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San Diego’s Toughest Athletes Aren’t On the Team You Think

The city's women-led, grassroots roller derby scene runs on solidarity and strength
Roller derby players from the San Diego Wildfires huddle during a bout
Photo Credit: Becka Vance

At Ringer’s Roller Rink in La Mesa, San Diego Wildfires player Hedy LaScar slams hard into Legs Get Em, knocking her down as she flies around the track. But when, a split-second later, a whistle blows to signal the end of the jam, Hedy skates back to slap the opposing teammate a high-five. In roller derby, these dualities are everywhere: fierceness and friendship, brutality and camaraderie.

“We, as women, grow up being told we can’t do these things, that we’re small, that we’re gonna get hurt,” says one Wildfires player, who goes by the name Xicana Heat. She wrote her master’s thesis on roller derby as a form of social and political resistance. “But everyone [I talked to for my thesis] felt … very strong, very empowered. And you’re surrounded by people who do nothing but support you.”

Roller derby players collide on the rink during a San Diego Wildfires bout
Photo Credit: Becka Vance

While a few players graduated to the Wildfires from Ringer’s youth league, most found derby as adults. For some, familial expectations barred them from sports as kids, so developing the strength and balance needed to play what’s essentially high-speed Red Rover was a slow (but rewarding) road. The Wildfires have members as young as 18. Others are in their 50s.

In derby, groups of five face off during two-minute “jams,” with each team’s “jammer” aiming to barrel past four opposing blockers and earn points. Invented in the 1930s, the sport drew serious crowds for a few decades, then declined, but a grassroots, women-led revival is bringing it back. The players take on punny derby names—and, for many, those monikers are a way to unleash the truest versions of themselves.

San Diego Wildfires players high fives fans of the roller derby bout
Photo Credit: Becka Vance

Though the players sometimes don’t know one another’s “real” names, their bond is palpable. At the team’s recent derby-themed art show at Convoy’s Hopnonymous Brewing Company, one player helped another study for a college Spanish test while SoCal Derby board member Reckem Ralph clarified details for their upcoming bout.

Each Wildfire I spoke to cited those bonds—even more than the love of the game, which they have in spades—as the reason they stay, strapping on their skates each week. “If I had to choose between playing derby and keeping you people,” Reckem Ralph says, gazing at her team, “I’d keep you people.”

By Amelia Rodriguez

Amelia Rodriguez is San Diego Magazine’s Associate Editor. The 2023 winner of the San Diego Press Club's Rising Star Award, she’s covered music, food, arts & culture, fashion, and design for Rolling Stone, Palm Springs Life, and other national and regional publications. After work, you can find her hunting down San Diego’s best pastries and maintaining her three-year Duolingo streak.

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