IT'S THURSDAY NIGHT AT Putty Hill skateland, and a herd of roller-skaters wheel counter-clockwise around the rink.
Amidst the mothers, fathers, lovers and teenagers is a troupe of women dressed mostly in black, weaving, bending and falling to their knees. They are the Charm City Roller Girls, and they are practicing.
Their leader, Caroline Donaghy, stands at a ringside cluster of lockers, gearing up with some of the crew and watching others circle the rink. Earlier this year, Donaghy put her life on hold and crossed the country hoping to start an all-girl roller derby league in Baltimore. Now, as she stands near a couple dozen of the club's 60 members, she beams.
"I'm so proud of all the girls in this league," she said.
Originally from Baltimore, Donaghy, 27, moved to Houston to study culinary arts last year. In Texas, she became interested in roller derbies and joined the Space City Roller Girls in Houston. The sport's camaraderie, speed and roughness hooked her, as it has hooked other women across the country. Until recently, Baltimore was one of the last major cities in the nation without a women's roller derby league. Donaghy put her things in storage and flew back to Baltimore in February to start one.
Donaghy created a MySpace.com page advertising her intentions, but only a handful of women signed up. It was a bad sign, especially when her return plane ticket expired, and she started running out of money. She took up four jobs to make ends meet.
"I was starting to freak out," Donaghy said. "I thought I made a really bad decision."
In a last-ditch advertising spurt, Donaghy ran to Kinko's, printed about 1,000 fliers and posted them around the city. That did it. Girls saw the fliers, told their friends and flocked to open skate nights at Putty Hill. So many wanted to join that Donaghy set a limit at 60 and put the rest on a waiting list. She collected enough money through membership dues and fundraisers to rent out Putty Hill every Monday night for closed practice. They also practice during open skates Thursday and Sunday nights.
During practice, the women run through drills and work on stops, falls, crossovers and contact. One exercise is a version of suicide sprints, but on skates. They skate to one cone, fall down on their knees and get back up without using their hands, skate back, skate out to a more distant cone and do it again.
"We're all pretty tough," said Lola Ciferri, a 27-year-old tattoo artist who lives in Baltimore. "We do some pretty cruddy drills."
The youngest skater is 20 and the oldest is in her mid-30s. One woman lives in Washington and drives over three times a week for practice and open skates. They share a high level of commitment to the team and love of the sport. They're not interested in being one of the quota of women that a co-ed flag football or softball team needs to play in some leagues.
"If we're going to do something, we want to do it," said Tara Gebhardt, a 27-year-old who lives in Baltimore and works as an editor. "We don't want to be someone's exception."
In a roller derby, skaters called jammers try to pass members of the opposing team to score points, while other skaters try to block them. A certain level of contact is involved, which can lead to nasty fights on the rink, Donaghy said.
In the early '70s, Baltimore hosted roller derbies in the old Civic Center. The city's team, the Baltimore Cats, regularly drew thousands of spectators, The Sun reported.
The Charm City Roller Girls plan to have an official league with four teams by late October and hope to host exhibition bouts in the spring, Donaghy said. She'd like to see official bouts start next fall and thinks they could draw crowds of about 1,000, she said.
"I think it's going to get huge," she said. "Leagues are starting up all over the place right now. I think it's going to get really big."