Sports Feature Article: Roller Derby

Real Sport

From America to Australia and everywhere in between, people find ways to feed their strange addiction. Devotees arrive, find some space on the benches and unzip their skate bags. It never smells good in there. Knee pads go on first, followed by elbows, wrists, then skates are laced up. Quad skates cut low and fitted with speed wheels and lightweight plates, not quite the tan beauties with orange wheels available for hire at general sessions at the local rink. Everyone has signed some kind of waiver, bought insurance or medical cover. The league takes no responsibility for what may happen to you in here. There’s a heavy duty first aid kit in the corner below the poster with the list of symptoms worth calling an ambulance for. The vets can all tell you what a broken bone looks like.

Warm up starts on the whistle, usually some footwork drills to get the blood moving, heart rate up. Stretching followed by floor exercises. Most skaters have their own ritual for stretching, a combination that pays extra attention to quads, calves, lower back, neck and whatever else was prescribed during recovery from any number of serious injuries. I make sure to work my ankle and shoulder joints. My knees crack loudly when I bend down. My back aches a little as I settle into ‘derby stance’.

Roller Derby isn’t new. American event promoter and entrepreneur Leo Seltzer created a roller skating marathon on a banked track as a form of sports entertainment during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thousands of spectators filed into the Chicago Coliseum to witness Seltzer’s Transcontinental Roller Derby, a race that purported to cover the distance of the breadth of America. The formula including a banked track and competitors of both genders was both entertainment and athletic event. Perhaps unintentionally political, Seltzer made waves as the inclusion of women on the team created controversy and public interest, but served to downgrade the event in the eyes of the mainstream media as a novelty, rather than a legitimate sport.

Despite its initial success, interest waned. Nineteen skaters and support personnel died in a bus crash in 1937 and the enterprise nearly folded. The remaining skaters chose to push on and complete the tour. It was at the Miami event that journalist Damon Runyon became captivated by the sport’s possibilities, and his suggestions to Seltzer helped create a vastly modified version of the race that became a game combining athleticism with high speed crashes, team work and character. Finally, by the start of the 1950s, Seltzer’s vision was realised and Roller Derby hit television and rapidly achieved mainstream popularity.

There have been the boom and bust years, the televised games with thousands of fans, the famous rivalry between skaters Joan Weston and Ann Calvello, and the game’s bizarre flirtation with a figure 8 style track with alligator pits before it disappeared from the television screen. Pro skaters kept the flickering flame alive for twenty years, before an unlikely source in 2001 fuelled a surprising resurrection of the game. Punk rockers in hot spots in Texas, Arizona and California sparked small fires that fanned out across the alternative subculture network. The reinterpretation of the game pitted stage named female quad skaters in eye melting outfits against each other in an unscripted brutal battle for ‘bragging rights’. Less than ten years later there are estimates of 500 leagues around the world, and close to 20,000 names on the “International Rollergirls’ Master Roster”.

The majority of leagues play under the standardised Rule set issued by the US based Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). WFTDA style games are referred to as ’bouts’, and hour long bouts are divided into two periods lasting thirty minutes. Each period is further divided into two minute ‘jams’. For each two minute jam played, the two opposing teams will each field a line up consisting of a Pivot, three Blockers and a Jammer. Skating around an oval shaped race track in a grouping designated as the ‘pack’ the blockers and pivots use full contact ‘blocking’ and strategic plays to protect and assist their Jammer, and impede the opposing Jammer’s attempt to score points. Skaters use any number of ingenious methods to legally ‘block’ an opposing skater, aiming bone crunching hits into an opponent’s body in an attempt to knock her off her skates. Jammers must race around the track and attempt to lap the pack, and are awarded a point for each opposing skater they manage to pass.

All manner of women have thrown themselves into the derby grinder. Ranging from teenage to around 60, beauty school drop outs to doctorates, there seems to be no predetermining factor, no sign posts for who might contract the ‘virus’ and sign up for Fresh Meat Training with their local roller derby league. While the revival has been predominately female, men skate roller derby as well, originally as referees but now a brave few are taking to the track to skate Co-ed or boys-only scrimmages and bouts. The reasons to join are similarly diverse; with fitness, a sense of community, a chance to participate in something outside of the ordinary sitting shoulder to shoulder with those feeling like they’ve finally ‘found a place they can be themselves’. The bulk of leagues are concentrated in the United States, but the movement is definitely global, with leagues popping up in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Brazil and all over Europe. The derby world were thrilled to recently welcome Abu Dhabi Roller Derby from the United Arab Emirates to the family.

For San Diego Derby Doll Ana Friesema, aka Freezer Burn, “it’s my time, away from the complications and pressures of reality. I get applauded for being athletic, powerful and aggressive, and I get to do it with a group of women I consider my second family.” Freezer was originally attracted to the quirkiness of a game played on roller skates that seemed more fun than going to the gym on her own, but soon found herself with more than just a hobby. “The training aspect is way more physically demanding then I thought it would be. I’ve never done so many push ups in my life. I’ve pushed myself hard, and it’s paid off.” Fracturing her tibia in a banked track collision that resulted in being placed in a cast and staying off skates for almost four months Freezer has had plenty of time to reflect on what derby is, what it means to her and why she skates.

