This Sunday, November 8, the final day of Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association championships will air for the first time on ESPN3, as part of a new exclusive deal with the channel, finally bringing the league's games from the pay-per-view realm into the mainstream. The Women's Flat Track Roller Derby Association came into existence over 10 years ago, and currently has 329 Full Member Leagues and 97 Apprentice Leagues throughout the world, encompassing thousands of skaters and fans — but this is the first time ever that flat track roller derby games will be shown live on a national network (the first two days of the championship will air today and tomorrow as pay-per-view on WFTDA.tv). And you need to be watching.
At its most basic level, women’s flat track roller derby is a full contact racing game, played on quad roller skates. Two teams send out five skaters at a time onto a flat racing track, to compete in “jams” lasting up to two minutes. One skater from each team, called the "jammer," is designated to score, racking up points by passing members of the opposing team. The remaining four skaters, called "blockers," run offense and defense simultaneously, protecting their jammer while trying to block the opposing team's jammer, delivering non-stop action that can swing from something reminiscent of the grinding scrum start of a rugby game, to explosive offensive hits that send skaters flying off the track. The hair-pulling and tripping of 1970s derby is gone, replaced with hip checks, defensive walls, and a laundry list of possible penalties.
Two Division 1 Denver teams, the Denver Roller Derby Mile High Club and Rocky Mountain Rollergirls Fight Club, face off.
But, as anyone who’s laced up their skates and swallowed the awkwardness of a mouthguard can tell you, roller derby fans aren't just in it because they enjoy a spectator sport with pun-tastic names (think Puss 'n Glutes, Jackie Daniels, Demanda Riot, and Brix Hithouse), and crushing hits. Though in the 1970s, roller derby was a piece of pulp Americana that, according to the WFTDA website, "emphasized theatrics more than sport," roller derby today is a female-owned and operated feminist sports movement.
When the roller derby renaissance took root in hipster cities like Austin and Seattle in the early 2000s, skaters made their own rules and set about rebuilding roller derby into a sport that would become a worldwide phenomenon. Since 2001, derby has provided a sanctuary for women that don’t always fit in anywhere else. Strong women, queer women, tattooed women, athletic women, curvy women, aggressive women. WFTDA-sanctioned teams now exist all over the world, from Egypt and Sweden to Utah and New York. These leagues are incubators for badass female athletes, promoting athleticism and body positivity, and pushing the conversation on important issues like trans* inclusive sports and what it means to be a strong woman.
Despite the promise of bruises and the threat of broken bones, I credit my own experience participating in derby with teaching me to be kinder to my body. The hits are real, and they can be brutal. But in a world that constantly berates women to be smaller and thinner, derby players are encouraged to be the strongest, toughest versions of themselves, at any size. Derby loves a big ass. It also loves a tall, leggy body, and it doesn’t care at all if you’re flat chested or have double Ds or are covered in tattoos. If you watch even one championship game this weekend, you’ll see skaters from figure skating, soccer, track, and ice hockey backgrounds, with the bodies to match. Skaters are encouraged to embrace their natural shape, whether long and lean, short and thick, or tall and broad-shouldered. There are players who are over six feet tall and players who are barely five feet tall. Players who find their power in ropes of muscle and whip-thin players leaning on speed and agility. Players with curves and without, facing off as evenly matched, where neither body is considered better or worse.
Outside of derby, we women are often told to be softer, sweeter, gentler, quieter. To sand off our edges and choke back our opinions. But on the track, we are encouraged to take up space, to push our bodies to the limit, to listen to them closely and fuel them with as many calories as they need. More and more women are starting to chafe at being called "b*tchy" for engaging in the same behaviors that we are raised to view as "powerful" in men. Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, and Hillary Clinton have all delivered eloquent speeches and essays that point out this double standard. Derby throws up a big fat middle finger to inequality and says, “f*ck that.” The skaters sweating it out at championships this weekend may be best friends off the track, but when the whistle blows, they are competitive and strong, and they hit hard, without apology. And for the first time, it will be happening on national TV.
Rocky Mountain Rollergirls' pre-bout ritual.
Roller derby supports female empowerment of all flavors. Individually, WFTDA-sanctioned teams frequently stand up against bullying and domestic violence. A reputation as an LGBTQ-inclusive environment is built into roller derby’s DNA, and WFTDA continuously strives to be a community open to transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming participants. This weekend will be one of few chances to see trans* athletes competing for a national title. The 2015 Women’s World Cup made headlines for having 18 participants publicly out as lesbian or bisexual, and ESPN3’s airing of the WFTDA championship is another huge coup for gender and LGBTQ equality in sports.
The women I skate with joined roller derby for a variety of reasons. Several were coming out of breakups. A handful are moms, and needed to carve out time for themselves. Many were high school and college athletes, and wanted a sport with the same level of teamwork and physicality. Another friend said that, “for me, roller derby is all about acceptance. Self-acceptance and, through that, accepting everyone else as they are. Only once I came out to myself as queer was I able to work up the courage to join basic training.” Personally, I had only toyed with the idea of trying out for a team until someone dismissed me as too small and girly to play. Determined to prove them wrong, I geared up and found a strength and aggression I didn’t know I had.
Boulder County Bombers at the Colorado Cup, 2013.
One of the most important benefits of roller derby, one that keeps people skating despite injuries and losses and the financial cost, is one you won’t necessarily see as a spectator: Derby is a family. Derby inspires, and sometimes necessitates, a cult-like devotion from its skaters, but the benefits are worth it. The women I’ve met through roller derby are some of my closest friends. This is the most supportive, passionate, fun-loving community I’ve ever been a part of, and the derby love is what brings me back to the track for more.
A broader audience for roller derby could revolutionize not just the sport, but the way female athletes are seen and treated. This weekend is your chance to see dozens of real, strong, athletic, revolutionary women competing at the absolute top of their game, and support an athletic organization run by its members.
But, if that’s not enough to sell you, there are always the hits, the names, and the glitter. Watch the women's roller derby championships online here, and be a part of feminist sports history.
Images: Marko Niemela Photography; Joel Giltner/ Shutter Up (3)