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Roller Derby Grows As Sport Seeks Legitimacy

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On Saturday, there's a double-header in Charlotte - a roller derby double-header. The Charlotte Roller Girls take on the Lowcountry High Rollers at the Grady Cole Center. The Roller Girls debuted in five years ago, and enjoy respectable crowds of about 1,500 fans per bout. Now, another team with a different philosophy has formed with the goal of helping the sport gain more legitimacy. Heart-stopping chases. Bone-crushing hits. The thrill of victory. Welcome to roller derby. "I like being in the action and then having something happen, you do something, and you think, Wow, I just did that! Wow, I just picked up my feet and jumped over someone," says Leigh Cohen, a second-grade teacher and a member of the Charlotte Speed Demons. Cohen is one of the jammers. That's the player in roller derby who scores points for the team. She drives from Winston-Salem to play for the Speed Demons. "It's kind of taken over my life a little bit. Every free moment that I have, outside of what I'm doing as a teacher, I'm focused on this sport I'm passionate about trying to get as good as I possibly can in this sport and to learn as much as I can from it." She does it for the love of the sport. She has to. She's not getting paid. And she's fighting for respect. It's been challenging to find legitimacy when people see you as something like pro wrestling - all flash and show, and rigged. Roller derby used to be that way in the 1970s, but not now. Sure, players retained the showy parts, like catchy names and sexy outfits. But the competition is real. "All we want to do is change the presentation a little bit, so people do realize its a game and its a sport," says Craig Bailey, the president of Charlotte Speed Demons. The team formed last year with some former members of the Charlotte Roller Girls. They want to give the sport a new image. Part of that change is dropping the alter-egos and risque player names that are common in roller derby. But the Roller Girls still embrace those traditions. At a recent bout against the Savannah Derby Devils, the Roller Girls' Foxy Pound is in a battle with Medusa Sedussa to open up the lane for jammer, Sin Plicity. At the Grady Cole Center, many fans sit on the edges of the track and get right next to the action. Its raucous. Its exciting. And for Foxy Pound, real name Erin Barbee, it's also a fantasy. "When I was able to say I'm Foxy Pound, and I am not known as Erin Barbee when I step on that track, it felt really good. I could be who I wanted to be, I could act however I wanted to act and know each and every person would accept me," Barbee says. Barbee runs an assisted living center in Statesville, but for the Roller Girls, she's known for being a hard-hitting blocker with a sassy attitude. She says it's empowering. "You'd never know that we have bankers and doctors and lawyers and all these people that are in suits during the day and come out in tiny shorts and hitting people at night time." The Roller Girls practice six days a week at their warehouse in NoDa. Like the Speed Demons, they don't get paid. The money they make at bouts is used for promotion and traveling around the country. This year, the Roller Girls are an apprentice league with the Women's Flat-Track Derby Association. That's the national sanctioning body. The Speed Demons are working at qualifying for that organization as well. As for respect, the Speed Demons' manager, Craig Bailey, says the sport will have earned it when coverage moves from the entertainment pages to the sports pages.