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Rose City Rollers and its all-stars prepare for worlds

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Rose City Rollers' all-star team, Wheels of Justice, the world champions, practice at Oaks Park Hangar in preparation to defend their title Nov. 4-6.Portland is home to the biggest roller derby club in the world, and is also home to the world champion all-star team.

Both will be showcased when the Women's Flat Track Derby Association championships are held at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Nov. 4-6, and the Rose City Rollers’ Wheels of Justice team is back to defend its title.

It should be a great event for Portland, what with 15 other teams coming in from around the world, including WOJ’s rivals from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia and New York City (Gotham Girls) and London (London Roller Girls). Kim Stegeman, Rose City Rollers executive director, hopes to attract 5,000 fans or more per day — but, hey, it’s Portland and our citizenry might just buy into and get behind the bruising and athletic and intense and oft-charismatic women on skates.

“Playing roller derby here is incredible,” says Elicia Nesbit-Smith, Wheels of Justice captain, who hails originally from New Zealand. “Our fan base in Portland is amazing. It’s definitely more popular in terms of fan involvement than any place I’ve traveled in the world. A lot of that is due to (Stegeman’s) development of this league, what’s been created here.”

Based at the Oaks Park Hangar, the Rose City Rollers have about 500 members, by far the largest club in the world, Stegeman says, with skaters ranging from children to the adults who make up the all-star team WOJ.

Portand is hosting the championships, but the WFTDA organization is putting it on.

“We’re going to really focus on an event that really showcases Portland,” Stegeman says. “How do we get people out to see Portland?”

Like a lot of niche sports, roller derby will certainly attract its ardent followers. But, isn’t a big roller derby tournament something fans of niche sports — and women’s sports — in Portland should get behind?

“One thing that’s difficult is Rose City has a first-round bye (Friday, Nov. 4), and it’s hard to determine when we’re playing Saturday (Nov. 5),” Stegeman says. “It’ll be mid-day Saturday probably.

“I’m feeling that fans will come out for that ... I want to tap into Portland. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event going on in Portland and our team is in it. I’d love it to be an event that exposes roller derby.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Wheels of Justice are out to defend their Women's Flat Track Derby Association title.The Rose City Rollers hosted nationals in 2008 and playoffs in 2011; the playoffs drew about 4,000 per day and nationals about 3,000 back during the infancy of the WFTDA.

Stegeman and others have been busy securing sponsors, setting up ticketing, recruiting volunteers, determining arrangement for the rink, judging stage, vendor booths and seating at the coliseum — oh, and planning the after parties. She’s also working on marketing and public relations.

“And, now we have a first-place seed (team) and our team is feeling very healthy,” she says.

Indeed, the Wheels of Justice cruised through their playoffs recently at Columbia, S.C. The team features star jammers, or the skaters who make points, in Jessica Peiffer (“Licker ‘N Split”), Loren Mutch (“Mutch Mayhem”) and Hillary Buscovick (“Scald Eagle”), and also veteran blockers such as Jessica Chestnut and Jes Rivas. The team has added some new players, but the core remains the same.

What makes WOJ a great roller derby team?

“It’s our teamwork, determination and almost family atmosphere,” Nesbit-Smith says. “We have some of the best jammers and blockers in the world, and bringing that all together is what makes us a great team.”

Says Mutch: “This team has a lot of heart. Some teams describe themselves as machines. We all work really hard, and we have a lot of heart.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Wheels of Justice have some of the best jammers and blockers in the world.The Wheels of Justice won their first championship last year, but it took awhile even with the team being among the contenders for many years.

“We’ve had a lot of growing pains, learning how to be a cohesive team and just melding all of our motivations of why we’re here,” Chestnut says. “Getting that fight and drive.”

Indeed, there are personalities and egos in women’s roller derby, an intense and physical sport that brings out the players’ passions. Chestnut calls it a “sisterly” sport while it’s also “kind of like a gang, we band together in times of trial.”

“We got a team therapist this year, which has been helpful, for communication styles and learning how to get through mental blocks and challenging situations.”

While Stegeman and others work on the logistics of holding the championships of roller derby, the WOJ will train at the Oaks Park Hangar and prepare to perform on the sport’s big stage in their hometown.

Nesbit-Smith says the team’s mentality is about going out and winning the championship again, not “defending” its title.

“We’re trying to get out of the idea that it’s ours to defend,” she says. “Rather, it’s anybody’s to take.”

But going for another championship in Portland will be quite exciting.

“Home-rink advantage is awesome for sure. It’s going to be insane,” Mutch says. “I think this will be the biggest one, with the most fans of any I’ve been to. Everyone’s awesome here.”

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