By Kelley Christensen
The Montana Standard, Butte.
Empowerment. Athletic training. Personal growth. Volunteering. Positive role modeling.
That’s the mantra of Angela Welles, a Butte nurse who is in the process of founding the Copper City Queens, a roller derby club.
Contrary to derby’s reputation for alligator pits and theatrics, modern roller derby is a sport growing in popularity internationally, with more than 400 clubs worldwide.
Butte is Montana’s only large city without a club.
Welles is setting out to change that, and she’s hosting an informational meeting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16 at the Hops Pub at the Best Western Butte Plaza Inn to recruit men and women 18 or older to the club. No experience in derby or skating is needed.
“This isn’t a bunch of clowns out there,” Welles said. “It’s not women beating each other to a bloody pulp. These women are athletes and this game is strategy.”
Welles said she hopes the Copper City Queens can grow into a club focused not only on enjoying a growing sport, but also into a club that prioritizes public service.
“This is more than a skating commitment,” she said. “It’s a heck of a workout and a community commitment. My goal for the organization is to give back to the community.”
Roller derby started in the 1920s as skating races. In the 1930s, skating began to evolve into a marathon skating race that emphasized physical collision between participants. By the 1960s the sport had become little more than a joke.
But in the early 2000s, a group of girls in Texas decided to make a sport of it once again. They founded the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the nonprofit governing body of the sport.
And sport it is. The rule book has 50-some pages. Roller derby training camps and competitions are held all over the country. There’s a required skill level for participants to take part in “bouts.”
It’s become a women’s sport, though men are encouraged to participate by refereeing. Men train in the same practices as the women, learning all the same rules and signals. Each bout has seven referees.
The idea to bring roller derby to Butte came to Welles during a board meeting at the Butte Community Ice Rink, 1400 Wall St. The board is always looking for ways to keep the rink financially solvent. Welles suggested that during the months there is no ice at the arena, March through late July, the concrete floor would be conducive to roller derby. The board tasked her with bringing the derby to Butte.
Since January, Welles has commuted to Bozeman twice weekly for three-hour practices in the Gallatin Roller Girls’ “Fresh Meat” clinic, which teaches aspiring derby girls the basics of the sport, such as how to skate and how to fall safely. The girls move on from there to a contact course, which teaches participants how to hit, because roller derby is a contact sport after all.
But there’s no hitting.
The head and legs below the knees are off limits, as is the back. No throwing punches or elbowing opponents. There’s a written test over the rule book. Health insurance is required. To bout, girls must be “black diamond” level skaters, and they must be volunteers in the community. Clubs are skater-owned and nonprofit.
Roller derby is more than skating and knocking people down. It’s a culture of camaraderie, fitness and service. It’s a place for doctors, teachers, lawyers, moms and receptionists to embrace the tough, edgier parts of themselves.
It’s also a sweat fest.
Welles is no stranger to sweat. She’s a hockey player, a runner and a snowboarder. Though not a Butte native, she’s a resident of the Mining City by choice. She grew up in Sheshequin, Pa., and has been a surgical registered nurse for 14 years. She’s also a veteran of the Air Force, where she did avionics guidance control systems onboard C-130 aircraft. She came to Butte originally following her former husband’s career. When that marriage ended in Arizona, she came home to Butte instead of returning to Pennsylvania.
She sees roller derby as a way to make new friends, enjoy a good workout while having fun and a way to give back to the community. She hopes to coach men and women in Butte, and to field a team in bouts in the next year. She wants the Copper City Queens to host bouts that are family friendly.
Welles also hopes Butte could become a central location in the state for roller derby competitions.
“This sport is about core strength and balance,” she said. “It’s about supporting the community that supports you.”