By day, they are accountants, hairdressers, college students, professional and pre-professional women ranging in age from 18 to 34. Once they leave work or school, they transform into members of Fallout Brigade, McAllen’s all-female roller derby team.
The women arrive at Fantasyland on Thursday evenings and DeLeon Skate Park on Sunday afternoons, prepared to skate. They don helmets, along with wrist, elbow and knee pads. Finally, shoes are replaced with quad roller skates, the traditional boot-style skate with four rollers.
Roller derby originated in Chicago in 1935 as a marathon race on skates. The sport became a sensation when it was first televised in the late 1940s and enjoyed continued success for several years. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, people of all ages scrambled to the television set to catch the week’s roller derby bouts. The sport left the airwaves in 1973, devastating the skaters, producers and their loyal fans.
But now it’s back, the revival evidenced by the 77 teams across the nation registered with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. McAllen’s Fallout Brigade follows the WFTDA rules, enforced by referees on wheels.
Many fans are likely oblivious to the amount of training required of roller derby girls. Members of Fallout Brigade warm up for nearly an hour, starting with concentrated jogging and following up with 150 to 300 sit-ups to strengthen their core muscles. They continue with power jumps and other leg-strengthening exercises, their intensity mandatory if the girls are to be fully prepared for the rigor of the track.
Alba Guerra, known on the track as Hell n Sinners, manages the team. Guerra returned to the Valley three years ago after living in Austin. One of her co-workers there took her to a Texas Rollergirls’ bout, “and the minute I saw it, I knew I wanted to do it. A lot of people think it’s a full out brawl,” the petite hairdresser said. “But there are rules of engagement.”
Guerra stressed that roller derby is a sport demanding skill and endurance. Derby girls must learn how to deliver and take full-body blows, how to tuck-and-roll when falling and how to recover within three seconds.
“We must practice hard so we look good during a bout,” Guerra said.
Arlene “Pistol Kitten” or “PK” Brady is one of the original Valley derby girls. She tried to think of a word that sounded good with “kitten” because of her love for these baby cats. She asked her dad what he thought about “Pistol.” “Well, you’re surely a pistol,” he responded. She immediately knew she had found her roller derby name.
Fallout Brigade is an off-shoot of the team Brady and others originally joined. “I wanted to start a league with a couple of friends,” she said, “but we didn’t have much luck. Then we heard about a group in Harlingen, so we went down there. Their teams had just formed, so we joined.” That team, Rolleristas, practiced and competed in the now-closed Champion Skate Center. Members hailed from several cities, between and including Brownsville and McAllen.
For economic reasons, primarily gas prices to travel to Harlingen twice a week, members of the team decided to split by city. “We pay for everything on our own,” said Brady. She is anxious for new members to join the team. “We need enough girls to bout again,” she said. “We need 14 girls per team.” The team currently has 15 members.
To try out for the team, potential roller derby girls must attend six practices. “Newbies,” girls who have never skated before, are welcome. Team members gladly teach them the skills and work to make them competitive athletes. “You don’t have to skate,” Brady said. “We’ll teach you.” Brady recalls spending her weekends at Fantasyland while in elementary and middle school. “But I hadn’t been on skates since eighth grade,” she confessed.
Brady reiterates what Guerra said about the competitive nature of the sport. “Roller derby now is very different than it was in the ‘80s,” she said. The resurgence has resulted in recognition as an actual sport. “This is a phenomenal workout,” she said. “At 30, I am now in the best shape ever.”
Twenty-one-year-old college student Luci, known as Summer off the track and Cuts n Bruises on it, joined the team in November, 2008. “The group was passing out fliers about the team at Artwalk,” she said. Originally from San Benito, Summer had been seeking adventure and it beckoned her. She showed up to the next Fallout Brigade practice and has been with them since.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “Many of the girls on the team didn’t have female friends before. It’s awesome knowing you have so many girls behind you.” Summer has developed her skating skills and has learned to fall correctly. “Now I know not to fall on my butt but to fall forward on my knee pads.” She is nearly bout ready, determined by skating five laps in less than one minute and 20 laps in less than five minutes. The final test is a skate-off.
Fallout Brigade girls must also learn the roller derby lingo, which includes blocker, pivot, jammer, jam formation and checking, to name a few.
Competitive ladies who are looking for a new adventure are encouraged to join Fallout Brigade. They practice at Fantasyland in McAllen from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and from 3 to 7 p.m. Sundays at the skating rink behind DeLeon Middle School in McAllen.
It’s a great way to get in shape and to enjoy the camaraderie of women. “I finally found a group of women I can hang out with,” said Brady. “Girls I wouldn’t have met otherwise. All of us are unique, and the friendships are incredible.”