‘You Do What?!’ Skating has never been so physical

Sean Hale

Ashley Evert, Assistant L&A&E Editor

“You Do What?” is one incredibly unathletic girl’s journey to explore alternative sports.  Check back every week for my take on sports I once knew nothing about and now find fascinating. Our very own Wilkes-Barre Roller Radicals were kind enough to share some insight on derby life for this week.

Made famous by the 2009 film Whip It, roller derby has been increasing in popularity, but people still aren’t sure what’s beyond the fishnets and bloody noses. This alluring, high-impact sport has a lot more to offer than the average spectator might think.

The aesthetics of this sport are definitely what get people interested. With more spandex than roller rinks have seen since the 80’s, and punny yet brutal names like Chiquita WhamBamYa, Susan B. Agony and Sigourney Reaper, it’s no wonder people are so entranced by the theatric nature of roller derby.

The idea of roller derby has actually been around since the late 1800’s and was born out high endurance races. The sport known as roller derby since 1939 has changed constantly, but the basic concept remains the same today:  members lapped members of the other team around the track to score points.  Derby is not run through the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).

The collisions and crashes that the sport is known for today were not born with the sport. Fans realized the occasional catastrophes were an exciting element to the game and encouraged Leo Seltzer, the creator of Transcontinental Roller Derby, to exaggerate them.

Now, there are all kinds of penalties for foul-play, which, makes the game much more interesting to watch.  These girls are tough.  Ginger Brute, a blocker who has been playing for three seasons, said that the generalizations about weight and speed aren’t always true.

“I know some big girls that are super duper fast,” she explains.  On M.J., the scrawny jammer from last season,” Brute said that despite her size, “She hits like a tank; she will lay you out.”
Ginger herself is pretty tough. She once dislocated her shoulder and popped it back in all within the same fall.

Some girls are lucky enough to stay relatively injury-free.  Veronika Gettsburger, for example, has been skating for over 7 years and hasn’t had anything more major than a little back pain. “Burger,” as she’s called, plays any position she needs to.

There are three positions in roller derby: jammers, blockers and pivots.  Jammers are designated by a star cover on their helmets which means their goal is to skate past the opposing team’s blockers to score points. Pivots are blockers who have stripes on their helmets and can become jammers during the game.

Smart Cookie, a 3 year veteran and coach, explains the pivot as the strategic boss, whereas jammers are star players.   Last are the blockers, whose helmets are unmarked and whose job is pretty straight-forward: block the other team’s jammer.

Not everyone has to be a brick wall on skates or a slick, speedy jammer—there are other ways to get involved.  Courtney, or “Tragedy Anne,” started in 2004 with Coal City Rollers, got injured and came back as the secretary for the Roller Radicals.  She is still heavily involved with the sport while avoiding any more injuries.

Elysium, a jammer, commented on the aesthetics, “It’s not so much punk rock anymore where everybody wears fishnets, some girls still do– they rock out the old stuff, but anymore it’s like people are trying to take it seriously but still have fun.” Ginger echoed the thought, “The more you play derby the less you care what you look like. You can tell fresh meat by the way they look [all dolled up].”

Speaking of fresh meat, it’s surprising how many girls have never skated before playing roller derby.  Beginners learn how to stand, fall, hit “smart,” and take a hit.  They also learn “sticky skating,” which is skating without picking one’s feet up from the floor.

The Roller Radicals actually have a “duck pond” that they pull girls from when they are ready to play in a bout.  Tryouts are every other month, and then girls become green ducks for about a month until they master basic skills.  They then try out to be purple ducks, master those skills, then they are ready to get out and play.

The girls on the team are a melting pot.  There are multiple mothers, students, a lawyer, a beautician, customer service people and social workers, just to name a few—and they all get along great.  In fact, most of the Roller Radicals said that the camaraderie is their favorite part of derby.

Smart Cookie said, “Derby is my second family.  These ladies are all my best friends.”  Burger echoes her by saying, “I don’t get along with girls, but I found 30 girls I can get along with.  … I found 30 of my best friends.”

Louisville Slugger agreed, “The reason I joined was because I needed the exercise.  The friendships I got were like an added bonus that I really didn’t expect.  I wouldn’t typically hang out with most of these girls, part of that is my age and my family… they have different lifestyles but this brings us all together.”

Even Pi, a math major still in the “duck pond” said, “I’ve only been here for three weeks and they’re already treating me like I belong. All of the sudden I have twenty best friends.”

Elysium also shared that she believes that roller derby will be in the Olympics within the next three years.  Though she is incredibly excited at the prospect, she said she would not try out for the team.  “I would get murdered. I’ve skated with some of the girls on Team USA and I wish I could be up to that level,” she said, “They’re derby on steroids.”

If you’d like to experience this wildly entertaining alternative sport, head over to Skateway and catch the Roller Radicals in a bout.  Their home season begins in June and ends in August.