Cat McClintock
(Cat McClintock)

Rena Mehlhoff (Cat McClintock)

Julitta Johnson (Cat McClintock)

"I thought when I joined roller derby it would be cool," says Julitta Johnson (a.k.a. Family Jewelz). "But once you get involved, it's not all fishnets and bout makeup."

Johnson, a stay-at-home mother of five, joined the Bismarck Mandan Roller Derby League two years ago in hopes of finding adult company. And while she says she found that companionship, she also found something more -- a community that requires dedication and athleticism.

"Derby is the only full-body contact sport for women in Bismarck," says Bombshellz player and team coach Rena Mehlhoff (a.k.a. Anne Thrax). Participants need to be skilled and fit to stay upright and avoid injuries. "You have to know how to hit, and you have to know how to take a hit," she says.

So team members practice together up to six hours per week, many supplementing their activities with running, added gym time and personal trainers.

Along the way, skaters like Johnson and Mehlhoff say they find themselves transformed, often in ways they never saw coming.

The derby hip

Ask any skater about her new derby body, and she will most likely talk about her seat (she'll have a different term for it, though).

"It's perkier," says Mehlhoff. "We all look better in our jeans than before."

For Johnson, that's meant upsizing to larger, more accommodating pants. "It's all muscle, and I love it," she says.

Others say they've dropped a size or two. But all quickly point out that the team and the sport, not the benefits to their figures, that drives them to work out.

"When I started with my physical trainer, I didn't ask for help losing weight," says Mehlhoff. "I wanted to be stronger, because I didn't want to let my team down. If I'm failing, I'm failing my team."

The derby worldview

Practicing roller derby can lead to a new overall outlook away from the track, too. Johnson noticed that she's more assertive and confident she started skating. Also, her driving has changed.

"I don't like when people try to pass me on the road anymore," she says.

If you're familiar with roller derby, you know that teams of five each skate laps around an oval track. A team scores when a certain player, called the "jammer," passes opposing team players. So, while Johnson may not be someone you want to find yourself behind on Washington Street, she has developed all the instincts of a fine "blocker" on the track.

Does derby awaken aggression in women? Skater Missy Murphy (a.k.a. Fiddlin' Fury) says it can. "You take competition and add adrenaline ..." she trails off.

"In my first bout, one of the opposing team members started talking trash to us," she starts again. "That's not our values. But some other teams encourage it."

The derby identity

With bodies and minds becoming stronger and more assured, self-concepts seem to change too.

Mehlhoff, for example, devotes much of her energy now to her sport. And not just physical energy; she studies video of better teams, analyzes her own group's performances, and works on new plays.

How does she see herself since joining the team? "I'm not the same as before," she says. "I'm an athlete now."

Cat McClintock is Bismarck-based freelance writer specializing in technology and product development.