Strong, physical and athletic, Rachel Johnston (and Rachel Rotten) finds home in roller derby

Rachel Johnston was taller than most. More athletic and more physical too. Her opponents were mesmerized.

She was living in Italy at the time and attending an American school while her mother was in the Navy. Back then, basketball was her game, and she was good enough to make the co-ed team at her middle school. When a neighboring all-boys Italian team came to play, she had already won.

"Not only were they not used to playing against a girl who played the entire game," she said. "They were mesmerized by the fact I was taller and more physical than all of them."

Today, Rachel Johnston is known in roller derby circles as Rachel Rotten. She is a standout player for Los Angeles-based Angel City Derby. This weekend, Angel City and Johnston kick off their season and the 2017 elite-level international roller derby season at the Big O Tournament in Eugene, Oregon. Angel City, the No. 5 team in the world, will take on Arch Rival of St. Louis in its opener before a showdown with No. 1 Victorian Roller Derby League from Melbourne, Australia, on Saturday.

The 5-foot-10 roller derby skater, who spent her childhood in Gaeta, Italy, and later in San Diego, California, was considered a little too intimidating at times when she was a kid.

"I was told to tone it down. It was in not just sports, but everyday life," Johnston said. "I was a super rambunctious kid but also bigger than most of the girls and boys in my class."

Sports came naturally. Volleyball, soccer, softball, you name it, were like air and water to Johnston. Today, it's roller derby.

A linchpin within a defensive powerhouse team, Johnston is known not simply for big, punishing hits but also for a patient, consistent and effective style of defensive play.

"She has an amazing ability to command the pack both physically and strategically," Angel City teammate Tui Lyon said. "Rotten is a formidable presence on the track. She's one of my favorite people to partner with during a game."

Lyon, a well-known international player who has skated for Australia in the past two roller derby World Cups and joined Angel City last year, knows exactly what makes a great blocker.

Lyon describes Johnston as "immoveable" and considers her the perfect defensive partner. "Slamming into her is like running into a brick wall," she said.

Angel City's offensive players also appreciate the cover Johnston provides.

"She's physically solid and mentally one of the smartest players out there," Angel City jammer Melissa Berglund said.

Did we mention her drive?

"She doesn't do anything half-assed," Berglund said. "She lives for rules and strategy dissection. And when she's not on the track making your life a living hell, you can definitely find her watching footage. Seriously, like 24/7."

Opponents have noticed too. Jessica Rodriguez, a jammer with West Coast rival and two-time reigning world champion Rose City, singles out Johnston on Angel City's vaunted defense.

"Rotten is a very smart skater," Rodriguez said. "Angel City's blocking has progressed the last two years into a force to be reckoned with. And she's the center of it."

The 31-year-old Johnston, who started playing derby in 2010, says it wasn't just a thirst for competition that brought her to roller derby and kept her there. Shortly after her first practice, she discovered something.

"When I found derby, I found that 'wake up' moment," she said. "Because I didn't have to justify my presence to anyone. And the part about how playing 'like a man' isn't a compliment? I feel that in my bones in this sport."

Outside the rink, Johnston, 31, has also been one of the game's bigger diplomats. Putting to work her background in marketing and entertainment, Johnston has helped grow the game's public face and its business operations as the Women's Flat Track Derby Association sponsorship chair.

"Rachel exemplifies the spirit of roller derby, through her character, her time on the track and her work," said Juliana Gonzales, a skater for Texas who served for years as the WFTDA's first executive director.

Johnston has added to her résumé some roller derby-related work in television. This spring, she was hired to consult for a major cable TV network that is integrating the sport into a popular family drama. Her role with the show, which is keeping its upcoming plot secret, "involves all things derby" Johnston said. She got to teach actors how to skate and advised directors on how modern derby works.

She has also dabbled in reality TV, including work on Oxygen's "Bad Girls Club," work on a music video for legendary rock band Aerosmith and co-producing a documentary called "In The Turn" with director Erica Tremblay.

"I think that living in Los Angeles creates a different opportunity than most leagues get to," Johnston said. "With every show that I do, I get to show that this is not just entertainment. This is a sport."

A sport with soul and, for many in the fast-growing league, a way of life.

"She cares so deeply about the future of our sport," Lyon said of Johnston. "[She's] not only an ambassador leading by example but also someone who wants to provide opportunities for others to further develop our sport."