It’s Friday evening at Luuwit Skate Spot, out east from Portland, and across the silky-smooth pavement of the bowl, you can see the snowy shoulder of Mount St. Helens, and above that, clear cerulean skies. Dolly Parton is twanging on someone’s Makita Job Site speaker, but louder than that is the swoosh-click, swoosh-click of quad roller skate wheels rolling up the walls and tapping the steel coping.
If it were a normal April, Loren Kaplan Mutch—a top jammer for four-time Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) champion Rose City Rollers—would never have come to an easygoing skatepark with her teammates, Mia Palau, 36, and Julie “Angela Death” Adams, 39, who have taken to calling themselves the Send Friends. She’d be at the Hangar, shut down since March 2020, where roller derby bouts typically sell out in minutes. She’d be pushing and juking through a wall of blockers. To be honest, it takes a lot of time, focus, fitness, and raw talent to elevate the level of an entire sport, which is just what Mutch, 28, had been doing up until COVID hit.
Swoosh: into a handstand. Swoosh-grind: a tabernacle slide. Swoosh: fakie into a cartwheel—and her backward baseball cap stays on. Even though Mutch only tried park skating for the first time in August of 2020, she’s on pace to outshine her mentors. “I feel like I’ve been watching the super-fast-forward evolution of a park skater,” Palau says, watching Mutch nail one trick after another. “She picks things up really fast. She’s really, really gifted.”
It seems that almost everything Mutch has done over the last few years has been an evolution, and she’s bringing derby with her: After years of battling recurring vocal cord polyps and a series of life-changing surgeries, she’s finally able to start speaking out—for BLM, for women’s empowerment, but especially for her transgender and nonbinary teammates. She’s also transformed from a skinny junior skater to a powerlifting ace who’s pretty much jacked. And in 2017, she picked up a Red Bull sponsorship—the highest-profile nod anyone’s ever gotten in roller derby—and now has more than 20,000 Instagram followers, making her one of the sport’s biggest influencers. These days, her influence continues to expand beyond the rink: With her personal drive to take derby seriously, to embody the role of an elite competitor, Mutch is pushing her niche sport to new heights. She’s giving it more visibility and legitimacy. And at the same time, derby itself, through participation and politics, is growing up. “I feel like I, and my team, are sort of like pioneers,” Mutch says.
In some ways, nights like these—sun setting on the tail end of a five-hour COVID session—have forced her to take a break from her relentless rise. “I’ve had to learn not to take my derby mindset to the park,” she says.
But Mutch still can’t help but strive for excellence: The Send Friends tell me, conspiratorially, that as soon as she gets home, she’ll pull up a spreadsheet and log the tricks she attempted, the tricks she landed, and the precise amount of time she spent practicing. “The connection between her brain and her body is just incredible,” says Palau. “She can visualize something, and then she can make it happen.”
If you haven’t been paying attention for the last decade or two, you probably think of derby as a niche sport that combines the showy melodrama and staged fights of professional wrestling— fishnet stockings, pseudonyms like C3P-Hoe, Cherry Poppins, Correctional Felicity—with the scrums and breakaways of rugby. “We get the, oh, roller derby, you use your elbows a lot,” says Mutch. Adds Palau, “Most people assume it’s only brawn and all we do is shove.”
Those presumptions are a carryover from derby’s long history, which yo-yoed in popularity from epic skate-a-thons in Depression-era Chicago to banked tracks and cinematic feuds in the 1970s to the formation of the modern sport in Texas in 2002. These days, at its highest level, jorts and glitter have largely given way to spandex and fitted pinnies. More and more athletes—Mutch included—use their given names. And while the sport is still wildly entertaining (and, within very specific rules, very much full-contact), elite derby requires power, finesse, cardio endurance and lightning-quick communication—and for a jammer like Mutch, the ability to juke, twirl, move laterally and even leap the apex of the track’s turns. “There aren’t many other sports that could create such well- rounded athletes,” she says.
I went through so many phases and styles, trying to figure out who I was, and derby was the first step.
Her own progression has paralleled that of the sport in many ways. Born in Seattle but raised from age 8 in Port Orchard, Washington, Mutch describes her parents as “pretty punk rock.” She thought she would end up an artist. A musician. Her dad, a lifelong skateboarder, took her to the skatepark sometimes. “I thought it was so cool,” she says. “I wanted to be just like the guys in Lords of Dogtown—Tony Alva and Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta.” But she spent more of her time doing the conventional gamut of youth activities: soccer, dance, gymnastics, basketball. “I was mediocre at all of them,” she says. “And I was a terrible skater when I went to kids’ birthday parties at the rink.”
But when she gave derby a try at 14—with the Kitsap Derby Brats—it clicked, at least emotionally. “Something in me said, oh, I can do that,” she says. “And at my first junior tournament, I fell in love. I found my people.”
