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Roller derby is back on track after being shut down because of COVID

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Changing gears now to tell you that three years ago, when COVID-19 lockdowns began, the all-volunteer, full-contact sport of roller derby was among the first to shut down. Now skaters are getting back on track. From member station WVIA, Sarah Scinto reports on a national tournament held in Pennsylvania for the first time since before the pandemic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on, Doni.

SARAH SCINTO, BYLINE: Donita Green has just finished her first roller derby bout at the Battle of the All Stars tournament. She's grinning and glowing even as, she says, her whole body hurts.

DONITA GREEN: Like, from my head down, everything hurts right now. But it's a good hurt because we did it. We did the thing.

SCINTO: Green - or, as she's known on the track, Blaxyl Rose - is a blocker for Black Diaspora Roller Derby, a borderless team of skaters from across the country competing against all-star teams representing more than 20 states at the tournament in Scranton. Now, you might be picturing the televised roller derby of the '80s and early '90s, with skaters throwing elbows and racing around a banked track. But that's not quite what roller derby looks like today. Black Diaspora skater Alexis Edmonds, or Punkie Pie, is a jammer. They're the ones who score the points.

ALEXIS EDMONDS: The four blockers who are trying to block the jammer, who is kind of, like, simultaneously the quarterback and the ball - and so they're trying to get around everybody and score points while the blockers are trying to prevent them from doing that.

SCINTO: It's still hard-hitting, but elbowing is illegal. There are referees, penalties and plenty of strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Red, four-seven - cut.

SCINTO: This was Black Diaspora Roller Derby's first appearance at the tournament and the first Battle of the All Stars for Blaxyl Rose. She started skating in 2017 at the age of 36 but had to stop two years later after breaking her neck and arm in a car accident.

GREEN: And so in that year, I never thought I'd see it again. I slowly started to skate a little bit after the pandemic calmed down and never thought that I would - at that point, just - I thought I would just skate a little bit.

SCINTO: Skating at Battle of the All Stars - or BOTAS, as most skaters call it - was a comeback Blaxyl Rose never saw coming.

GREEN: I had never even dreamed that I would be sitting here, saying I skated my first-ever BOTAS match.

SCINTO: More than 600 skaters and 100 officials descended upon Scranton for the tournament. When they weren't on the track, they screamed and cheered for friends from across the country, gathering close for the best views.

GREEN: There's really nothing else like it that I can think of for us as women. And then on top of that, you get to do that with family and friends and people that support you and high-five you every time you come off the track. Almost anyone who experiences this is going to keep coming back for those reasons.

SCINTO: Black Diaspora Roller Derby took home the bronze medal at Battle of the All Stars. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Scinto in Scranton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Scinto
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