BY: LAURA ROJAS
Roller derbying has been around since about the 1930s, although not in the same modern, empowering context. In the early 2000s, a women’s derby team started up in Austin, Texas called the Texas Rollergirls. Now, according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) website, there were about 450 derby leagues worldwide by 2010 – and the number keeps growing.
In a sport where tough, athletic girls rollerblade aggressively around rinks with the intent of lapping as many skaters on the opposing team as possible, the words feminism and empowerment seem to stick out nicely.
I spoke with Toronto derbyer Caitlin Watson, a former member of the Toronto Roller Derby’s WFTDA charter CN Power and 2014 Team Canada member and Melanie Martins, a newbie in the Kingston Derby Scene, but expert aggressive skater currently completing her Fresh Meat tryouts. They told me all about their experiences, their inspirations, and the way being derby girls makes them feel like fresh-faced, feminist badasses.
The Gore-Gore Rollergirls
How did you first get involved with the derby scene?
Caitlin: I ended up going to the very first, new-school derby bout in Canada, which was in Hamilton in 2006 or 2005. It was called Mothers Day Massacre. I purposely hung around the after party to try and find out who was from Toronto and how I could get on their team. It was harder than I thought, but miraculously I found the Gore-Gore Rollergirls, and that’s where I ended up skating for a long time. We were a perfect match.
What have you found to be the most empowering part?
Caitlin: For me it was when I started coaching the Gores and CN Power. It really opened my eyes to the fact that I was, in fact, a good leader with a really positive vibe who was able to motivate people. I’ve become a much more confident person in day-to-day life as a result.
Can you give a brief run-through of a typical day with your team?
Caitlin: Well it really depends on what team. It gets more intense from Gores to CN Power to Team Canada. Typically in Toronto, we have 3-hour practices – we usually show up at the bunker and start on some off-skates workouts. This includes cardio warm-ups, plyometrics and general fun things we can do as a group to increase our strength and teamwork. Then we get into skating – usually drills first, depending on what we’re working on that month. We usually do drills that incorporate strategy as well as specific skills that we feel we need to improve on as a team. Then we scrimmage, sometimes with different situations in mind or playing out different game scenarios.
What’s your training itinerary like?
Caitlin: It depends what time in the season it is. Generally, all WFTDA competitive teams aim to peak in September to November (playoff season!). Around this time, we’ll probably include two three-hour on-skates practices per week and a scrimmage if we’re lucky. I also started to focus a lot on my off skates fitness, so I go to the gym at least 2 or 3 times a week when I’m skating heavily. The Gores and CNP have also worked with nutritionists in the past to help us maximize our athletic potential, with a focus on traveling and eating like athletes. Its pretty hard to eat well on the road in America.
What’s a common misconception about derby girls?
Caitlin: That we’re all something else by day, or that derby is an alter ego. I’m tired of that angle of the ‘derby girl’ being covered. I’m badass in the day at my job and at night on the track. I’m like this all the time. I don’t go to derby to escape my horrible ‘real’ life.
The Gore-Gore Rollergirls battle the Smoke City Betties for top spot
What got you interested in aggressive skating and, eventually, joining derby?
Melanie: I bought my first pair of roller skates last May for $9.99 at Value Village. My girlfriend at the time had dumped me and I was thrift shopping with my sister in an attempt to cheer myself up. I saw those beat up men’s ex-roller rink rentals and I thought it was some sort of sign. Being a queer feminist, I had been exposed to the roller derby scene in a small sense and I figured at the very least roller skating would be a fun pastime and would maybe help me get over my heart ache. I persuaded one of my gal pals to buy a pair of skates online, and she and a couple of other chicks and I would hit up tennis courts after work. We sort of formed this little girl gang and over the summer we taught ourselves to roller skate.
One of the tennis courts we skated at was attached to a little skate park. I had seen some videos of EstroJen (Michelle Steilen), founder of Moxi roller skates; street/park skating and I thought she was the tits. I had no concept of roller-skating outside of a roller rink or derby and this sort of gnarly, badass, tough chick street skating really sparked something in me. At this time Lady Trample’s “Chicks in Bowls” movement was really starting to take off, so I had a wonderful Internet community to inspire and encourage me. My girlfriends weren’t into aggressive park and street skating so I skated solo and taught myself by watching YouTube videos and matching skateboarders at the park.
After a very bruise and blood filled summer, I saved my pennies, bought my first pair of big girl skates and was ready to check out Kingston’s derby scene. Kingston Derby Girls’ Fresh Meat didn’t start for another few months so I headed to Kingston’s recreational league (Rec’n Rollers) who were running an off-season one weekly practice. I looked around and I didn’t know one single person. I laced up my Moxis with trembling fingers and did a few laps. My nerves slowly transitioned into excitement as the girls started shouting and cheering for me. One of the girls yelled “Holy shit! Where did she come from?” and another asked me where I’d been hiding. It’s cheesy as hell but I’ll never forget how good those girls made me feel.
What’s the most empowering part of the derby scene?
Melanie: Where do I begin? I’m a queer feminist and I cannot express how at home the derby scene makes me feel. The body positivity piece that derby encompasses is like no other sport: Tall, short, skinny, fat … Whatever you are or are not – all bodies are good bodies in roller derby.
Many of the women I play with are in the 30s and 40s and have children. It actually makes me emotional to see these women rediscover, accept and love their bodies for the strong, powerful, capable entities they are, especially after years of feeling shame and hate toward their own bodies. I think it’s no coincidence that a sport so closely tied to female empowerment encourages women to take up space, not only on the track but on the side lines in committee meetings and fund raisers … and that’s something I can really get behind.
Another invaluable feature of roller derby is the sisterhood/girl power piece. Many women, myself included, are trained to see other women as threats and are plagued with the notion that we need to be in competition with each other. We are taught to be intimidated by other women’s strengths and fed the belief that another woman’s strengths magnify your own weaknesses. Despite the sport being competitive, derby is an environment that smacks down girl-on-girl hate. Women’s abilities and strengths are celebrated in roller derby.
Would you recommend more girls get involved in the derby scene? What has it done for you?
Melanie: This is turbo cliché but eff it, I’m going to say it. There’s a part in the movie Whip It where Ellen Page, after seeing her first derby game, tells the captain of the Hurl Scouts, Maggie Mayhem, that her and her team are her new heroes. Maggie (Kristen Wiig) looks at Page and replies, “Well, put on some skates. Be your own hero.” That notion of “being your own hero” rings so true in the derbyverse. Empowerment comes from within yourself. There is just something about putting on a pair of roller skates that brings out the potent, strong, unstoppable female energy within you. To this day I just want to hand every girl I know a pair of roller skates and tell her she’s the toughest, strongest, most badass chick in town. So yes, I would enthusiastically encourage women to get involved in the derby scene.
What’s a common misconception about derby girls?
Melanie: I think a common misconception about derby and derby girls is that derby “isn’t a sport” or that “derby girls aren’t athletes.” I hate to say it but I generally hear that comment from men. There’s a misconception that roller-skating isn’t that hard to pick up and that a lot of girls are just there to wear sassy outfits and pick out sexy nicknames. Although the sassy outfits and sexy nicknames are something I thoroughly enjoy about the game, you’re kidding yourself if you think skating and playing derby isn’t an athletic pursuit.