Several times a week, Laura Garro undergoes a remarkable transformation. By day, the mild-mannered, 28-year-old Sunrise resident is an administrator for a petroleum tank repair shop, but once she laces up her skates and straps on her helmet, she leaves the office behind and assumes her alter ego, Carniverous Licks. “Licks,” as she is known, is not a superhero, but a formidable competitor on South Florida’s roller derby circuit.
Garro, a founding member of the local Gold Coast Roller Grrls team, puts her skills to the test on a weekly basis against the likes of Annihilating Annie, Holy Rolla, Bear Lee Human and Shred-Her, and this weekend, the girls will take the floor at the War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale for the Sunshine State Smackdown, a three-day tournament.
The sport of roller derby got its start in 1935, when Leo Seltzer, the owner of cinemas and a promoter of dance marathons, got the idea for a roller skating race. A couple of years later, at a race in Miami, a local newspaper writer suggested that the potential of large collisions and physical contact might make the sport more marketable. Within a few years, roller derby was televised, at a time when few American households had televisions.
Licks points out in the early days, the outcomes of the matches were often predetermined. And, of course, who can forget the cheesy ‘70s obsession with roller derby that briefly left a mark on American pop culture.
“It used to be staged, like professional wrestling,” she explains, but roller derby has evolved into a full-contact sport that now boasts more than 1000 leagues worldwide. Most importantly, “it requires strategy on top of physical strength, or (players) are going to go flying.”
Basically, two teams of five skaters each are circling the track at any given time. One player, designated the “jammer” scores points by lapping each of the skaters on the opposing team, “blockers.”
“It’s almost impossible to watch everyone,” she says. “A lot of people get addicted to it. It’s an obsession.”
Modern roller derby is filled with spills and thrills as the skaters race dizzyingly around the track.
“Black eyes, broken noses….they’re a badge of honor. We play through injuries just like (football players). It’s brutal, it’s a full contact sport,” Lists insists knowingly.
Licks was living in Virginia when she was introduced to the sport. After moving to South Florida, she helped found the Roller Grrls with the support of skaters around the country.
While the Roller Grrls are a relatively small league with 40 skaters supported by 20 to 25 referees and volunteers, it is strong and boasts some skaters as young as 21 and as old as 45.
“We have mothers, daughters and grandmothers,” explains Licks. “There really is no single demographic.”
But, she also admits that roller derby has long been popular with the lesbian community. Licks is openly gay and so are many other skaters.
“Oh, it’s huge with lesbians, but it’s not softball. Being a bad girl is good,” she says with a sly chuckle. “Most have never (played) a sport in their lives. We’ll work them out and teach them to skate. It’s simple….just skate fast and turn left.”
The Roller Grrls have even recruited a men’s team that will make their debut against the girls at the War Memorial Auditorium.
She says, “We embrace our male skaters. At Stonewall (Street Festival) they came with us. At the PrideFest event at the War Memorial, they came with us. We want them to come skate.”
But the love may end when they take the track in competition. My bet is on the girls.
Roller Derby at a Glance
Founded: 1935 by Leo Seltzer
Fun Fact: Roller derby first broadcast on television in 1948 in New York City – long before television viewership was widespread.
Basics: Two teams of five members simultaneously skate counterclockwise on an oval, flat circuit track. The bout is played in two periods of 30 minutes. Point scoring occurs during “jams,” plays that last 2 minutes, as a designated skater laps opposing players.
Jammer (star on helmet) – Scores points by lapping opposing team members.
Blocker – Assists the team’s jammer in progress through the pack or hinders the opposing team’s jammer by preventing her from passing.
Pivot (stripe on helmet) – Blocker who may be designated as a jammer during the course of a jam; establishes the team’s strategy during play.
Scoring: The jammer scores by passing opposition team members during a jam.
Blocking: Several types of direct blocking are penalized, including swinging an elbow; using forearms to grab, touch or hold; and purposely dropping to the ground in front of an opponent.
Penalties: General penalties are similar to those in other sports, including false starts, too many skaters on the track at once, frequent out-of-bounds skating and players without helmets.