When Tracy Akers started playing roller derby a decade ago, she discovered within herself an untapped first-class athlete. But the Team USA captain has since found something she describes as much greater.
"I loved skating and knew that if there ever was a Team USA that I'd want to be one of those trailblazers," Akers said. "Being part of Team USA made me want to be more patriotic, to play for my country. And that was a new feeling for me."
Akers will lead the United States at the 2014 Roller Derby World Cup starting Thursday in Dallas against the Netherlands. Favored to defend its title, Team USA is one of 30 countries competing in the second version of the event, which concludes Sunday.
The daughter of a proud Vietnam War veteran, Akers' path in life is hardly that of a conventional American sports nut, or an athlete who has risen to the international level.
"I'm fiercely competitive," the 30-year-old Akers said. "There was always a rivalry between my sister and I in everything we did. But in school we didn't have organized sports like soccer, field hockey or swimming."
Without access to the standard high school athletic programs at her small Indian Hill, Colorado, charter school, Akers channeled much of her competitive drive into creative endeavors. While skiing and bicycling did stoke her dormant inner athlete, it was art -- painting, drama, pottery and a love of illustration -- where Akers excelled.
"Education was more important than sports where I came from," Akers said. "But art became something I was passionate about, and I needed to be the best at that."
Akers eschewed the college route to pursue her love of drawing through an unconventional career as a tattoo and body artist. But it's not what you think -- it wasn't the culture at the tattoo shop that steered Akers to derby.
"There's definitely a stereotype about people who play roller derby," Akers said, referring to the image of the edgy, tattooed, 20-something woman who works at a bar or a record store. "I know that I definitely look the part, but it wasn't tattoo culture that reeled me into roller derby. Perhaps curiosity."
Akers said that when she joined the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Rollergirls, she simply tagged along with a friend who was trying out, and that roller skating for fun and fitness appealed to her. But after making the team, the how-to skating lessons eventually morphed into practice five times a week. And for Akers, roller derby became another competitive personal challenge.
"Usually when I commit to something new I work very hard to master it," said Akers, who works as a surgical technologist at a Denver hospital. "Roller derby became a passion and brought out an athlete in me I didn't know was there."
After a year with Rocky Mountain, Akers and a small group decamped to start a new league, the Denver Roller Dolls, where Akers has been a driving force among a team that is a powerhouse and perennial championship contender. Under Akers' stewardship, Denver has placed in the top four in the WFTDA world championships three of the past six years, and has several members and past members on Team USA. As a top skater, she has also bagged an endorsement with Bont skates, and played a pivotal role for Team USA in the first World Cup, helping the U.S. defeat Canada 336-33 in the 2011 final.
Since then, Team USA's coaches, Aaron Goed and Justin Campoy, have taken note of Akers' drive and leadership qualities. And last summer the two approached her about becoming Team USA's captain. Subsequently, Akers was elected by her teammates in a landslide.
"She an incredible, influential player," U.S. teammate Lacey "Carmen Getsome" Ramon said. "Tracy is the kind of player that makes everyone around her better."
But it's not because of her size. At 5-foot-3 and 140 pounds, Akers acknowledges that she's far from the biggest player in the game. Rather, her size and stature make her, physically speaking, among the smallest players in the World Cup. Yet Ramon and others think that size is no impediment in Akers' game.
"Tracy Akers is someone that I really respect and look up to," said Dana Noss, another U.S. teammate from the Minnesota RollerGirls. "I take inspiration from her knowledge [of the game] and her fitness. When you're out there with a great leader like that, it just brings in a certain confidence."
While Akers' size might appear to be a limitation in a full-contact sport stacked with women who knock one another to the floor without thinking twice, that's not the case. Hard hits are a feature of some players' defensive style, but Akers' expert skating allows her the ability to slow down the toughest opponents. Through positional blocking -- a technique that involves skating slowly in front of an opposing player -- Akers makes her height work even against the sport's fastest and biggest skaters.
All in all, Akers said that her role as captain is one that puts her among "the best of the best." But leading the top team in one of the world's fastest-growing sports takes not only athletic talent, but a cool hand and a calm head.
"As a player, I try to play calm. The calmer you play, the less you do, making fewer mistakes while being aware of more opportunities," Akers said.
But it won't be all business in Texas for the captain.
"Playing with Team USA is like walking on air," she said. "We push each other, try new plays and techniques, knock each other around a little, and that's part of the fun."