LONGMONT, Colo. — The roller derby girls skated down the street between Fourth of July parade floats as they do in the rink — like circling birds poised to glide or chase — though their job that day in 2009 at the Highlands Ranch event entailed handing out fliers.
Courtney MacArthur stood in the crowd on a curb, mesmerized by the power and the grace of the women on wheels. She held hands with her two young children and then reached out to take the information sheet. That moment changed her life, she said.
By the time MacArthur, 29, moved to Longmont in 2011, she knew she needed to launch a league — the Boulder County Bombers — here to support her newfound derby habit and to benefit other Boulder County women.
"I worked out. I did Pilates and stuff. But I had to force myself to go," she said.
"And when I watched my first (roller derby) practice, I saw the girls actually laughing. They would mess up and they would laugh about it, even though they had been going, going, going for two hours and were red-faced."
But the sport's appeal goes beyond fun and fitness to help women find more freedom, said MacArthur, aka Bev O'lution 9. That the sport came back with a vengeance in 2001 after trailing off in the 1970s speaks to that, she added.
"Is it something post-feminism? I don't know, because it's (attracted) women who are not necessarily aware of that philosophy," MacArthur said. "But the time was obviously ripe because roller derby has pretty much exploded all over the U.S. since then, and these girls are living it whether they know it or not."
Fashion reflects the first level of a derby girl's freedom. Women who might otherwise dress modestly or feel self-conscious about wearing Spandex think nothing of wearing fishnet stockings, hot pink booty shorts and matching pink leopard-print tops.
"It's easier to skate wearing Spandex or booty shorts. So it's an excuse to wear that," MacArthur said, laughing.
Besides encouraging bold fashion sense not tolerated in too many other places, the sport also pushes women to rumble and take the kinds of tumbles many more men took as boys, she said.
MacArthur suspects that plenty of girls grew up as she did, without participating in organized sports and learning how to crash and recover on the rink, the field or the court. Roller derby makes up for that in an overdrive sort of way by calling women to a hair-raising venture: roller skating counterclockwise in a pack of 10 players who hit top speeds upwards of 20 mph.
During a bout, each team puts four blockers and one jammer out there. In two 30-minute periods, those teams try to get the jammer to lap the pack as many times as possible through strategies and moves — such as hip flips, pushes and whips — that show off the sport's entertainment value.
A pace line of Boulder County Bombers women practicing at the so-called Bomb Shelter — the 10,000-square-foot Longmont warehouse at 455 Weaver Park Road — can look elegant. But these gals slip in mouth guards, buckle helmets and strap on knee pads and other protective gear before setting wheels on the 7,000-square-foot flat track. Old mattresses cinched by nylon straps to pillars in the center of the rink also protect against the inevitable crash or sliding pileup.
This explains why Boulder County Bombers volunteer coach J.D. — aka "Johnny Danger" — Hemminger, describes roller derby as a "mosh pit on wheels."
But giving women an opportunity to play with tight margins attracts the members and builds confidence right along with muscle, said Hemminger, 28, who is married to MacArthur.
One new Longmont derby girl summed up her sense of the sport in a word: attainable.
"I learned how to roller skate as a kid," said 31-year-old Nichole — aka Alood — Johnson. "But when I went to my first bout, my partner said, 'You can't do that! You'll get hurt!' But I was hooked. And the sport fed my drive to do something that I saw others doing and to believe that I could do it, too."
MacArthur likes to think that the league she created out of her own need to develop a can-do attitude now helps other women by forgoing tryouts in favor of what she calls the newbie program.
This program, offered about every six weeks, welcomes women who have never roller skated or participated in any organized sport to learn beginner and intermediate skills in phase one and phase two trainings.
Last Saturday, MacArthur met a group of women to teach phase two skills. Women of all shapes and sizes practiced passing skills to move up in the pace line. During a break, everyone caught their breath, gulped water and wiped runny noses while MacArthur used humor to continue teaching the basic technique.
"We're harder to grab around the middle than the hips because we're round, you know?" she said.
A chuckle went up among group members who eventually will settle into one of the league's three skills-based teams to compete at home at the Boulder County Fairgrounds and away.
However thrilling it is to master roller derby skills and rumble to win, that never is the end game, MacArthur said.
"One of the biggest lessons I learned after joining roller derby is how to communicate with other women," she said. "Here, instead of competing against each other, we're really learning how to work together, to come together to make it work, really. It's woman-centric and all about accepting each other, even when we mess up."