Wolf Packs a Punch on the Roller Derby Track

Alyssa Wolf (far right) breaks free from the pack during a match. | Photo by Bryan Gallagher

There’s a wolf stalking her prey in Germantown these days — one that travels on wheels instead of four paws.

This predator’s name is Alyssa Wolf, although the 29-year-old is better known in roller derby circles as just Wolf, or sometimes as the Miami Beatbox.

So how did a nice Jewish girl from Florida — who holds master’s degrees from Penn and the University of Virginia and works as a nurse practitioner with cancer patients — end up in the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby?

Wolf was finishing her degree at UVA and had just watched the Ellen Page/Drew Barrymore roller derby film Whip It when she saw a sign for tryouts. She gave it a shot, although it took a while before she was hooked.

“I had to come back a few times to realize this is a pretty cool sport,” the former cheerleader and gymnast said. “A lot of people think of roller derby as a bunch of tough women, but it’s really a family environment.”

Although roller derby’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years, it’s on the upswing these days.

And the local outlet, the nonprofit Philly Roller Derby (known informally as Philly Roller Girls), will host the 2017 International Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Championships from Nov. 3 to 5 at the Liacouras Center. Unfortunately, despite winning two of three matches in September at a round of playoffs in Dallas, Philly Roller Girls fell just short of being among the 12 teams competing for the championship.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, two teams of five skaters compete in two 30-minute periods broken down into two-minute “jams.” The object is for each team’s “jammer” to break free from the pack, scoring points by lapping members of the opposing team.

The star on Alyssa Wolf’s helmet shows she’s the team’s “jammer.” | Photo by Bryan Gallagher

That’s easier said than done because the goal of the remaining players — three “blockers” and a “pivot,” who can change roles with the jammer — is to keep the jammer in place. That’s where things get physical as blockers employ hip checks, shoulder bumps and other tactics.

“It’s a weird relationship because your friends are beating you up,” Wolf said, noting that at the end of the day everyone remains friends, even when things get heated. “It takes 10 seconds to say something and 30 seconds to forget it.”

Watching a recent scrimmage at the league’s Belfield Avenue facility in Germantown confirmed that camaraderie. One minute the women were pushing, shoving and trying to knock each other to the track. A minute later during a break, the combatants chatted casually about anything and everything.

Alyssa Wolf

Standing just 5-feet, 2-inches tall but with broad, toned shoulders, Wolf appears an unlikely candidate for a sport laden with bruisers, but her speed, dexterity and physical toughness make her one of the league’s best jammers. She pointed out that there’s also an intellectual side to the sport because you’re simultaneously playing offense and defense.

Even those with an untrained eye can detect Wolf skates differently than most of her peers. Like tennis star Roger Federer, she seems to glide when moving — at least when her peers aren’t trying to clobber her.

“I’d say it’s just as dangerous as football and rugby,” she said. “I’ve had a couple of concussions, tore my MCL and broke my ankle,” though she continued to skate for a few games after the latter injury.

Those injuries occurred despite an array of safety gear that includes knee pads, shoulder pads, fingerless gloves and a helmet with a face shield to go with her white skates that run between $500 and $600.

Wolf’s teammates praised her for her dedication both on and off the track, where she was just voted the league’s vice president.

“Wolf is a big part of the intense atmosphere and pushes everyone,” said teammate Amanda Alexander, who goes by the handle of Infinite Zest. “She’s like an Energizer Bunny pretty much all the time.”

Among her other duties, Wolf oversees the training for the newcomers to the sport, known as “fresh meat.”

Sally “Lay Down Sally” Warm was among the one-time fresh meat skaters Wolf trained.

“She’s really good at breaking things down. She’s simple and concise,” Warm said. “She’s forgiving and fun at the same time.”

While the roller derby world isn’t heavily Jewish — and Wolf didn’t tell her parents she was participating for several months after starting in Virginia in 2011 — she has met some fellow Jewish skaters and held some traditional meals during the holidays.

Other times, it’s a cultural experience for her peers.

“I’ve met a lot of people who never met anyone who was Jewish before,” she said.

Wolf does keep her Jewish ties, according to roommate Jill “Jailbars” Barrett, who mentioned Wolf’s Bichon Frise-poodle mix named Olaf.

“I found his doggie yarmulke,” she said. “The dog had a Bark Mitzvah.”

Aside from her Jewish voice, Wolf serves as sort of a den mother to the other participants.

“She definitely keeps us all sane. She’s a calming voice,” Barrett said, citing Wolf’s “bedside manner.” “We definitely all value her voice and her opinion.”

As much as Wolf enjoys roller derby, her on-track career may start winding down. As a health professional, the long-term implications of her concussions worry her. And most skaters only participate five to 10 years.

“You don’t ever want to leave roller derby for an injury,” said the Fishtown resident, indicating that even when she does stop skating, she’ll remain involved as a coach and in other ways. “Roller derby has been a huge part of my life. I’ve given up a lot for roller derby, but wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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