If you walked into the Coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center for the roller derby last weekend, your first impression might have been that the playing track was missing. If so, you're old.
The banked oval of the '70s is long gone from most venues, as is the campy, comic-book version of the sport that many of us remember as professional wrestling on roller skates.
Modern derby is different. The skaters' B-movie scenery-chewing was exchanged years ago for an emphasis on athleticism and technique. The lined flat track, upon further review, was there all along on the Alliant concrete.
The 10th season of derby in Madison began Saturday night as the Mad Rollin' Dolls, a local group of four all-women teams, skated before a crowd of about 1,500. One of the players, Nefairyous (Michelle Martin) of the Vaudeville Vixens, sat beside me and patiently explained the rules. The 30-minute halves are divided into periods called jams, and a designated "jammer" scores a point for each of the other team's blockers she can skate past during a two-minute segment.
The blockers' job is to keep the opposing jammer from passing them, which leads to full-body contact and harsh encounters with the track. All skaters are outfitted with helmets, elbow pads and kneepads, but the concrete is unforgiving. Nefairyous was on the shelf Saturday with an injured knee, and Hammer Abby (Emily Mills) of the Quad Squad cracked a rib last February after repeated collisions and falls.
Occasional pain seems acceptable to the players. Derby "is the most mentally and physically challenging thing I've ever done," Mills said, "and it's a total blast all the same. I love the strategy, the skill and the fact that women of all body types can find a place on the track if they want it."
Both bouts Saturday were routs; the Quad Squad beat the Unholy Rollers, 215-156, and the Reservoir Dolls annihilated the Vixens, 339-201. If you want a taste of derby, your next opportunity in Madison is Jan. 11 at the Coliseum.