Roller Derby At A Crossroads: Bye-Bye Fish Nets, Hello ESPN

By Aylin Y. Woodward
The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Columnist Aylin Woodward points out, “Roller derby now stands at a crossroads, torn between going mainstream, with national media coverage and bids to become an Olympic sport, or remaining true to its punk rock roots and a do-it-yourself attitude coupled with devil-may-care whimsy.”


With one minute left on the clock, skater Krista Corwin places her front wheels just behind the starting line, core tight, legs coiled, arms ready to pump furiously. The roar of the crowd and the flash of the cameras fade away as Corwin waits for the final whistle in the bout between the Santa Cruz Derby Girls’ Boardwalk Bombshells and Bay Area Derby’s Berkeley Resistance.

The shrill tweet then echoes through the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium as she takes off like a gazelle, leading the Bombshells on a recent Saturday to their first victory of the 2017 season.

The Bombshells and the Resistance are just two of more than 1,250 amateur roller derby teams around the globe. But all the excitement about one of the fastest-growing sports in the world masks the fact that roller derby now stands at a crossroads, torn between going mainstream, with national media coverage and bids to become an Olympic sport, or remaining true to its punk rock roots and a do-it-yourself attitude coupled with devil-may-care whimsy.

Skaters continue to argue over whether they should wear wild outfits or uniform jerseys, and whether they should use their legal names, or punny ones like Shamrock N. Roller or Sharon D. Payne.

“I want roller derby to be both: to keep that punk rock edge, as well as become a polished, well-recognized endeavor for elite athletes,” said 33-year-old Sophia Booth Magnone, who teaches literature at UC Santa Cruz by day and morphs into “Patti Smithereens” by night.

In recent years, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association has led the charge in professionalizing roller derby. As the international governing body of the sport, the association oversees game play in 21 countries and the annual championships.

Derby leagues aren’t required to be part of the association, but membership grants official competitive status and comparative rankings to local teams.

Margot “Em Dash” Atwell, 33, who just finished her ninth year with the No. 1 ranked Gotham Girls Roller Derby team in New York, said the fact that last year’s championships were aired on ESPN3 indicates just how far the sport has come in its efforts to be taken seriously, and just how much the game has changed in the last decade.

“I think when I first found this sport, a lot of the coverage of it was ‘Oh wow! Weird women do a weird thing, in fish nets!'” Atwell said with a laugh.

When most Americans think about roller derby, they probably conjure up an image of tough-looking women hitting each other on roller skates a la Drew Barrymore’s 2009 film “Whip It.” But the sport has a rich history and is far more complicated than just skating in a circle.

Its origins date back to banked-track roller skating marathons of the 1930s and the contact version of the sport that became popular in the 1940s. But derby quickly became more sports entertainment than athletic competition, with scripted bouts, costumes, theatrics and predetermined winners.

That all changed in the early 2000s with roller derby’s revival in Austin, Texas. Modern derby, now typically played on a flat track instead of a banked one, has extensive rules dominated by all-female amateur teams, in addition to a growing number of male and junior teams.

Today’s derby is full-contact, an element not present in sports like women’s hockey or lacrosse, dispelling any lingering notions of women not being able to take a hit and just keep going.

“There are hundreds of sports out there vying for people’s attention,” said Australian sports sociologist Adele Pavlidis. “But roller derby exposes people to the reality that women can be mothers, they can be librarians, they can be engineers, and then they can get on the roller derby track and be tough and strong.”

As Stacy “Mom Jeans” Gleason, 42, a mother of three and skater with the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, put it: “I want to be a role model for my kids. I want to show them that they can be strong and athletic no matter their gender or age. … Derby does that.”

Her league is ranked 23rd in the world, its junior team fifth. San Francisco’s Bay Area Derby, which practices in Oakland, is ranked 20th. Silicon Valley and Monterey also boast thriving teams.

The high level of play doesn’t come without hard work and a serious time commitment. “The women that I skate with are leaving their families and partners to come to practice three or four nights a week after 8-, 10- and 12-hour days,” said Kensington resident Katie Reyes-Salcedo, 31, known as Bay Area Derby’s “Murderyn Monroe.”

The teams also make time to get deeply involved in their local communities: Most have mandatory community service and volunteer hour requirements, actively partnering with nonprofit organizations.

The Santa Cruz team supports a different nonprofit every year. Last year, it raised money for Haven of Hope residential treatment homes for young women. The Silicon Valley Roller Girls partner with Habitat for Humanity and the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Derby leagues, which are nonprofits themselves, must work to stay in the black from year to year. The sources of income include skater dues, donations, sponsorships and ticket sales. “Being skater owned and operated, we run everything ourselves like a business,” said Bay Area Derby’s Veronica “Sterling Archer” De La Rosa, 36, who lives in Berkeley.

“We’re required to carry a league job to keep us viable in addition to committing our time to skating and improving our skills on the track,” De La Rosa said.

The wild outfits and fish nets have been almost entirely phased out from the highest levels of play. And most skaters seem willing to sacrifice parts of derby culture to reap the rewards of a growing appreciation of their athletic prowess.

“We throw the phrases ‘taken seriously’ and ‘legitimate sport’ around a lot, as if it’s an either-or dichotomy: Either we can express ourselves and honor our tradition of counterculture, or our sport can be taken seriously,” said Corwin, 29, a freelance writer when she’s not skating as “Skirt Vonna-gut” with the Santa Cruz Derby Girls. “But I’m of the camp that says there’s no reason why we can’t have both.”

Ultimately, operating at a more professional level _ with national television coverage, more sponsors, more money being poured into tournaments, may ensure the longevity and financial stability of a sport that’s often struggled to make ends meet at a local and national level.

“It is truly a sisterhood. It’s the only sport I know of where every single body type is actually valued,” said Silicon Valley skater Tricia “Doc U Mental” Creason-Valencia, who lives in San Jose. “There’s not a perfect body type for derby. If you’re a bigger woman that’s useful. If you’re tall that’s useful. If you’re short and fast, that’s useful.”

Added Santa Cruz’s Magnone: “I’m proud to be part of a community that explicitly focuses on people who are often excluded from other athletic, social and political spaces, women, queer, transgender and gender-nonconforming folks, and more.

“I can unequivocally say that derby has changed me for the better,” she said. “It’s made me more confident about taking up space in the world _ and about my body and what it’s capable of.”

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