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Beware of Kara Thrash: She’s Hell on Wheels
Amy Wilson isn’t your typical svelte athlete. She’s got some junk in her trunk, but that’s all right because, as she puts it, “a little extra weight in derby is definitely not a liability. This sport is partially about sheer physical power and muscle.”
Most Saturday nights, you’ll find Wilson on roller skates at Cobo Arena — her trademark Star of David adorning her right eye — and 2,500 fans cheering her on. The 29-year-old Berkley resident is a blocker for the Detroit Derby Girls Pistolwhippers.
Wilson remembers well her first Detroit Derby Girls experience: “I sat in ‘suicide’ seating — on the floor very close to the track — and was enthralled the entire time. I spent two full seasons being a hardcore fan before getting up the guts to try out.
“My mom was a little skeptical. She was like, ‘this is a full-contact sport, and you’ve never played a sport.’”
It was true. Wilson wasn’t the sporty type. But she did know how to roller skate; she just never knew skating could parlay into a full-fledged sport.
“Once I decided to go for it, I spent about six months going to open skates, trying to get back whatever skating acumen I had as a kid,” Wilson says.
Besides guts and strength, derby calls for speed, endurance and agility. What’s more, there’s such a thing as an illegal hit — above the shoulders or with the elbow earns a penalty.
Safe falling is important too. “There’s no getting out to a safe zone,” says Wilson. “You have to trust the people around you. We call it ‘falling small.’”
“There were a lot of people who thought I would fail,” Wilson says of her 2009 derby tryouts. “I felt vindicated when I did it.”
On the derby track, Wilson becomes Kara Thrash — a name borrowed from the tough-as-nails military ace Kara Thrace on the television show Battlestar Gallactica. At home with her boyfriend and two cats, Wilson is what she calls “homemakery” — a quilter, jewelry-maker and baker.
“Derby is sort of the antidote to that,” says Wilson.
One of the best things about derby, Wilson says, is “the newfound feeling that my body is not just decorative or ornamental; it’s useful. It’s one of the few things I can point to and say, ‘I’m functional.’ Roller derby is my body’s job.”
Campy track names aside, roller derby is a real women’s sport — not a show — and has come a long way since sports promoter Leo Seltzer hosted the first derby in Chicago’s Coliseum in 1935.
While Seltzer’s derby involved male-female teams racing around a track for several days, contemporary derby includes two 30-minute periods, with one jammer and four blockers on each team.
The jammer is the skater on the track who can score points; she is identifiable by the star on her helmet. The jammer tries to lap the opposing team’s blockers, including the pivot player, who sets the pace for the opposing pack; you’ll know her by the stripe on her helmet. The pivot also has the unique ability to exchange places with the jammer, via a panty-swap (which involves switching helmet covers). The blockers conspire to block the jammer from getting through, while simultaneously helping their jammer get through the opposing team’s pack.
The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, established in 2004 as derby’s governing body, is comprised of 109 leagues, including the Detroit Derby Girls. The Detroit league is comprised of six teams: The Pistolwhippers, D-Funk All Stars, Detroit Pistoffs, Grand Prix Madonnas and Devil’s Night Dames.
The season runs from March through June. An end-of-season “bout” — in derby parlance — determines the championship team.
Each skater performs a league function. With her background in event planning, Wilson plans, staffs and manages logistics for bouts. Her “day job” — most skaters have one since no one has yet to get rich off the sport (except actress Drew Barrymore, who produced and directed the Michigan-filmed Whip It) — consists of being a nanny, waitressing, selling crafts and other odd jobs, at least for the time being.
A couple of years ago, having saved enough money for a one-year sabbatical of derby training and traveling, Wilson left a position producing nonprofit events; she’s looking to return to full-time work.
“I’m still searching,” says Wilson. “I’m not going to settle.” Aside from an out-of-town job offer, nothing’s going to take Wilson away from derby.