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At Baltimore tournament, roller derby athletes find family and fun

In thick black skates and bright yellow jerseys, Charm City Roller Derby’s Female Trouble team was among the eight competing in the third annual tournament at Laurel’s The Garden Ice House. Teams came from as far as Canada to play. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun video)

They are nurses, engineers, writers and stay-at-home moms. But on Saturday, they shed these identities, strapped on thick knee pads and assumed their roller derby personas for the BMore Classic.

In thick black skates and bright yellow jerseys, Charm City Roller Derby’s Female Trouble team was among the eight competing in the third annual tournament at Laurel’s The Garden Ice House. Teams came from as far as Canada.

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The event is helping put Baltimore’s roller derby community on the map and is a sign of the sport’s growing popularity and visibility. First conceived in the 1930s, roller derby has evolved over the decades. It’s no longer about theatrics in the way professional wrestling is — modern roller derby, a full-contact sport, puts athleticism at the forefront.

In the first round, Female Trouble faced Boston’s “B Party.” The game is played in two 30-minute periods, with each divided into “jams.” During these rounds, each team uses five skaters. Four of them are blockers and one is a jammer, who is the player with the potential to score points.

The jammers begin behind the pack of blockers and score a point for every opposing team member they lap. To get past the wall of blockers’ bodies, the jammers thrust themselves full force against them or maneuver quickly and carefully around the edges of the track. Some end up sprawled along the rink after slamming into each other.

Each player’s jersey is emblazoned with their derby name — a fierce identity they choose for themselves to represent who they are when they skate.

Katherine Murphy, Kat Atonic on the rink, is among the newest members of Female Trouble. She said she was blown away when she came to the team’s boot camp last August to try out and immediately decided she wanted to be a jammer, knowing it was a difficult position to earn. Saturday marked the second time she took on the role, and her teammates loudly cheered for her each time she left the bench.

“It’s a brutal sport,” she said, “but everyone is out there having fun.”

The tournament drew a small crowd to the Ice House, where vendors sold shirts that read “Strong Athletic Woman.” Among the people watching the teams compete were Natasha Stagmer’s daughers, ages 5 and 15. The girls come to many of her matches, setting up chairs along the edge of the track.

“They get to grow up seeing these strong, athletic figures and relating to them,” Stagmer said. “That representation is there for them.”

Stagmer — who goes by Cannon Doll-X — found roller derby almost 14 years ago. Many people she started out with have since quit, with life or injuries or money getting in the way. Not her. The sport, she says, saved her soul.

Her whole life, Stagmer says, she was told she was too tall, too strong, too aggressive, too masculine, “too me.” The first roller derby practice she observed, she watched women slam each other against the walls of the rink and keep going.

“You can be a complete badass, and still be feminine,” said Stagmer, 39, who wore a Maryland flag helmet and black lipstick during the game. “This is the one place I can totally be myself and no one says that I’m too much.”

The team becomes a second family, members of Charm City Roller Derby say. When Stagmer’s mom died, the league helped her get through it. When other members have needed money to fund tournament travels, the team stepped up.

The BMore Classic is unique in that it’s designed to allow B-teams to compete. Many of the national tournaments are only for more elite players.

“It’s an opportunity to see rising talent,” said Jackie Gilbert, or Tree, one of the members spearheading the tournament. “It gives the B-team skaters a chance to make a name for themselves.”

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The Charm City league is working on becoming more inclusive. That’s part of why they changed their name, dropping “girls” to recognize that gender-nonconforming people participate, too.

While the sport is intensely competitive, there’s still a sense of camaraderie among the players. Between “jams,” members of the Boston team high-fived Female Trouble players or clapped them on the back. Music blared over the speakers and little dance parties broke out in the moments between rounds.

The B Party ended up walloping Female Trouble, 271-89. Nonetheless, the team left the rink grinning and congratulated their opponents, who traveled more than 400 miles to play.

“We’re beating each other up,” Stagmer said, “and then high-fiving each other.”

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