Flint, MI—It was early on in the first half of Flint Roller Derby’s game against the Downriver Dolls last Sunday when Ash Tray, one of Flint’s top scorers, snapped the front two wheels off of one of her skates.
Determined to compete during Flint’s first game back after a three-year break, Ash Tray threw on some ill-fitting rental skates and jumped back into action while her boyfriend sped to head coach Nicholas Cotton’s house to get the coach’s skates for her.
Her team and its hundreds of fans crowding around the track needed her, Coach Cotton said. The Dolls had pulled ahead the last two times they played Flint Roller Derby, but this time was different.
“We’re like, ‘What do we do without her?’” said Katie Cotton, the team’s captain, known on the track as K Cotton. “We got a big lead while she was figuring out the skate fiasco, so it was like, even though that crazy thing happened, everything was still perfect.”
Ash Tray eventually got Coach Cotton’s skates on, and with one of the Doll’s players ejected from the game for an illegal hit in the second half, Flint Roller Derby more than doubled the Dolls’ score, finishing 192-94 on their home turf, Rollhaven in Grand Blanc, Mich. on Nov. 20, 2022.
“We’ve had some really big moments for our league, but I don’t know,” Coach Cotton said. “That could have been one of the most special nights we’ve ever had…This is the first time we got to go out and look good in front of a huge home crowd against a team that is really good.”
Flint Roller Derby had been practicing twice a week since 2021, but Sunday’s game was the team’s first at home and in front of a crowd in just over three years.
And the community showed out for it.
The game was actually delayed that evening, because, at its scheduled start time, dozens of attendees were still waiting in a line that wrapped around the outside of Rollhaven, Coach Cotton said.
“Our whole introduction and the anthem, I was crying because I missed playing in front of the audience,” K Cotton said. “My dad was here. He hasn’t gotten to see me play in like five or six years. I had friends who have never been here before who came last night.”
The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), roller derby’s international governing body to which Flint Roller Derby belongs, paused its sanctioned matches in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a global health threat.
That break has hit roller derby competitions the world over pretty hard, K Cotton said, but for Flint Roller Derby’s players, it isn’t all about competing. She herself has found lifelong friends, jobs and even love through the team.
She and her now-husband Coach Cotton met in Rollhaven during her first public scrimmage back in 2009, she said. Later on, they got engaged underneath the track’s scoreboard.
“I feel like, if I wasn’t here, a part of me would be missing,” K Cotton said. “I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. I feel like I’m gonna die, like I’m gonna have to die to leave this scene.”
Both on and off the track, Flint Roller Derby has become a space for self discovery, she said.
Sydney McCarley, one of the team’s co-captains also known as Slimfast, stumbled into Flint Roller Derby years ago in a “completely transitional point in my life,” she said.
At the time, Slimfast was about to turn 21 years old. She was changing careers, getting her own living space for the first time and reeling from the end of a five-year relationship, she said.
“I am convinced that you don’t find roller derby, roller derby finds you when it’s the right time,” she said. “I’ve never found any community quite like it. These are women that will do anything for you. It’s amazing because everyone here has had their own struggles, and they’ve had to overcome them. They have so much grit. I’m so happy that I found them when I did, at the age that I did, because I don’t know that I would be the person I am now had I not found them.”
Slimfast’s sister, who had been playing on Flint Roller Derby for a few months at the time, invited her to come see a game back in 2015. Slimfast admitted she wasn’t that excited heading into the game, but by the time the action got going, she had no idea what was going on—but she was hooked.
The next day, she rushed to the nearest skate shop and got herself all the gear she needed to get started. She spent the rest of her first year with Flint Roller Derby slowly learning the ropes until she began scrimmaging in 2016.
Just as Slimfast honed her roller derby skills, the team as a whole began to find its footing. In 2017, Flint Roller Derby won the Mitten Kitten, one of Michigan’s largest roller derby tournaments. The following year, the team officially joined the WFTDA, finishing the 2018 season ranked 146th out of the league’s roughly 450 teams, Coach Cotton said.
But he and K Cotton are still hungry, they said. Looking ahead, they’re eyeing a top 100 spot. That’s when the invitations to big tournaments start rolling in, he noted.
“I’ve sacrificed so much over the 12 years I’ve been doing this,” Coach Cotton said. “I’ve missed family parties. My family members, like half of them have died. There’s so many things you can’t get back that I put into this because this was the first thing I was ever passionate about. The first thing ever that I was like, ‘I’m going to spend my free time studying and reading and training.’”
So, it’s no surprise three-year break hit the team hard, Coach Cotton said, but it was far from a waste of time.
He, K Cotton and the team as a whole took it as an opportunity to restructure Flint Roller Derby’s training program, opening the door for less experienced skaters to be a part of the team with less strict attendance requirements.
Everyone may not play in the team’s games, but that doesn’t change the fact that everyone plays a role on the team, K Cotton said. Back in 2015, Flint Roller Derby adopted the phrase “greater good” as a team motto. A few players even got it tattooed.
“We’ve still continued to use that [motto] and continued to challenge ourselves to be the best for us and for our community,” she said. “I think that’s an important part of us: being really committed to the greater good. It sounds a little culty, but it kind of is.”
The team is now working on deepening their bench, building relationships with other Midwestern teams and engaging more with the broader Flint community through community service, K Cotton said.
Although Flint Roller Derby doesn’t have any future games scheduled yet, Coach Cotton remains confident in the work he and his team have put in during their time away from competing, especially after Sunday’s game.
“I was nervous, but we picked up right where we left off, even better than we were, and we lost some special players,” Coach Cotton said. “So to be as good as we are—I would say better than our team was then—and have four or five players that were insanely good be gone. This makes me believe that everything we’re doing is just straight up from here.”