Atomatrix and the Oly Rollers force derby to evolve

BROOMFIELD, Colo. -- After winning 17 world inline speedskating titles starting at the age of 16, Julie Glass retired to start a business making wheels for skates and to start a family. But she didn't stay still for long. A business trip to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association to research manufacturing wheels for the quad skates that a rapidly growing sport needed changed everything.

"I didn't know what I was watching," Glass said.

But she knew she wanted to be part of it. This year, as Atomatrix, she and her Oly Rollers are back at the WFTDA national tournament in Broomfield, Colo., two years after -- and it isn't a stretch to say this -- they forced the sport to evolve.

So how did she get started? Glass was drawn to derby, with its aesthetic so individual and different from competitive speedskating, and watched the Gotham Girls win the 2008 national title. She soon unretired and joined the Oly Rollers in Olympia, Wash. Her technical skills were a universe above the average fresh meat, as new skaters are called, but she didn't have a good understanding of strategy.

The team was stocked with skaters who had transitioned from speedskating and hockey. Three sisters -- including Blonde an' Bitchin -- came from a family that owned a roller skating rink. Another skater, Sassy, was a hockey player. They weren't a formal WFTDA league at first, but negotiated the politics and joined just in time for 2009.

"They came from out of nowhere," said Rob Stroupe, a derby announcer who goes by Dumptruck. "Basically they out-skated everyone. They didn't have the strategy, but they always had the athletes."

Portland gave them their first WFTDA bout, and they won. By that November, they were heading to nationals in Philadelphia.

Suzy Hotrod had never seen them play when her Gotham Girls were scheduled to face Oly in the first round. It was close, probably the best bout of the tournament that year, and the defending national champs lost to a rookie league from a small town in the west.

"Their technical skill level was so great at that point, it didn't matter," Hotrod said. "You can't stop what you can't catch."

The Oly Rollers won the national title in their first season. The ante was officially upped. As Nashville's Rambo Sambo put it, the sport had gone from fishnets to racerbacks.

"Oly didn't start out as kitschy, they started out as athletes," said Brandy Rettig, aka Rettig to Rumble, who skates for Oly.

There had always been skaters who crossed over from basketball and soccer, sports where athleticism was important, but the skaters who had been on wheels for decades had a distinct edge.

"There was just so much skating background on our team," Glass said.

She said the current team has a mix -- about half of the skaters have an applicable background. Even those who don't start with technical skills can pick them up easier by modeling the longtime skaters.

"It's a battle for the top 14," Glass said, referring to the number of skaters who make the active roster of the all-star team.

Other leagues were forced to adapt, and have. Oly has been beaten by Rocky Mountain, and continues to push the envelope on training, skill and strategy.

"We elevated the level I think," Glass said. "Other teams said, 'If we want to be a contender we have to do the extras.'"

You would be hard pressed to find one of the all-star teams at a competitive league across the country that doesn't cross-train in addition to spending time on skates.

"Every year it becomes more demanding and you have to train harder," said Rachel Bockheim, who is a co-captain of Chicago's Windy City under the name Jackie Daniels.

And that goes for Oly, because next year could be the one that another rookie team comes out of nowhere to flip it all over again.

"Don't feel bad that your team is good," Glass said, "because you're pushing the sport."

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