Trending the Roller Derby

By Steven Saurbier

Consider the unique features which define America’s identity: football, gun rights, the lack of roundabouts, and, perhaps most important of all, Roller Derby. The origins of Roller Derby hearken back to endurance races which were popular from the late 19th century through the 1930s. Events would often simulate cross-country races where skaters raced for up to 12 hours a day for weeks at a time, and it was not unusual for skaters to pass out from exhaustion, unable to finish.

At this point, the sport was essentially speed skating on dry land. The critical moment in the evolution of Roller Derby came in 1939, when a series of substantial collisions occurred, much to the crowd’s delight. Competitive athletes were quick to realize that although they might not be able to skate better, they could at least fight better. Employing traditional American resourcefulness, skaters began to trip, elbow or otherwise strike opponents attempting to lap them. Roller Derby as we know it was thus born.

Alas, the sport faced a steady decline in popularity throughout the 70s and 80s. Roller Derby lost its legitimacy as bouts became increasingly theatrical--more similar to professional wrestling than competitive sport. Simultaneously, oil crises struck both the fanbase and the athletes; teams could not afford to travel across the country to compete, and fans of the already marginalized sport could not afford to keep leagues afloat financially.

In the early 90’s, kinder fortunes befell Roller Derby enthusiasts. At the nexus of a burgeoning DIY ethic and a burgeoning punk aesthetic, the sport was suddenly in a prime position for resurgence. Social developments created a perfect storm, popularizing amateur sports with an anti-consumerist ethic.

Player and Hamilton College graduate Emily Gerston ’11 describes the sporting culture saying, “it’s about more than just being on a track and hitting people… it’s one of the only sports I can think of that’s women run and women-played.” In fact, the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) regulations state that all teams must be at least 51% owned by women. The principles of the sport have become a significant portion of its appeal.

Leagues began to form in earnest during the new millennium, with 50 in existence by 2005 and 135 by 2007. In 2007, Utica organized its own teams in the Central New York Roller Derby League, featuring the Utica Clubbers, the Blue Collar Betties, and the Rome Wreckers. Traditionally, clever team names were encouraged but not required. Ms. Gerston jumped right into the action one day her junior year.  “I was really bored one night, and I thought we should find out if there’s some roller derby around here.” She went to watch a bout, found some information on a training camp, and the rest is history. These “newbie camps” are open to anyone regardless of skill level, lasting 12-16 weeks and covering proper skating form, hitting and strategy.

As Americans, we must not forget the noble sport of Roller Derby. From the American Revolution to the untamed Wild West, Roller Derby carries on the American traditions of fierce competition and fierce desire for victory in a competitive environment. It is a sport that requires both striking wit and striking opponents, the necessity of brains and brawn makes Roller Derby a fundamental sport in the American psyche.