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Whistles, raucous applause, what sounded like war cries and the frequent squeal of rubber wheels filled the cavernous Gary D. Weikel Event Center on an overcast Saturday night in December.

Tilted Thunder Rail Birds’ teams were in play at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds.

Kat “Plunder Woman” Schroeder, from Monroe’s Fryelands neighborhood, had been benched for the competitions; she was recovering from a concussion sustained during the league’s last bout in the fall.

“I got cued up like a T-Ball,” said the mother of two.

She was relegated to referee duty that night. Such is the life of a Rail Bird though; if they aren’t playing hard, they are working to keep operations rolling.

Usually, the banked track league’s members spend 5-10 hours each week training or volunteering, said Taelor “Tara Hoedown” Sloane, the organization’s executive director. That’s often on top of full-time day jobs and taking care of families. Partners of players regularly become coaches, refs or take on other supportive roles just so they can spend time with their significant others, she said.

In the realm of roller derby it’s sometimes unclear which evolved first, the sport or the competitor.

Sloane said she was a part of the punk scene, involved in athletics her entire life, and had some experience rolling around on four wheels, so the activity seemed like it could be a natural fit. General manager Annie “Cattie LaBelle” Baskett has always been goal-oriented, and the opportunities to progress in rank and skill keep her coming back.

“That it was fully a women’s sport was really appealing,” Sloane adds.

Since joining eight years ago, their idiosyncrasies continue to thrive in what Sloane credits as a close-knit community and empowering environment. Their league is one of eight in the nation that is banked track, and competes under an umbrella league — the Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues.

The organization was built from the ground up by its members, as is often the case with the specialized sport. It took about a year to fund a design and materials for a $40,000 track, Sloane said. The structure takes three hours each to set up and tear down, she said.

Sloane said the idea to fashion a banked track league came about once the Shoreline-based Rat City Roller Derby, which competes on the significantly more popular flat track, had officially formed in 2004. It also followed a nationwide resurgence in the interest of all styles of roller derby, she said.

“It’s kind of addictive,” Baskett said.

Roller derby is a sport where players don’t have to fit a particular mold, Sloane said. Muscles and strength are feminine. Inclusion is inherent, she said. Schroeder said many members of the LGBTQ community participate in the activity. 

Contact was not always an element of the sport, according to the National Museum of Roller Skating. It was previously associated with races and marathons, and men and women competed. It eventually evolved from an endurance sport to include more physical interactions between players, according to the USA Roller Sports Roller Derby.

During the Dec. 16 bouts, benches were lined with women wearing vibrant jerseys. On their backs could be read names like “Karny Aslaughta,” “Hawk Blocked” and “Slaughter House 5’1.” 

Aesthetics are often “choose-your-own-adventure,” Schroeder said, and have been from the start. At the event, clusters of vibrant neon were common, hair colors were just as vivid and a uniform or two was skin-tight and somewhat transparent.

In the early days tutus and fishnets were frequently worn, Schroeder said. It was just “alternative of all sorts,” she said.

Schroeder said some players today choose to skate using their real names, sometimes as a way to legitimize the sport, others as a personal preference. This is generally the case in flat track though, she said. 

She said each of the league’s four teams has distinct collective personalities. The Sugar Skulls are described on the organization’s homepage as “the drinking team with a derby problem.” The Rolling Blackouts are more independent, The Saint Hellions are upbeat and social and the Royal Crush are the hard workers, Schroeder said. Everyone knows everyone though and league-wide bonding is common.

The league also has an All Stars team comprised of the best players from all the homes, Sloane said. Those players compete at the national level.

When not in recovery, Schroeder plays for the Rolling Blackouts, often as a jammer. In her role, speed and agility is key. She said the rules have many subtleties, but the overall structure of the competitions is simplistic.  

Each roller derby team has five players on the track at one time. Everyone switches out after one match is complete. Each bout lasts about a minute. There are four blockers and one jammer on each side, and all 10 players start generally in the same spot on the track — blockers in front, jammers in back.

Once the whistle blows they start doing laps. The jammers work to get out in front of the pack. Blockers try to support their own jammer while hindering the other opposition’s. Points are taken when a jammer laps the opposition’s blockers. Each game lasts about an hour or more.

As many as 500 people often attend the bouts; they schedule about eight per year, Sloane said. Because Tilter Thunder is a nonprofit, they invite other organizations to set up booths and get some visibility during the events. Tickets are $17 per competition, she said.

The proceeds largely pay to haul and store the banked track and cover rink rentals, which is the bulk of the organization’s annual budget, Sloane said. The equipment is usually only used the week before and during the bouts. In recent years it has been a challenge to find space that is affordable and legal to practice and compete in using a banked track. That is why they have been holding the home game competitions at the fairgrounds, she said. 

Sloane said she loves being in her position. Now she helps teach women how to grow their skills in roller derby and that being athletic can also mean being a woman.

“I just basically found my home,” Sloane said.