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Neither recalls exactly how young she was at the time, but Sarah Kate Buckles learned to roller-skate from her mother. While Laurie Buckles did laundry or when it rained, Sarah Kate and her little sister Anne circled the basement, carefully avoiding the wooden supports and central drain, for hours on end. Weather permitting, they'd skate on the streets of their Webster Groves neighborhood, or behind the school, and sometimes they even visited Rollercade, a family-owned and -operated public rink off Tesson Ferry Road in south county. They weren't supposed to skate on their steep driveway, but they did it anyway, often paying the price with skinned knees.
Sarah Kate eventually moved on to softball and soccer, but her participant-sports involvement petered out as her artistic side began to dominate. Today she's a voracious reader, knitter and gardener, and she can whip up a mean vegetarian lasagna. "Sarah always had a flair for the unusual," Laurie Buckles says of her daughter.
Early in October Sarah Kate visited Chicago to cheer on her cousin Julie, who was running the Chicago Marathon. Between shopping for shoes and comics, Buckles caught a live roller derby bout: the Windy City Rollers league semifinals at the Congress Theatre.
Five days after she returned to Fox Park, Buckles was e-mailing everyone she knew, printing up flyers and handing them out to total strangers. For the first time in fifteen years, she laced up a pair of roller skates. Under the nom de skate "Mary Manglin'," the Blueberry Hill waitress, whose tattoo-encircled arms and black cat's-eye frames make her look younger than her 30 years, is spearheading the formation of the Arch Rival Rollergirls, St. Louis' incipient all-female roller derby league.
Thirty-one women ranging in age from early twenties to late thirties have orbited in teetering ovals for barely ten minutes of Rollercade's two-hour free skate, and already the waxed-wood casualties are stacking up. Buckles herself recently tweaked a ligament in her left knee. The injury wasn't serious, but she's since heeded her doctor's warning to stretch before practice. Lindsay "Josie Stalin" Rousa fell and dislocated her shoulder. Instead of seeking immediate medical attention, she casually popped it back into place and continued skating. "She wins the bad-ass prize of the year," Buckles says. "She's one tough chick."
The league intermingles with the general public twice a week at Rollercade, where the $5 entry charge includes a doe-brown pair of rental skates accented with orange wheels. Clad in jeans and sweats, the Arch Rivals are quick to clear the rink when "The Chicken Dance," "YMCA" and "Hokey Pokey" pipe out of Rollercade's tinny speakers. The musical interludes are a little too jokey and pedestrian for their tastes.
If all goes as planned, they'll reintroduce St. Louis to a variety of skating imbued with more serious and anti-establishment overtones.
"These girls are all very focused and hard-working," says Travis DeRousse, who looks forward to decking himself out as head referee in short-shorts, tennis bands and gold chains under the name Sleaze McQueen. "Their skills are coming along a lot faster than they thought they would."
After learning to remain upright comes learning to fall.
"You learn how to take a hit and stay up on your skates," explains Carrie "Penny Royalty" Becker. "It's a skill. Of course, there are risks that are associated with the game: We've had a few girls break an ankle on the rink, broken collarbones, concussions."
Becker is a blocker for the Hell's Belles, one of four teams that make up the Windy City Rollers league. She has come to town to conduct a "falling clinic," in which the St. Louis skaters will learn to absorb a hit by skidding on one knee. They roll forward all in a line, then descend into a slide. It's as if an entire rink of skaters has simultaneously responded to a sudden call to prayer.
Originally from St. Louis, the 27-year-old Becker waited tables with Buckles' husband, Matt, for two years at Brandt's Café in the Loop. The two kept in touch after Becker moved to Chicago, and when Matt introduced her to his wife of three years at the WCR Championship Finals, Becker was impressed by Sarah Kate's initiative.
"Sarah Kate is doing all the right things first," Becker says. "They're looking for a practice rink, she's talking to sponsors, she's already jumped on the PR. The league is moving faster than we did. If all goes well, they should be ready to begin serious training in the next month.
"The biggest hurdles they are going to have to overcome are getting a rink that will give them enough practice days, having a coach that is familiar enough with roller derby to train them in the techniques they are going to utilize, raising enough money between dues and fundraisers to pay for all expenses incurred rink time, a coach, merchandise and, later on, a bout space and just making sure that all the girls are truly dedicated. Even if the technique isn't perfect, the passion has to be there."
Modern roller derby traces its rebirth to the 2001 emergence of the Austin-based Texas Rollergirls. Five years later there are 44 leagues across the nation, according to usrollergirls.com, the Web site operated by the U.S. Rollergirls Association. Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan, the 37-year-old founding manager of the Texas Rollergirls, predicts that every major U.S. city will be home to a league before the decade is out.