“Push, Hippie, push!” Fans and teammates cheered on Hippie, of the Denver Bruising Altitude Women’s Roller Derby team as she glided across the track.
She pushed her way through the human barriers of Team Montana in the final game of the Altitude Adjuster Roller Derby Tournament on May 28. Hippie’s shiny white helmet is marked with a bright blue star identifying her as the “jammer”—the skater on the track who scores points. The players acting as human barriers are called “blockers,” and the goal is for the jammer to push through the blockers and score points by skating laps around the track. Hippie is a 10-year derby veteran, and as a rugby player at Colorado School of Mines, is no stranger to full-contact sports.
The encouragement ultimately paid off: Denver beat Montana 166 to 81, delivering the tournament win to Bruising Altitude.
“The win felt powerful. We came together as a team who hardly all practice together,” said Hippie’s teammate Coyote. “To watch the growth of those skaters and see the established Bruising team work to adjust the first half to dominate the second half showed our training and team dynamic come together successfully.”
The round-robin two-day tournament was held at the “Rollerdome,” the home of Denver Roller Derby and Rocky Mountain Roller Derby. – The event featured some of the fiercest roller derby teams nationwide, including the California Derby Galaxy Supernovas, Lincoln, Nebraska’s No Coast, and Colorado Springs’ Pikes Peak.
Bruising Altitude was first established in 2005. The women’s team travels for tournaments up to five times each year. The unconventional sport has its own distinctive subculture, rooted in women’s empowerment, inclusivity, and camaraderie. The Colorado and American flags hang next to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ pride flags at the Rollerdome. Instead of last names, players skate under nicknames, similar to wrestling. Notable ones on the Bruising Altitude team include “Scara Ta Death,” “Bria Fraid,” and “Unprotected Lex.” Even the referees get in on the nickname fun with names like “Adam Splitter” and “Don Scoreleone.” These nicknames have been a part of the sport since 2003, rooted in the punk and drag scenes. According to the National Women’s History Museum, roller derby allowed women to “show the world what it means to hit like a girl.”
Hippie, whose real name is Gia Arelio, is the youngest member of the Bruising Altitude team. Her original nickname was “Hippie Longstocking,” due to her braided hair and long socks. She joined last year at just 18 years old but has been playing long before that. After seeing the roller derby movie, Whip It, when she was little, she was all in. Arelio started playing with a local league in Fort Collins at nine years old.
“Roller derby is extremely athletic, and competing is like a dream because you get to compete with real athletes who have been doing this for so long. Denver has played against the number-one-ranked team in the world,” she said.
And she’s inspiring the next generation to follow in her footsteps. At a recent home tournament, a group of young girls came up to Arelio and asked for her autograph and for her to sign their helmets.
“I think I stick out because I’m so young. It just means the world to me when young skaters say, ‘Hippie, I want to skate just like you! You inspired me to join derby and skate!’,” she said. “That just melts my heart. And so when I’m going through school, or training too hard, I think about those little moments, and I think to myself, ‘Man, I really feel like I’m building something positive in this little derby community.’ It builds my passion for the sport.”
Coyote, whose legal name is Jillian Schaar, is on the Board of Directors for Denver Roller Derby. About her nickname, she said, “I love the animal; they are savages and a bit of a loner pack animal. Independent pack animals!” Despite her pseudonym, she’s anything but a lone wolf.
In addition to skating for the Bruising Altitude team, she skates with an open-gender team comprised of people from all over the nation called the Ruff Riders. In college, Schaar first enjoyed rollerskating as a hobby, going out to Skate City and other adult skating clubs with her friends. But it wasn’t until she was assigned a cultural anthropology paper that she discovered her love for roller derby.
“I got into it in college actually, because I was writing a paper about a unique culture here in Colorado. I wanted it to be local, and that’s how I found derby,” Schaar said. “I’ve always loved roller skating, and it was something that came very naturally to me, so I ended up joining. And I’m so glad I did.”
Schaar joined a women’s roller derby chapter in 2007 and never looked back. She started competing in tournaments in 2009. One of the things that appeals to her most is the culture of the sport.
“Roller derby is so diverse and inclusive,” she said. “We support every type of gender identity, sexual orientation, BIPOC, everything. It’s amazing to see so many people come together that I would have probably never looked at twice, you know, on the street.”
Once you get into the big leagues, however, the level of commitment is intense. Bruising Altitude practices three nights a week for tournaments, in addition to general fitness activities like strength and conditioning that players do daily.
“My weekly routine is going from rugby practice straight to roller derby practice, and I get about 10 to 12 hours a week of just full contact. Let’s just say it’s a lot of practicing,” Arelio laughed.
Arelio said she considers herself relatively lucky injury-wise, but the worst injuries she’s received from roller derby are—fitting for her nickname Hippie—in her hips.
“Skating in circles for so long puts a lot of pressure on your legs,” she said. “The body mechanics of the sport cause a lot of skaters to have hip problems. But I consider myself lucky because I’ve seen some very gnarly injuries in this very high-contact, physical sport.”
Schaar has ruptured both ACLs. Injuries like these are common in the high-contact sport, and can take their toll. Although Schaar used to play the position of jammer, post-injury she’s switched to the position of blocker, adjusting to the style of skating she thought would be most impactful.
“I’m a competitive person, hands down, in everything. Roller derby is a very full-contact sport. So there’s almost a level of aggression that goes into it,” she said. “It takes a lot of physical strength. After my injuries, I was watching my friends out there playing, and I wanted to come back so fast. I didn’t expect it to be so mentally and emotionally draining. So I was aggressively rehabbing to get back on skates, and competing two months after my second surgery. It was crazy.”
Despite her experience, Schaar emphasized that the culture and camaraderie of the team encourage everyone to learn and grow at their own pace.
“What’s so great about us is you can choose your own path,” she said.
While injuries are common in the sport, the community always has each other’s backs.
“We’re like a big family,” Schaar said. “We have someone out right now on our men’s team who just broke his ankle, and we showed up at his house with gift baskets.”
Whenever players get injured, the team gets together to cook meals for them, clean their house, and help them through it. Despite Montana’s loss, Denver invited them to an afterparty following the game. Rival team members exchanged smiles and hugs at the end of the evening.
“In this community, there’s always someone out there holding their hand out and extending it to you,” Schaar said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”