Two roller skaters were crouched low, knees bent and bodies pressed together, fighting to stay glued lest a third skater slip through and break their wall, an escape they could not allow.
Sweat dripped down their grimacing faces, and they were covered head to toe in protective gear — knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmets.
For a moment, it was easy to forget they were a group of bubbly elementary school girls.
This was a Saturday roller derby practice for the Tiny Terrors, a team of skaters ages 8-11 in the Gotham Girls Junior League of New York City.
They’re a subset of Gotham Girls Roller Derby, which is currently ranked No. 1 in the world by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, roller derby’s largest governing body.
And the girls — whose derby names include Snow Bite, Pushy Cat, Scary Poppins and more — are just as fierce as their adult counterparts.
“They want to fight and dig and get really fast, and they find so much confidence,” Kristen Campbell, 31, director of the junior derby program, told TODAY.
Roller derby is played with two teams of five skating on an oval track. One player on each team serves as the jammer — recognizable by a helmet with a star on it — whose job it is to race around the track and score points without getting blocked by the other team.
Bouts are made up of two 30-minute periods that each consist of shorter plays, or jams. Each jam lasts two minutes, or until the lead jammer (the jammer who got out front first) calls it off, usually a move made to stop the other jammer from catching up and scoring points.
You’ve probably heard of adults playing roller derby, but a growing number of young people are getting hooked on the bruising, fast-paced sport. So much so that this fall, the Gotham Girls Junior League will open up to girls as young as 6, Campbell said.
She credits the boost in interest partially to a popular graphic novel called “Roller Girl.”
“I think all of us have it,” Jataun Flash, an 11-year-old who lives in Brooklyn and is part of the Tiny Terrors, told TODAY. “We’ve brought it to practice to read to each other.”
Jataun, who has been playing roller derby for about a year, goes by the name Juggernaut Jataun, a nod to her imposing stature. (Her mom helped her pick it.)
Her favorite part of the sport? “Every part,” she said. “I just really love doing it, because I make a lot of new friends.”
Campbell, who plays for the Gotham Girls adult team, described the junior league as a sanctuary for girls who aren’t sure where they fit in at school.
“I’ve had so many parents tell me their child was having trouble with anxiety or bullying, or that they didn’t fit into any sport or art club or whatever it is,” she said. “And then they find roller derby, and everything clicks.”
That was at least the case for 9-year-old Margot Brundage-David, who skates under the name Hermione Danger.
“I’ve never really liked any sport, so we tried [roller derby] and I really liked it,” she told TODAY.
At a recent practice, high-knee and quick-feet warmup drills had the girls huffing and puffing.
But many of them said they get much more out of the sport than just exercise.
“The most important [lesson] would have to be don’t ever say you can’t do something, because you always can," Jataun said. "You just have to work really hard.”
As Campbell tells it, those extra lessons are really the point. Strength, confidence and body positivity have long been inherent values of roller derby, even if it’s more subliminal than outright.
“Roller derby is so unique because it’s this amazing place for women to just be strong and badass,” she said, adding that the adult league is entirely run by its players, who are all required to do volunteer hours.
“It’s a great place for us to be empowered, and feel strong and awesome outside of our day jobs," Campbell said.
Those ideals aren’t lost on the younger girls.
“I think girls need to be comfortable in their bodies, and comfortable asserting their own space in the world," Karey David, Margot’s mom, told TODAY of the ethos behind the sport. "And this is a great avenue to teach them how to do that.”
Of course, like any contact sport, injuries are inevitable. But though roller derby might evoke images of women racing around a track and ruthlessly knocking into other skaters, the Tiny Terrors learn to be effective without exercising much force.
The girls might get rough during scrimmages — they don’t compete yet, but sometimes scrimmage at practice or during halftime at the women’s bouts — but it’s hardly NFL-style violence.
“They don’t go for big hits,” Campbell said. “We focus more on booty blocking and using lateral movement to block — leaning each other out with light contact. Once they’re 12, and they’re more comfortable with it, they get eased into learning full contact.”
Besides, the girls don’t mind the occasional bruise or bump.
Margot wears her wounds with pride: “It’s sort of like a medal,” she said, smiling, before rushing back to the track to join her teammates.