Growing up, Mutch wasn’t a misfit, really; she just wanted to find a place to fit in, feel valued, feel appreciated—feel heard. Throughout her teens and early 20s she suffered from recurring vocal polyps, which made her so hoarse she couldn’t speak much louder than a whisper. Kids told her she sounded like she smoked a carton a day. But her quietness wasn’t shyness. “It’s not that I lacked confidence,” Mutch says. “I literally couldn’t be heard.” For her, the accepting derby community was especially significant during those earlier years. “I’m just realizing it as I talk about it, but I didn’t have to fake it. I went through so many different phases and
“Mutch is one of the most gifted athletes I’ve ever trained. Her physical talents are obvious.”
In 2007, when Mutch picked up derby, the sport was more punk than it is today—which dovetailed with her family vibe. But while roller derby has counterculture roots, it is also a highly structured team sport—a sweet spot for someone like Mutch who was, without realizing it at the time, seeking a group identity and a physical challenge. Her background in other sports gave her a good foundation for lateral movements and juking, but back then, she says, “I was a tiny little thing. I was the best player on a team that lost every game.”
When she turned 18 she briefly skated with a small adult league, the Slaughter County Roller Vixens, before joining Rose City Rollers in 2012. It was just long enough to have an epiphany. “I had these little frilly shorts on, and red lipstick, and I was getting my ass kicked,” she says. “I’d be knocked over, then I’d stand up and get knocked over again. At halftime, I was like, fuck these shorts. I was mad. I took them off, took off the stupid lipstick. I wanted to be serious and look the part.” Mutch is quick to point out, though, that it’s not a judgment on other players who choose to have fun with their personas and presentations; for her, casting aside the costumery was a way to step up her game for herself. In the years since, more and more athletes have done the same.
Once Mutch joined Rose City, her rise wasn’t immediate—until it was. “I knew my place at age 19, which wasn’t as a starter,” she says. “But I didn’t know how to pace myself at the gym and in practice. I’d go so hard. To be honest, it was a good thing, because I knew that eventually, I was going to be one of the main jammers on the team. And it happened a lot quicker than I thought.” In 2014, leading up to the team’s first WFTDA championships ever, Mutch somehow found yet another gear in training, and it paid off: She was a starter, and in the very first jam of the first game, she scored 30 points against Chicago’s Windy City Rollers. (Most games have single-digit scores on both sides.) She was named MVP of the tournament.
To observers, she was fulfilling a potential that had been staring almost everyone in the face. “I’ve known her since she was playing in the youth league, and even back then, it was like, holy shit,” says Kim Stegeman, who founded Rose City Rollers in 2004 and is now executive director. “She’s like Mighty Mouse.”
Then, in 2016, Mutch got her voice back. After her fourth and final polyp surgery, her teammates could finally hear what she was saying—in the huddle and on the track—over the screams of spectators. Two years later she won the World Cup with USA Roller Derby, and RCR is now at the top of the WFTDA heap.
Yet, even as derby has swelled from 30 leagues in the U.S. in 2006 to 451 on six continents just before the pandemic began, it still has a DIY, for-the-skaters by-the-skaters ethos. And that’s by design, says Stegeman. “We forged a community for females in their 20s and 30s who wanted to belong and compete, where you can have a knock-around and make friends,” she says. Almost every position is volunteer, from referees to scorekeepers to the people slinging beer—and almost every player is an amateur. “I can count on one hand the number of people who play derby for a living,” Mutch says. She’s among them, but she’s done her time: working a series of retail McJobs, car hopping at a Sonic Drive-In, joining the local carpenters union.
More notable, roller derby has retained a core value that truly makes it stand out among elite sports: its acceptance of transgender women, intersex women and nonbinary and gender-expansive players. If you self-assess as female, you can participate. Period. “We were in control of what we wanted the league to look like, and we rooted it in empowerment and inclusivity,” says Stegeman.
One of Mutch’s teammates, Oona Roll, identifies as nonbinary, and knows that if they ever decide to transition, they won’t have to give up their sport. Another teammate and longtime player, OMG WTF, 42, coached Mutch and the national team in 2016 while taking time off to transition, then came back to skate with Rose City in 2018. They also own skate shops in Portland and New York with their partner, the legendary Bonnie Thunders. “Now that I am trans masculine instead of femme presenting, I get a different response when people come into Five Stride and I tell them I play for Rose City,” they say. “But it’s not the fault of derby. Derby supports me. Everyone just calls me Gramps.”
No doubt, there’s always work to be done—as of press time, there were 115 anti-trans bills on the table in 30-some states—which is why Mutch is slowly turning into a vocal advocate. “She’s coming into her own,” says Oona. “I can see her understanding that she isn’t a little kid anymore. She has an audience now.” Stegeman agrees: “I’ve been able to see her growth as an athlete who sees herself as having influence.”
