Heavy Hitters: Austin’s derby girls skate circles around norms to Keep Austin Weird

Anna-Kay Reeves

Austin’s roller derby scene is booming on a larger-than-Hollywood scale with the city’s roller derby league, TXRD, serving as the inspiration for not only a film, but a book and reality show as well.

TXRD was director Drew Barrymore’s real-life reference point for the film “Whip It,” which featured an all-star cast including Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig and Jimmy Fallon. Fallon’s character can be heard singing Austin’s praises between action scenes and describing roller derby as “a true Austin tradition.”

“I ended up singing ‘Livin’ On a Prayer’ with Kristen Wiig,” said retired TXRD skater Rocky Casbah of her time as a stunt double in the 2009 film. “I looked around and thought, ‘Yeah, this is good. I’m okay with this,’”

According to Princess Die, a skater with TXRD’s team Hellcats, many facts can be found in the fictional “Whip It.”

“Derby had its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but then the sport fizzled. That is, until Austin and TXRD happened,” said Princess Die. “Then Austin became derby’s new homebase.”

The movie, set in Austin, features many familiar scenes. Not only are the images of the downtown skyline and the Drag’s “Thai How Are You” mural featured, but the cast of characters — chock full of shaggy-haired guys and girls armed with vinyl and combat boots — ooze the essence of the only city weird enough to embrace the sport.

“I honestly don’t know if derby could’ve come back the way it did anywhere but here,” said Zara Problem, who skates on the team Cherry Bombs.

According to Zara Problem, a fringe sport like derby was able to re-establish itself in Austin thanks to the city’s accepting atmosphere. While it may have been tolerated elsewhere, Austin gave derby more than tolerance — it gave participation and support.

“That attitude here is what let it grow and spread. Now it’s a global thing,” Zara Problem said.

Beyond acting as a homebase for derby, the sport and the city mirror each other in their attitudes as well, according to Flaca Calaca, an alternate skater, or “hired gun,” as they’re known at TXRD.

“Austin and derby have similar outlooks,” said Flaca Calaca. “In derby you see us, we’re athletes. But we’ve got makeup and fishnets on. We get on the track and challenge people’s ideas of what athletic skill and ability look like. I think Austin as a city has always challenged image norms and been accepting of people doing that.”

“Whip It” main character Bliss Cavendish has a journey reflective of this sentiment in the movie. She struggles against small town norms, finding an outlet from the idea of women as dainty and passive in derby and Austin.

According to Princess Die, Bliss’ experience is something real-life derby girls have found to be true as well.

“Girls bloom doing this. I did,” Princess Die said. “You see people try out in Barbie skates, barely able to stand, become these fast, fierce women taking and throwing hits on the track. And just like Bliss found a community that accepted her in the movie, we’re here for each other,”

For students looking to become an active part of this Austin classic, TXRD will hold tryouts this Saturday, Sept. 8.