“Derby is a little like a religion, maybe even a benign kind of cult. Nothing makes me feel the way skating does. It’s not just the sport, derby gives me something I couldn’t find elsewhere. I’ve lived in San Diego for eleven years and couldn’t find this sense of belonging anywhere else.” Keeping herself busy while recovering, increasing her volunteer responsibilities and pitching in to assist in all aspects of running the league, Freezer talks about how she had been looking for something she could be passionate about, with a group of people she could share that passion with. Despite the immense physical requirement and commitment needed for competitive play, the word ‘sport’ doesn’t feature as heavily in her description of her reasons for joining. She attends Physical Therapy sessions twice a week and looks forward to returning to training, despite the fact she’ll need an ankle brace and will most likely experience pain and discomfort.

Linked together by a strong, internet savvy international community and an ambitious attitude to ‘Skate ’til you puke’, Roller Derby is evolving into something of a phenomenon. Punk aesthetic and attitude merges with slick self produced media content giving Roller Derby a kind of public image uncommon to amateur sport. Add a core unit of skaters, referees and decision makers constantly evaluating and improving the way the game is played, coached and officiated and the standard improves visibly each year in the hot house environment of interleague play and tournaments. It’s clear that Roller Derby is an obsession. What’s not quite as clear is what Roller Derby actually is.

Skaters will tell you it’s a sport. In the same breath many will say they’d never played a sport before Roller Derby. Fans will say it’s a sport, it’s a spectacle, and for many; the first sport they’ve ever actively followed. Skaters will quickly get riled up by articles in mainstream media criticising their passion and not taking it seriously, and find themselves defending the outrageous outfits and stage names, pointing to the hours of training and dedication it takes to make it onto a team, the blood, sweat and tears required to run a league. It seems that Roller Derby wants it all; mainstream recognition and alternative culture notoriety, packed out 6000 seat stadiums with cameras rolling and underground ‘events’ complete with rock bands and beer kegs, through to sports science based technology and its own fashion labels. If it’s a sport, it’s not like any other sport.

What exactly does it take to skate roller derby? For some skaters it can take up to a year before they are drafted to a team. In that time they can classed as Fresh Meat, or ‘sub pool skaters’. Many train three times a week, cross training in their own time. The commitment once drafted increases exponentially. As well as learning skating skills, derby skaters train to improve their endurance, agility and strength. Learning how to hit and take a hit are vital components of Roller Derby training. Bruises are a badge of honour and are earned from enduring blocks that can lift a skater off the ground, send her hurtling into a wall, or crush the air out of her lungs and leave her gasping on the floor. It’s written into the Rule set that skaters must recover from falls within three seconds, which means recovery from falls is drilled regularly, especially at Fresh Meat level. There is a special kind of exhaustion that comes from throwing yourself at a concrete floor and springing back up onto your skates and sprinting, again and again on the whistle blast.

Recommended cross training includes pilates style abdominal exercises to assist in surviving heavy blocks and recovering quickly from falls, pushups to develop shoulder muscles to avoid dislocation and tears from impact, and squats and quad exercises to assist in speed and maintaining a stable ‘derby stance’ that protects the skater from hits to the midsection. Of 1070 respondents in the 2007 WFTDA Safety Squad Injury Survey, 133 reported an injury that required either emergency hospitalisation or prolonged physical therapy, out of a total 574 respondents reporting injury ranging from mild to severe. One of the aims of the Safety Squad is to make recommendations to the WFTDA Board on risk management and injury prevention, but skaters are all very aware that the activity is inherently high risk and the likelihood of injury high, regardless of how much preparation and training is undertaken.

Serious injuries and intensive training aside, there are plenty of detractors of the fledgling sport. Pittsburgh based sports writer Jody Diperna concedes that “yes participants often sustain bumps and bruises and injuries. But physical toughness and the mere risk of injuries do not a sport make…It is performance and costume and atmospherics with athletic ability mixed in. Entertainment first, athletics second.” Diperna takes umbrage with the hipness of roller derby, considering its alternative ‘edginess’ as the antithesis of what sport actually is. Despite Roller Derby’s cult following most skaters know that despite petitions on Facebook, Roller Derby won’t be the next new Olympic sport and will most likely remain an underground, alternative or at most X Games type event.

All of this conjecture about if it is a sport or not seems not to matter after the first whistle blast. Comments about whether short skirts and fishnets constitute sporting wear, or if people with stage names can run a legitimate organisation fade as we line up to jam. The only opinion that counts now is your opinion of yourself. Can you do this? Can you get knocked down and jump back up and throw yourself back in for more? Can you push yourself that little bit harder? Sport or not, it’s definitely sporting, athletic and demanding. Maybe what else it is; dangerous, irreverent, spectacular and dramatic, is what makes it a sport, like no other.

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