Philly's roller derby team practices plays in the runup to champs.

In another life, it was the nighttime resting place for a flock of taxis. But now, an old Germantown warehouse echoes with the sound of hundreds of wheels fighting friction along a hard track. Between rounds of planks and burpees, athletes skate laps and throw elbows, forcing each other tumbling to the ground.

With the blows of their whistles, coaches demand endurance. One of them notices two skaters conferring in the corner, and asks what they’re up to.

“Oh, nothing,” a player responds, nursing a raw scrape. “Just sharing blood.”

Philly’s roller derby team, the Liberty Belles, is one month out from International WFTDA Championships — a highly competitive matchup of the best 10 squads in the world. And they’re hungry.

The Belles have been involved since the beginning. The organization helped found the international roller derby league more than a decade ago. But they haven’t made it to champs in five years, when they were knocked out in the first round.

Hosted in Montreal the second weekend of November, this year’s tournament has the potential to rebrand the team as a force. It’ll also influence their rankings for next season, and potential sponsorships for the cash-strapped, DIY nonprofit.

It follows an elimination bracket — if they lose their first game, they’re out. So preparation is key. When you visit one of their practices, the whole warehouse oozes intensity.

“We still think of ourselves as the underdogs,” Serena Hirasawa, the team’s captain, told Billy Penn. “It gives us a little bit of fire.”

‘One of the OGs of roller derby’

Under their old moniker Philly Roller Girls, the team skated its inaugural season in 2006. That was just two years after the formation of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

“Philly is one of the OGs of roller derby,” said Niki Cash, bench manager for the Liberty Belles and a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors. “In the WFTDA, we were one of the first members. People know Philly as old school.”

Since then, the sport has surged in the city. Interest is so widespread that there are three competitive teams:

  • The Liberty Belles, the A team
  • Block Party (B level)
  • The Citywide Specials (C level)

Hyperlocally, Philly has other neighborhood teams. The Passyunk Punks, the West Philly Warriors and the Germantown Loose Cannons all battle each other for fun. There’s also a junior team that had a highly successful 2019 season — the little tikes are now ranked second in the world.

There’s lots of reasons to love the sport, Philly’s roller girls say. It unites a diverse group of Philadelphians — doctors, artists, bakers — with a common goal. It’s a unique, intense activity, and despite the level of badassery it takes to play, players insist it creates a genuine, warm community.

“If you move somewhere, you can immediately have 20, 30, 40-plus friends, depending on how big your league is,” said Hirasawa, who migrated to Philly two years ago after playing roller derby in New Orleans and Richmond.

Plus, you get to infuse your personality into the game. Each player picks a name to wear on the track — usually a combination of something punny and intimidating. Hirasawa’s roller derby rebrand is Traumagotchi. Blocker Laura Carnecchia goes by Bilt Ta Spill. There’s also Mandoline Slicer, Ginger Vitis and Devoida Mercy.

The Liberty Belles are ranked ninth out of more than 450 teams worldwide. They rose up from the beginning of the season, when they started in 24th place. They’ve attracted two skating gear companies who want to sponsor them at the tournament, forking over some cash to have players wear their brand.

Their new standing, of course, was good enough to make it to champs — but only by one place. So who’s their biggest competition?

Said Cash: “Everyone.”” caption=”Roller%20derby%20practice%20gets%20intense%0AMICHAELA%20WINBERG%20%2F%20BILLY%20PENN” /]

The runup to champs

How does roller derby work, anyway? Some basics:

Two teams face off on the oval-shaped track. A team scores points by lapping the opponents. Each team puts five players on — one of whom is a jammer, the rest are blockers.

The jammer is trying to make as many laps as they can around the track. Meanwhile the blockers are playing both offense and defense — trying to help their own jammer make laps and knock out the opposing team’s jammer.

“That sounds easy, right?” joked Traumagotchi aka Hirasawa.

She’s been skating for almost a decade on three different teams, but she’s never made it to the championships before. That’s true for almost all of Philly’s roller girls.

“The last time we went to champs, a lot of us weren’t here,” Hirasawa said. “There’s only like maybe three to five people on the team who’ve ever been to champs, either on this team, or on another team that they’ve transferred from.”

Philly roller derby teams practice in a Germantown warehouse. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

In the runup to the competition, coaches and captains have organized more intense practices. The players run suicides, and practice different footwork combinations endlessly. Drills help them memorize strategic plays, which have names like Rocket and Halloween.

With a month left before the tournament, they practice three times a week for three hours — as opposed to the usual two-hour training.

“We kind of have high expectations for everybody,” Cash said. “Skills and smarts, we have always had that. We’ve had strength and everything. We just had to have a little more focus this year.”

There’s a lot on the line. Their performance could attract future sponsors, injecting their all-volunteer nonprofit with a dose of financial wiggle room. Or it won’t.

Do they have a shot at first place and the coveted Hydra Trophy?

In Montreal, the Liberty Belles first have to beat the Texas Rollergirls. If they lose, they’re out of the tournament altogether — and it’s a tough matchup. The Austin team hasn’t missed champs in years.

“That’s what we’re focused on right now,” Hirasawa said. “It’s going to be a really good game because we have very similar styles and we’re very well matched. It’s going to be very competitive.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...