TORONTO - Before the bout begins, the Toronto Roller Derby girls tape their kneepads and skates, and don their uniforms of shiny, tiny shorts and fishnets, as the sold-out crowd waits for their favourite players to take the stage - a makeshift track lined with four rolls worth of electrical tape in a converted airplane hangar.

Hundreds of fans sit in bleachers, lawn chairs and on the concrete floor. After a showy dance routine introduction, the Chicks Ahoy team, clad in skimpy sailor costumes, lines up against the zombie painted faces of the Death Track Dolls.

When the whistle blows, the girls crosscut in circles around the track. Mach Wheels, the jammer, sneaks into the pack from behind. Her teammates try to protect her from the other team's blockers who are trying with equal zeal to knock her down.

The jammer scores points for her team by breaking through the pack. For each woman she passes on the opposing team, the jammer earns a point.

Crunch. It's a clean shoulder check on Mach Wheels, as she tries to weave through a pack of girls twice her size. The screech from her roller skates hitting the pavement is audible.

A dog pile of girls heaps on the ground near the pyramid of empty beer cans. The ref blows the whistle and play stops. The girls help their opponents to their feet.

Wheels has a severe case of road rash and she's wincing as she gestures toward her tailbone.

Medics prepare to roll a stretcher over for the third time during the game. The enthusiastic fans let out gasps, then whoops and applause as she gets up.

The Toronto Roller Derby league consists of about 80 women in four teams who range in age from their early 20s to their 50s, explains Dawn Weaver (Demolition Dawn), president of the league.

Weaver spends most of her time running the all-female, self-owned and operated league, overseeing 18 committees and answering 50 to 100 emails a day.

"It's almost another full time job."

"Derby is pretty important to me," she says, adding she was drawn to the sport "partly because of the costume, part because I love skating, and there's also this punk rock vibe to it."

"It's also a bit of an outlet. You can go out and hit people and fall down. It's liberating."

Roller derby invites women, many of whom have never played a team sport, to engage in healthy competitive butt kicking.

It's about training hard and being strong but it's also an inclusive world of female bonding and fun.

Curvy or petite, waitresses and lawyers can be sexy and athletic at the same time, then go out for a beer together.

"I love meeting a whole bunch of people I don't think I would have met otherwise - all different walks of life, lots of ages and backgrounds," Weaver says.

The league is part of a grassroots phenomenon of all-female, self-organized and owned roller derby leagues across the continent. Men can involve themselves as referees, announcers, fundraisers, coaches or in other supporting roles.

Fan turnout is higher than ever as the league nears the end of its third season, thanks to a publicity blitz surrounding the film "Whip it." Starring Ellen Page as a strong, alternative, derby girl, the movie received a lot of attention at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

The Toronto derby girls competed in a bout at the downtown Yonge and Dundas intersection, and it drew nearly 8,000 people, Weaver says.

For roller girls, the rink is a temporary escape from the pressures of being a 21st century woman, where girls of every size, background and talent level belong.

Colleen Westendorf, a.k.a. C-section, is fresh meat, a new derby girl, who dug out old roller skates to practise before joining the league to make friends when she moved to Toronto.

"It was really one of the first things I looked for," she says. "Not just for the sport but because derby is a big community and it's a good way to meet people. Derby has this amazing subculture going for it."

Katie James (Cherri Nova), a member of the Chicks Ahoy team, couldn't lace up her skates at the first practice after the bout because she had just had a tattoo of her team's trademark anchor put on each of her feet.

She came to derby from the world of burlesque after a male friend mentioned he wanted to "see hot girls hit each other on skates."

She says the sexiness is not about performing for men, but a reminder to each woman that she is sexy and strong.

"It's a really empowering sport cause it's all women-run and it's a contact sport as well. We're hitting each other, we're really taking it back. A lot of women start to come out of their shell after they start playing."

Latest From ...