FARGO - In her everyday life, Madison Juelfs is a college student hoping to become a U.S. Marine Corps officer.
On the roller derby track as a member of the Fargo Moorhead Derby Girls, the local team preparing for their season opener this weekend, she is "Battle Royalle," a tenacious athlete with more immediate aspirations. At bouts, her objective is simple: to help her team earn as many points as possible.
At practice, performing drills on the rink at Skate City in Fargo, her expression shifts like clockwork. A look of rabid determination transforms into a gigantic smile and returns again.
When the coach yells "27/5," Juelfs and the other derby girls know to line up in rows, wait for the whistle blow, then skate 27 laps around the rink in under five minutes in near synchronization.
In high school, Juelfs was active in several sports, including basketball, volleyball, track, softball and cheerleading. She joined derby when she was 18 after her family poked fun at her, joking it would be a perfect fit for her tomboy ways.
Her derby name comes from her middle name, Royalle, while her jersey number, 13, was picked because "it's unlucky for so many others," she said.
The contact sport of roller derby has been around for decades, with its origins stretching back to the 1930s. But the now popular use of nicknames by athletes emerged more recently about two decades ago as a way for skaters to have a separate on-track persona. The names are often puns, and almost always a playful threat.
Not so bad
Juelfs admits she gets some pre-bout jitters, even today.
"I'm a nervous wreck with twists and knots in my stomach," she said, but that quickly drops away the moment she steps onto the track.
Her proudest moment was her first bout as an effective jammer, a star position on the team. In roller derby, the jammer wears a star-marked helmet cap and is the only skater who can score points during a game by lapping members of the opposing team.
"Being able to contribute in a real and tangible way to my team was incredibly rewarding," she said.
Juelfs joined the local roller derby team two years ago, and said she plans to continue despite tearing a ligament in her ankle and suffering a whiplash-induced concussion after a skater on an opposing team hit her spine, knocking her to the floor. She isn't too phased by it.
"People make it out to be worse than it is," she said. "They think skaters are breaking bones and getting hauled away in ambulances."
Injuries are unavoidable in an aggressive, full-contact sport like this, she said.
Back on track
The Fargo-Moorhead Derby Girls have been on a hiatus from competitions since September. For the past few months, skaters have worked to get ready to take on the Dagger Dolls of the Minnesota RollerGirls league for the opening bout of their ninth season, which will take place at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 17.
At a recent practice, skaters contemplated the seemingly low odds of defeating the Dagger Dolls, a respectable team from St. Paul.
"If anyone is dying to be a jammer at this match, raise your hand," Coach Amy Leary inquired, though nobody did. Still, the skaters agree it should be an exciting match.
"The women we play against are amazing, and it is so much fun, win or lose," Juelfs said. "Afterwards, I am always on cloud nine."
FM Derby Girls formed in 2008, and the athletes say they expect to maintain a lasting presence in the community.
As for the sport itself, the grassroots revival of roller derby in the early 2000s has increased its popularity worldwide. Today, more than half of roller derby teams are based outside of the U.S., with most of the teams amateur, self-organized and all-female.
Though it's not the most conventional thing, its skaters say roller derby is a legitimate sport that almost qualified for the 2020 Summer Olympics, offering a rare blend of athleticism and creative expression but lacking certain credentials.
Each roller derby bout, or game, consists of two 30-minute "jams," or halves. During each jam, points are scored when the jammer makes an effective pass through the opposing team's blockers who essentially form a clump called a pack. The jammer has to physically force his or her way through, then bolt around the track repeatedly to score points.
Katie Kalabza, otherwise known as Arta Choker while competing, is new to the team. She recently passed the three-month intensive "fresh meat" training that allowed her to qualify.
"I love being part of a group that becomes your family, and overall, I feel more empowered," she said.
Kalabza said balancing work, starting a family and keeping up with roller derby was difficult at first. She went through the training three times before she was able to fully commit.
The league requires fresh meat skaters to attend 60 percent of practices before they achieve full status. Practices are held twice a week, each two hours long.
Joining the sport can also seem costly, which may be a hurdle for some. Overall, someone hoping to join a roller derby team can expect to spend $200 to $500 on equipment, derby insurance and monthly fees, depending on the quality of their skates and pads.
But skaters gearing up for the season opener on Saturday said it was worth the initial effort and cost.
"I got a little unmotivated during fresh meat, struggling to do what others made look so simple," Juelfs said. "But my significant other urged me to stay in and stick it out. I will forever be happy that I did."
If you go
What: FM Derby Girls season opener
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, March 17; doors open at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Fargo Civic Center, 207 4th St. N.
Price: $12 for adults, $7 for ages 6-12 and free for those 5 and younger