By Libby Peterson

The Bleeding Heartland Roller Girls, Bloomington’s roller derby league, won’t be the only game in town anymore. This year, girls ages 7 to 17 will get their first crack at derby. They are the Thunderbirds—fearless girls who embody the motto, “Warning: Cute But Not Cuddly.”

The girls, nearly 20 of them, began weekly sessions last September, practicing skills and drills on “Teaching Tuesdays” and scrimmaging each other on “Fun Fridays.” The training builds core strength, because the girls need serious power to be on the track. More importantly, they need to skate in a pack, requiring spot-on communication and respect, says Lorayna “ValHowler” Sanders, the Thunderbirds’ head coach.

Newcomers begin in one of three skill-based levels: learning to skate, improving strides and falls, and practicing full contact—just like in adult derby, ValHowler says. “These girls are fearless,” she adds, pointing to a squad of girls whizzing around the track in unison. They will learn to do nearly everything on skates that the adult players do, except dance around on skates to entertain the fans, she says, just as Greta “Toxic Twister” King, 12, starts dancing the can-can. “Hey!” ValHowler calls out playfully. Toxic stops kicking but shakes her hips.

No matter what position the girls play, they must often think defensively and offensively at the same time. ValHowler’s daughter, Tori “Smackajawea” Sanders, 12, wants to be a jammer—the player who must maneuver by the opposing team’s pack to score points. During a scrimmage, Smackajawea challenged her coach’s advice to call off a play and instead plowed her way through the pack and won points for her team.

Boys can participate, but only as junior refs. “We don’t want to exclude people, but roller derby really is about girl power,” says ValHowler. Besides volleyball, roller derby is the only sport that doesn’t include the word “women’s” to differentiate gender. “It’s ‘basketball’ and ‘women’s basketball.’ But here it’s just ‘roller derby,’” ValHowler says. “It isn’t like other sports where you go a few times. When you start derby, you’re in it all the way. There’s a saying: ‘Derby ate my life and saved my soul.’”

A Thunderbirds recruitment camp will be held on March 25 from 6:30-8:30 pm at Western Skateland. For more information, visit the Thunderbirds’ website or Facebook page.