At first glance, Gladish Community and Cultural Center in Pullman is an old, brick building meant for quaint community meetings and children’s birthday parties.
To the Palouse River Rollers, it is home.
The lingering odor of sweat, dust and stagnant air looms throughout the center’s gym. But, as soon as the wood floor begins to rumble, female skaters rush by and brush it all away.
The women of roller derby move smoothly across the blistered, rugged wood floor, making it look as if they were born with skates.
There are many aspects of roller derby that stay behind the scenes — the parts Hollywood depictions do not show. Bruises. Burning thighs. Unforgiving skates.
Anahi Espindola, also known as Victoria Amazonica of the Palouse River Rollers, said there is more to the sport than people often know.
“I think people usually consider this, ‘Oh, women hitting each other and bouncing,’ but I think it is way more interesting than that,” she said.
As someone who has dedicated her life to the craft of roller derby, Espindola knows just how different skating is from films.
Many athletes are trained to move with natural speed. Athletes must move in a way that feels comfortable and natural to their own body. Roller derby is not one of those sports.
Derby athletes must travel at rapid speeds on wheels. Trainings and practices involve learning techniques and how to be comfortable in situations that don’t feel normal to the body.
While the movements may feel unnatural, roller derby is a community built around accepting everyone, including those that may not feel like they have a place outside of the track, Espindola said.
Some sports carry stereotypes, where in roller derby, these assumptions do not apply.
“There are all these restrictions and then you can’t do it even though you really want to,” Espindola said. “I feel that in derby, you can be whatever you want.”
Not only are different body types accepted, they are encouraged.
“Having a very diverse team in terms of body shapes and sizes and styles of skating is better than having a very homogeneous team,” Espindola said. “Having people that move in different ways (makes) it more challenging for other teams to adapt.”
This open and welcoming mindset is not limited to body acceptance, but an overall acceptance of the individuals.
“This team is one where they try to remind you that your identity is that you are important and they try to help you live into that,” Jordan Vivier, also known as MugShot, said.
Family is a common term many athletes use when describing their team, but at Palouse River Rollers, family is what defines the team.
“This is my family,” Rachel Olsson said. “I love the competitive nature of the sport. This team is so supportive.”
Olsson, known as Rumble Bee in the rink, said the support from her roller derby family was exactly what she needed when she started over two years ago.
As a university student new to the area, she said she had no friends or family around and put most of her time into work.
“It was definitely one of the lower points in my life,” Olsson said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through the semester because I had taken on too much and the one thing I allowed myself to do for myself was come to practice … it was the one place in my week that I knew I was going to be well-respected and well-
cared for, and that no matter what I did people were happy I was here.”
Each part of the team is focused on embracing the individual, down to team member’s derby names, which the athletes chose for themselves.
“They (derby names) are also kind of related to this idea of a very open community that is kind of ready to accept you and follow what you feel about yourself as much as they can,” Espindola said. “It’s like if you come and you tell me your name is Butter Knife, I’m like, ‘Sure, I’m going to call you knife, and that will be your name now,’ and that is totally fine.”
When the league was founded four years ago, only 20 women were involved. Now, as many as 60 participate, Espindola said.
“Roller derby is one of the fastest growing sports in the world right now, so it is an exciting time to be playing,” she said.
The sport only continues to grow in popularity, on the Palouse and throughout the country. It is not just the sport that draws but the fact that it spans beyond a sport, Olsson said.
Olsson said she never skated before joining the league, but took to the sport immediately.
“From day one, you are part of the team. You don’t have to earn a place in the league, you just have to show up,” she said.
In the end, the league is an extension of family with athletics on the side.
“It is really just a safe place to come,” Olsson said. “We are all here to work hard and play hard and love hard.”