The tough love sport of Roller Derby

Examining the lengthy history of the sport and its structure

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Photo of two roller derby women leaning in to hit each other on the track.
Once comparable to wrestling on wheels, roller derby combines the thrill of racing around a track and throwing a hit. Bastien Plu / Unsplash

By: Greg Makarov, Sports Writer 

Roller derby creator Leo Seltzer described his attempt to draw in crowds of people during the Great Depression as a sport full of “noise, color, and body contact.” This was in comparison to the subdued walkathons he previously ran that weren’t nearly as profitable. The change from walkathon to roller derby was inspired by Seltzer reading that 90% of Americans had previously tried roller skating.

For its first two years, roller derby still operated similar to a marathon. Teams of two, traditionally made up of  of a man and a woman, would “skate 57,000 laps around a flat track,” lasting weeks at a time. But by 1937, on the advice of sportswriter Damon Runyon, Seltzer added the most prominent quality of the sport: physicality. Players were free to put each other in headlocks, even going as far as engaging in fist fights. 

Before long, roller derby was gaining traction and people got a glimpse of the grit with which players handled themselves. Some of the sport’s appeal also came in its ability to not be for the faint of heart. Players required sheer resilience to put their bodies on the line time and time again for the benefit of their team, while the tradition of nicknames allowed participants full freedom to get creative. 

The popularity and buzz surrounding roller derby came from it being one of the only contact sports for women during the mid 1930s. However, the sport faded from popularity for nearly 30 years until it was resurfaced in the early 2000s. Molly Stenzel, the president of the current official governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) reiterated the need for roller derby. “There are very few spaces in the world where women, transgender, and gender-nonconforming folks get to use their bodies freely and unapologetically.” Further, as a “response to the clear racial imbalance” in the sport, some women created Team Indigenous. As of 2018, it remained “one of the few teams that are not mostly white.”

Among some colorful traditions grown out of the sports recent revival were accessories like makeup, glitter, and fishnets, which were inspired by the punk and drag scenes in Austin, Texas. More practical changes included reduced physical contact like punching and kicking, and increased protection with the introduction of helmets, padding, and mouth guards.

Almost anyone can pick up roller derby — whether professional or community bound. Leagues exist on every continent with the exception of Antartica. Vancouver has their very own WFTDA team, Terminal City Roller Derby, and the only men’s roller derby team, The Vancouver Murder. Terminal City “is open to all female/gender expansive skaters” and takes on first time to experienced skaters. All they ask is for new skaters to complete six sessions before joining the team. Roller derby only demands a person’s ability to push their bodies to the limit, dish out a hit, and be able to pick themselves and their teammates off the ground for another go around. 

If you are interested in giving roller derby a spin, Terminal City can be found at the following website, and the Vancouver Murder can be found on Facebook.