University City

A sophisticated form of derby for Charlotte

Melissa Barbisan knew it was a natural fit: Once she found out about the Charlotte Speed Demons, she had to try out.

"I was so excited to learn there was a team that I was there the very next day to try out," she said. "It was such a natural fit for me, I couldn't wait to get started."

The same goes for Beth Papineau, a 33-year-old registered veterinary tech by day and former Division I conference swimming champion. Papineau still competes in triathlons but wanted a sport that could better fuel her competitive drive.

"I saw a flier posted at a rugby game I was at and fell in love right away," said Lake Norman resident Papineau. "I was at practice two days later and have been hooked ever since."

The Speed Demons, with skaters from the university area, Lake Norman, south Charlotte and Union County, closed out their inaugural season May 14 against the Palmetto State Roller Girls. Following a two-month scheduled break, the fast-paced action will resume July 16.

During the break, the Speed Demons will seek new members and continue to train.

Roller derby, a full-contact sport featuring five-on-five action, is one of the most rapidly growing sports in the country. Points are scored when one player, the jammer, passes opponents trying to block them. Think football meets NASCAR.

"I tell people who don't know what it is that it resembles rugby but it is much faster," said Barbisan, a registered nurse at Presbyterian Hospital and a Matthews resident.

Unlike the sport in its earlier days, "Today's roller derby is not scripted," said Barbisan. "You can still knock people down and rough them up, but you have to do it in sophisticated ways."

"You can't elbow and clothesline people the way you used to see on TV," said Indian Trail's Heather Kurr, 32, a Harris Teeter office assistant when she's not skating for the Speed Demons. "There is a lot of contact, but there are rules and regulations you have to stay within."

The Speed Demons, 1-2 in their first season, are not using stage makeup, nicknames and attire in trying to help the sport reach a larger audience.

"We are trying to put a little different angle on the sport, and we want people to know that we are athletes out there," said Papineau.

The Speed Demons practice for two hours, usually three times a week, developing strategies and finding their way as a first-year team. Head coach Regina Clayton said the team trains hard and is ready for anything opponents throw their way. The ups and downs of a new team have to be expected, she said, but she is proud of how they have responded.

The players are excited to be competing. "I have always tried to keep active and stay in shape," Barbisan said. "Once you get a little older, it is hard to find something where you can compete against people. That is what I missed, and that is what I am able to get here."