has grown to the point that the organization this year doubled the number of regional tournaments to four leading up to the 2009 national championship Nov. 13-15 in Philadelphia.

Even if her Detroit team advances in this weekend's North Central Regionals, Riker won't be going.

The 33-year-old was laid off in February after eight years with Ann Arbor-based Borders Books. She has applied for more than 100 jobs, some at a $15,000 to $20,000 pay cut, but hasn't even been asked back for an interview.

That's one reason she recently stepped down from Detroit's elite travel team.

"I couldn't justify spending the extra money to travel if I was having a hard time making ends meet at home," she says.

That scenario has played out on a larger scale.

Members of the host teams often open their own homes to visiting skaters as a way to defray travel costs. But even that isn't enough for some skaters.

It's all part of a vicious cycle. Less travel means less experience, which affects rankings, which, in turn, affects a team's ability to draw better opponents, which hurts attendance.

Since the Charm City Rollergirls were founded in 2005, the Baltimore league has offered members a hardship exception on the $35 monthly dues. This year, applications for waivers or reductions have doubled.

The league depends on dues to survive and compete. But with everything these women give up to participate, Callner says it's impossible to say no.

"We recognize that this is really important to people, and it's an outlet," says Callner, 35, a single mother who's rationing gas to make it to practices and bouts. "And for a lot of people, it's what keeps them sane, even when times are tough."

There seems to be no shortage of recruits. But Dethlefs won't be there to help bring them along.

Unable to find a job in marketing or advertising, she went back to school. She has been commuting to practices and bouts from Richmond, Va., where she's studying for a master's degree in creative brand management.

Last Friday, Carolina fell to the Boston Massacre, 112-40. The Rollergirls won two more weekend bouts, but Dethlefs and the team were out of championship contention.

It was an emotional end for Dethlefs. For the past three years, she says, derby has been her "No. 1 priority."

"I mean, it's become just the hub of my social life," she says.

"I love it," she says. "But it doesn't pay my bills."

"I couldn't justify spending the extra money to travel if I was having a hard time making ends meet at home."

Linda Riker, aka Devil Kitty, co-captain of the Detroit Pistoffs, a member of the Detroit Derbygirls league.

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