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Missouri all-male squad rolls into derby scene

Monday, April 5, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Fans sit right up to the edge of the rink as the St. Louis Gatekeepers take on the Race City Rebels in a roller derby bout at the All American Sports Mall in south St. Louis County.

ST. LOUIS  — They've got nicknames like High Pains Drifter, Wrecking Bill and Specs Offender, but the members of the St. Louis GateKeepers say their derby names are the only thing they have in common with the skaters popular on local television in the 1960s.

Real hits and real injuries have replaced the theatrics. And they pay to play, not the other way around.

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Perhaps their biggest challenge is that the GateKeepers are an all-male flat-track team in a female-dominated sport, a move that has drawn mixed reviews from even the derby women.

"Some of them don't want this sport that's been spearheaded and run by women to all of a sudden become a man show like every other sport," said Bethany Milligan, who has been a referee with the local women's league for three years.

Kirsten O'Loughlin of the Arch Rival Roller Girls said she thinks the more teams the better.

"Guys have been around supporting the league as refs and non-skating officials, so now that they want to do it themselves, why not let them have some fun too?" she said.

The core of the men's team is made up of either referees or fans, but organizers also used Facebook and Craigslist to solicit players.

At one of two practices recently at the Skatium, in south St. Louis, the men were trying to perfect power crossovers and skating in a pack before their first bout with the Indiana Race City Rebels. (The GateKeepers won 125-17.)

The moves are more difficult for some, like Stan Davis, aka "Mr. Dent," who said that he hadn't participated in organized sports since he was in the third grade.

"The pads really help," he said.

Davis, 34 of Overland, said he laced up a pair of quads back in November and since then he's shed 40 pounds. He's also become friends with a group he said he might not have approached before because he's more into computers.

"But honestly, I only know some of them by their derby names, and I'm not sure I'd recognize them without their helmets," he said.

While most of the men who play for the GateKeepers competed in sports in either high school or college, the rest of their backgrounds are varied. Their professions include teacher, photographer, wholesale florist and chemist. They range in age from 18 to mid-40s, and they live all over the metro area.

Alex Baisch, 29, of south St. Louis, said the sport is perfect for people like him who want something more intense than the "weekend warrior" activities usually available for men his age.

"Plus we're ambassadors for St. Louis, and I love that because I love St. Louis," he said.

Scott Meyer, 28, of Brentwood, who coaches the men, added that the team's name is a nod to the players' pride in being from St. Louis, the Gateway to the West.

The GateKeepers are still recruiting players, Meyer said, and he hopes to get enough men to form a second team so that they could play interleague bouts in town.

The Arch Rivals regularly draw about 1,000 fans to their matches at All-American Sports Mall in south St. Louis County, and on a recent Saturday, the GateKeepers opened for the women.

O'Laughlin said the men's game is faster and more chaotic than the women's, which relies more on strategy and teamwork.

"Guys tend to play contact sports more than gals as they grow up so they're more comfortable beating on each other," she said. "A lot of the ladies have to overcome the instinct to ask 'Are you OK?' after they knock someone down."

Players help to run the teams, pay for rink time and referees and decide the rules, so it's a higher level of commitment than some other activities.

Players and officials said the families who frequent the rinks where the teams practice and play weren't sure what to make of roller derby at first.

"I don't want to say they were scared of us, but it was like 'Who are these people?' and now they enjoy watching us set up," Milligan said.

Player Tony Correnti, 27, of south St. Louis, said the matches are family friendly and attract a diverse crowd.

"We really do have great time; people should check us out," he said.

 


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