Nonviolent veggie diet fuels fierce action for some Philly Roller Girls

Posted: May 30, 2014

PLANT-based foods: Powerful enough to knock you on your ass? Indeed. Especially as processed by some Philly Roller Girls who fuel themselves with "kinder, gentler" foods as they elbow their way to the top of their tough game.

Our Delaware Valley league has around 50 women on four teams, including the Liberty Belles all-stars, who take on Pittsburgh's Steel City Roller Derby on Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania's Class of 1923 Arena.

More than a dozen PRG members are vegetarian and/or vegan-leaning eaters, estimated league spokeswoman Erica Vanstone.

That's a high ratio. How come?

I've been wondering since 2011, when I heard of PRG's support for Little Baby's vegan ice-cream flavors. Later, I would often run across a PRG connection at veg-friendly events I covered, such as the Vegan Wing Bowl.

When Blackbird Pizzeria grabbed the decisive lead in the Daily News Vegan Cheesesteak Contest earlier this year, after a 30-strong PRG "NoshMob" voted for the place while eating there, I knew I had to investigate.

How they roll

First, let's get up to skating speed: The Philly Roller Girls formed in 2005 as part of a resurgence in interest in a contact sport that got its start in the '30s.

These days, skaters play on a flat track instead of the banked tracks of yesteryear that you may recall from TV broadcasts. The latter also imposed pro-wrestling-style story lines, while the current version's simple theme is women pushing themselves to their full potential.

The emphasis on athletics over theater has made the amateur sport, governed by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, very competitive. Vegan fuel provides the edge that some players want while reflecting inclusive derby values.

Three Philly all-star players are 100-percent plant-based: Angela Luczejko (Antidote), Mishel Castro (Castro) and Caroline Voyles (ClamJammer). They're among "the most competitive and talented in our league," Vanstone said, adding that since PRG is one of the top 20 leagues worldwide, they really are "some of the best players in the world."

And "you'd never pick them out of a lineup as vegan," she said.

Scouting the lineup

When I stopped by a practice in Camden to meet them, Castro picked up on that theme.

"Any time you mention you're vegan, someone's like, 'What do you do for protein?' Like you're about to wither away and die," she said, laughing. "They see us out there [skating] and they're like, 'Hmmm, you're actually really muscular for your size - and you're vegan?' "

While the old-timey notion of weakling vegans has been exploded over the years by vegan boxers, ultramarathoners, pro football players, Olympic medalists and the like, some people haven't gotten the memo yet. But there's another oddity: Given its tough attitude and rough contact, is roller derby consistent with a compassionate diet?

"Sure, it's a 'violent' sport," admitted ClamJammer, "but it's also something not violent - it's empowering to be strong and to be women [pursuing] a goal. Now, if vegans are supposed to be peaceful and quiet . . . "

She broke off with a "can't help ya" look, as the others agreed that Derby and veganism dovetail.

"It's such a nontraditional sport - for people who are already kind of breaking out of boxes for whatever reason, so it may be easier to go, 'Yeah, let's give [veganism] a whirl, too,' " ClamJammer explained. "Roller derby is really welcoming to a lot of people - there's no stereotypes.

"We're all here."

The power to compete

Antidote, a longtime vegetarian, went vegan late last year after surgery for an on-track injury.

"I spent a lot of time researching vegan athletes," she said. "I was finding bodybuilders and MMA and kickboxers, and I really found almost a spiritual side of it - the clean food - because everything you eat becomes part of you. The more I want to compete, the cleaner I want to eat."

Castro has been a force in moving the group overall in a more veg-friendly direction. "I've been involved with managing our travel all-stars for many years," she said. When she started scheduling lunches at Whole Foods, "they were like, 'I'm not eating this healthy crap.' But . . . now the team is completely on board."

Motivating forces

Roller Derby appeals to "people from all walks of life," said Vanstone, so "it's a place where ideas cross-pollinate frequently." She oversees frequent PRG outreach events suggested by members.

The Vegan Wing Bowl at The Abbaye in Northern Liberties was Vanstone's idea "because I used to work there and thought PRG was a great fit."

Skaters have found that vegan eating fits for diverse reasons.

ClamJammer focused on ethics: "Environmentalism and the welfare of animals are a big motivator for what I choose to eat."

Castro has found cleaner eating to be a necessity: "I can't put crap in my body as fuel to be one of the best players on the team anymore." Though on the flip side, she added, "I'm getting older and I'm still not putting on weight 'cause I eat awesomely."

Antidote said that, for her, vegan eating "fell into place" since she's lactose intolerant and "just never liked the taste of meat."

The inclusive awareness plays out in the sport, said Vanstone: "For out-of-town tournaments, wherever you go, the welcome package will feature a vegetarian or vegan item. And we're always conscious of vegetarian and vegan eaters who attend our events."

To wit: Little Baby's will bring its vegan flavors to Saturday's bout.

ClamJammer opined that "in terms of a fan base, too, people who are more open-minded about their sports-watching and might go see 'that weird thing on roller skates,' they might also be more willing" to try foods that are outside the mainstream.

PRG Liberty Belles vs. Steel City Roller Derby (Pittsburgh, PA) and PRG Block Party vs. Eerie Roller Girls (Eerie, PA), 5 p.m. Saturday, Penn Ice Rink, Class of 1923 Arena, 3130 Walnut St., $12-$15, ages 6-12 $5,

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 12-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based

eating in and around Philadelphia. or @V4Veg on Twitter.

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