Roller Derby Speeds onto the Scene

by ASHLEY CHOATE
Since 2001, the presence of Roller Derby has expanded from a handful of ambitious leagues in the Midwest to thousands of leagues across the United States, South America, Europe, Australia and Asia. To say that the game exploded onto the sports scene would not be an exaggeration. Now, 12 years later, Roller Derby leagues exist in every major city and hundreds of tiny ones.
So what, you may ask yourself, is so damn special about it? The answer any player would give you: everything.
The Roller Derby that most 40-somethings seem to remember from the 1960s was a brutal speed race that amounted to fist-fighting on roller skates. Certainly, there is some truth to that memory, according to Richard Day, a former competitive freestyle skater who helped coach some of the original men and women of Roller Derby. “They’d put on a hell of a show,” says Day, who then described some of the elaborate personalities a spectator might see on the banked-track stage. He compared early Roller Derby to modern-day wrestling, with its elaborate showmanship and side-plots. “There were the good girls,” says Day, “the pretty girls everyone loved–the girls next door. And then there’d be the horrific, mean girl who was scarred and beat the shit out of everyone.”
Ultimately, Day emphasized, it was a show, and the men and women during that age of Derby played for money. The better the show, the better the payout. The more bloody noses, elbowed craniums and busted lips, the better.
Today’s Roller Derby is completely different. Different track, different rules, different players. Major change number one: the flat surfaces instead of the angled, banked-track surface. Have access to a large, flat surface? Got about 16 girls or guys who love to skate? If you said “Yes” to both questions, you can start your very own league. While roller rink floors are the ideal surfaces for most leagues, some play in parking lots, fair grounds or warehouses. Such changes have decreased costs and eased the startup process for new leagues, allowing the sport to spread rapidly.
Major change number two: organizing and standardizing the game. In 2004, the United Leagues Coalition (ULC) sprung into existence. After a meeting of 20 young leagues in 2005, the organization’s name was changed to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), lovingly known as WIF-DA in derby circles. With the WFTDA as a cohesive force, modern Roller Derby began to move along different lines, away from the gratuitous violence that its predecessor, Great-Grandma Roller Derby, embraced.
Today, punching, elbowing, and face-smashing are strictly forbidden and sideline dramas are a thing of the past. That being said, much butt-kicking does still occur. The game is simply regulated. Safe blocking zones are established from the shoulder to the top of the elbow and from the hip to the top of the knee. Anything lower or higher results in a penalty, as well as any back-blocking (hitting someone in the back), which has been known to cause severe injuries. Full pads (knee, elbow, wrist, helmet, mouth-guard) must be worn at all times and gear is checked by sanctioned referees before every game.
History and game play aside, Roller Derby is especially unique because of major change number three: the players. Whereas early Roller Derby involved almost exclusively professional skaters who based their livelihood on the showmanship of the game, today’s game consists of skaters from ages 6 and up, from “fresh meat” (no experience) to professional skill levels. More than that, however, Roller Derby is primarily an adult, female-dominated sport. Of the the men and women who play Roller Derby, the average age is 31-years-old, with 28% of players above the age of 35. Additionally, a large majority of the players (98%) are female, according to a demographic study conducted by the WFTDA in 2010.
Almost no other sport, with the exception of maybe golf, can boast this unique combination of player demographics. And let’s face it: Roller Derby is a lot more action-packed than your average golf game. One male skater for the Magic City Misfits (an all-male league from the Mandarin Skate Station on Kori Rd.), Michael Dyer, described the game this way: “It’s like football and nascar at the same time.”
Another skater, Lydia Cuevas, President of the Tri-County Rolling Militia (a league centered at the Orange Park Skate Station on Blanding Blvd.) also compared it to Nascar, except “on 8 wheels gripping the corner as you overcome centripetal force and push out onto the straight away.”
Stephanie Ghentz of the Jacksonville RollerGirls (also from Mandarin Skate Station), described it as “the most intricate and athletic sport that you will ever encounter.”
Yes, folks. Jacksonville, alone, has three different leagues operating within the same general area. Each, however, has its own unique identity and role within the local dynamics of the sport. The Magic City Misfits cater to the male skating crowd and are currently ranked 5th within the nation among the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) sanctioned leagues. The Jacksonville RollerGirls (JRG), as members of the WFTDA, represent the highest level of female competition in the area. The league is made up of an All-Star Team known as the New Jax City Rollers, a B-Team known as the River City Rat Pack, and even a junior derby team known as the Duval Roller Dolls featuring skaters from ages 8 to 17. The Tri-County Rolling Militia (TCRM) focuses more on recreational gameplay, emphasizing a love of the game without some of the pressure found at the highest levels of competition. The league embraces co-ed skating and junior skating and welcomes players from age 11 up. Every Wednesday at 8 pm at Skate Station, 230 Blanding Blvd, is a recruitment night. Just ask to speak to a TCRM Roller Girl.
Tri-County Rolling Militia will be opening their season shortly with a game against Orlando Derby Revolution on March 3rd at 5:30 pm at the Orange Park Skate Station. Tickets will $12 at the door. The next TCRM bout will be April 21st against Space Coast at the Blading Skate Station. For more information visit www.tcrmrollerderby.com.
JRG recently set up a tournament in Lake City and is keeping up the momentum in collaboration with the Magic City Misfits. On April 20th at the UNF Arena the all-star New Jax City Rollers face the Alamo City Roller Girls, and the Magic City Misfits play the Carolina Wrecking Balls. Doors open at 5:30, and the games begin at 6 pm. Tickets are $11 in advance. Details and tickets can be found at www.jacksonvillerollergirls.com.

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