As someone who played volleyball through most of her teens, I’m no stranger to the notion that a sport can have a major influence on someone’s attitude or on their approach to life. I would go as far as to say that playing a sport consistently will definitely affect your whole life in a way that goes beyond your physical well-being and fitness. That being said, the first time I tried Roller Derby I immediately knew things were going to be different.
There was something in the way those girls moved and talked and acted that just drew me in. The way they kept sliding fluidly back and forth, or jumping around with impressive precision on their skates, all while still maintaining a normal conversation, trusting that those eight tiny wheels between their feet and the floor would roll exactly as they wanted them to. They had the kind of unapologetic confidence that inspires admiration, but also the excited smile of someone who’s about to make you a part of their secret. They looked confident and bold, and also friendly and loving. They looked badass.
I like to describe my first encounter with Roller Derby as a quasi-blind date: a friend of a friend suggested I tried it (with questionable arguments to convince me, I might add), and I was equally bored and curious enough to agree to it. I’m not sure what that says about me as a human (and as a date), but that was by far the best blind date I’ve ever been on. By the end of the first open practice I went to, AKA “Fresh Meat Day,” I simply wanted more of everything I had just seen and tried out—more exercises I only kind of knew how to do, not having skated once in the past five years, more people willing to help me out in any way they were able to, more strangers smiling encouragingly at me and telling me that they were just like that when they started, too, and most of all, more falling flat on my butt, only to then take a second to catch my breath and get back up again.
Because one of the things that make Roller Derby so special is exactly this—you fall, you get up again, it’s no big deal. And you do fall a lot, and not just out of incompetence: Roller Derby is a contact sport, which is really a euphemism to say that the team you’re going to face is going to try to take you down, probably violently, so you’d better make sure you put up a worthy fight. This is something volleyball had never taught me; sure, I was well versed in team dynamics and working together toward one goal, but somehow the significance of the physical act of literally picking myself up had eluded my teenage brain, and it now presented itself as a revelation—you can make it if you want to, and it’s okay to take a little time.
Something else that makes RD great are the people who stand around you and welcome you back on your own two skate-wearing feet. Yes, most if not all teams in, again, most if not all sports can boast camaraderie and solidarity, but allow me to be an obnoxious Derby girl and say that there ain’t no team like a Roller Derby team.
RD teams and leagues redefine the idea of tight-knit group: They’re first and foremost a community where each and every person is welcomed, valued, and given a chance to prove their worth—on or off their skates. My Derby team locker room (Bloody Wheels) might be the most accepting and judgment-free place I’ve ever been in, and (I’m a little ashamed to admit this), with the number of women involved, I was more than a little surprised at first. But soon that simply became further proof that Roller Derby was not the average sport/environment I had been exposed to up until that point, and I have yet to be proven wrong.
A great deal of people involved in Roller Derby also happen to identify as on the LGBTQIA spectrum (with even a dedicated international community within the Derby universe, the Vagine Regime), and this certainly helps create a general feeling of inclusiveness and solidarity. What’s more, many skaters and leagues actively campaign for awareness on issues such as domestic violence, bullying, and teen suicide, with the most recent example being the #DoItFor57 campaign, launched last spring following the suicide of trans teen Sam Taub, a skater with the Darlings of Destruction Junior Derby League, from Roseville, Michigan.
But while this Island of Misfit Toys feeling permeates the whole Derby community, that does not mean that there is no competition whatsoever—in the end it’s still a game, and we’re all in it to win it. Still, there’s something undeniably unique about the post-game (AKA bout) atmosphere that makes everything look more like a big reunion of long-lost friends, and less like a regular sports match. Maybe it comes with being in a relatively small environment, where everybody knows everyone and we all share the same values and the same passions (specifically, knocking people down in a legitimised way). Or maybe the endorphins released after bouncing up and down the track for an hour contribute to the skaters’ mood. Both ways, there’s always a pretty distinct feeling in the air, something that qualifies as first of all, being happy to be there—which sadly doesn’t always apply to sport events. After all, knocking your adversary down is quite the cathartic way to work out unresolved tension; and after an hour spent doing just that, you kind of want to take a break and have a laugh with them, too.
Roller Derby is a lot more than a sport, and a lot more than a bunch of tattooed girls in fishnets and roller skates, with crazy hair and makeup. That might be why you hear about it, but I guarantee that if you try it, you’ll stay for all the other right reasons—the adrenaline, the endorphins, the pushing-you-just-a-little-bit-further, and most of all the mouth guard smiles of your teammates, and their hands stretched out to help you pick yourself up.
Let Roller Derby change your life! Become involved with your local derby league—or you can follow from afar through the WFTDA, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, or the MRDA, the Men’s Roller Derby Association.