Because we’re talking roller derby and not the NBA or the USWNT, Mutch doesn’t have minders and governing bodies telling her what to say or not say, so part of her journey is simply finding her own version of balance. But there’s no way she’s staying silent any longer. “With so many anti-trans bills being introduced lately, I hope that people can look at roller derby and see how trans athletes compete in a full-contact sport,” she says. “I can tell you firsthand that it doesn’t necessarily give anyone an advantage. And I’ll still smoke you on the track.”
At the Odd Barbell, a strength-focused gym in far SE Portland, the walls are hung with Wu-Tang and Pride flags and the chalkboard is scribbled with the powerlifting goals of its clients. The weekend before today, Mutch got married to her longtime girlfriend, Sophie Kaplan, an Oregon state record holder in powerlifting who’s partway toward a master’s in sports medicine and a doctorate in chiropractic. They met doing CrossFit, where Kaplan would show up and check Mutch’s time, then try to do better.
These days, Kaplan coaches at the Barbell, so it’s where Mutch often works out. It’s a deloading day—single-leg good mornings, broad jumps—which Mutch knocks out with perfect technique and seemingly no effort. “If you see a girl doing something you can’t do, it’s probably Loren,” owner Melanie Schoepp calls from across the room.
On a big day, though, Mutch does sprints. Olympic lifts. Weighted cyclic jumps. Red Bull strength and conditioning coach Alex Bunt, who started working with her this spring, was first at a loss about how to challenge her. “I scrolled through her Instagram and I showed everyone this crazy thing where she popped from a kneeling position onto her feet, then onto a 30-inch box into a perfect pistol squat,” he says. “So I designed a program for myself—and I’ve been doing this stuff for 15 years—and then made it so hard I can’t even do it.” He says Mutch doesn’t train for derby per se, but rather for general explosiveness and power, for the acceleration to get up off the ground and sprint, for the strength to resist and push through a wall of blockers.
In the Before Times, Rose City regularly worked out as a team at Magnus Strength & Conditioning with head coach Quint Fischer, but Mutch set herself apart. “Over my 13 years of coaching, Mutch is one of the most gifted athletes that I’ve ever trained,” he says. “Her physical talents are obvious when you watch her skate or lift—she’s strong, fast, agile, explosive, her proprioception is off the charts, and her footwork is immaculate.”
Kaplan puts it this way: “My wife can do Stupid Human Tricks all day long.”
Mutch’s approach to fitness is a major reason she’s raising the athleticism of derby to another level. “Every single year she somehow gets faster, somehow gets stronger,” says OMG. “She’s so determined to execute any move as perfect as it can possibly be, and if it’s not perfect, she’ll make it perfect the next time.”
Her dedication to the sport extends to a new generation, too. Over the last few years, she has flown all over the world to coach, but she also instructs Rose City’s junior skaters. “It would be like Michael Jordan coaching a bunch of 7-year-olds,” says Stegeman.
But everyone agrees that Mutch is also the first to put her team ahead of herself, redirect the credit and then sign every autograph at every tournament. When asked why she thinks she’s a star, or how she is changing the sport, she struggles to answer—as if she can’t quite believe the impact she has and is too bashful and courteous to claim it. She can swagger at the gym and the rink, but she’s not used to public introspection. “There are always going to be people who stand out in a game,” she says. “When my teammates are good, I’m better because of it.”
“It’s amazing how humble she is for how good she is,” Kaplan says. “She just wants everyone to come to the top with her.”
I want people to realize just how incredibly hard we work and how difficult it is to player roller derby at our level.
Yet it’s more than that. She wants more people to fall in love with skating, whether it’s derby, park or just cruising down the sidewalk. It’s already happening: One windfall of COVID is that roller skate sales have gone through the roof. Over the last few years, derby has aired on ESPN, and there’s talk of a pro league. It all may broaden Mutch’s appeal even more, and there’s no position she’d rather be in.
“I want people to realize just how incredibly hard we work and how difficult it is to play roller derby at our level,” Mutch says. “The other day, Sophie told me how when we first met, she thought I had this ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude.” She pauses. “But she’s come to learn that I do. I give a lot of them.”
Back at Luuwit, it’s about time to go. But Palau calls to Mutch, “You wanna jump me?” She and Adams lie side-by-side near the lip. Mutch drops into the large bowl—swoosh—pumps over a bump into the small bowl, skates up the wall and airs up and over her teammates. They’re watching her trucks fly overhead. The sky is fading behind her. The symbolism is hard to ignore: She’s on the verge of taking off. Her arms flail just a bit, but she lands it.