Rolling into a new derby

Courtesy of TCRG Flikr

Courtesy of TCRG Flikr

By day, Kat Hillier is a legal assistant working towards her masters in counselling psychology. But by night —Wednesdays and Sundays to be exact — she is Nekro Nancy, a hard-hitting blocker for the Vicious Dishes of the Tri-City Roller Girls roller derby league.

“I think that we create a version of ourselves that we really like,” said Hillier of the derby alter ego. “You can’t bring your derby self to the office … it’s a really healthy way to channel any frustrations you have, I consider it therapy.”

Hillier’s first exposure to roller derby happened nearly a year ago when she came across an ad in the newspaper calling for “fresh meat” and thought it might be a good way to get some exercise. “I went to the try out and they had me put on quad skates and try that out,” she recalled. “I didn’t completely eat floor so we went from there.”

Roller derby is an entirely female contact sport that has been gradually gaining recognition since its resurgence in Texas in 2001. Scott Jones, media chair for the Roller Derby Association of Canada, referred to this as its first wave.

“It was girls who wanted something that they could call their own,” said Jones.  “There was no pre-conceptions, no ‘you can’t do this, you’re not good enough,’ no ‘you’re just doing what your boyfriend does,’ total blank slate for everybody.”

Now, in what Jones would call the second wave of derby, the sport has begun to develop focus and structure. However, derby is still in its early stages and maintains its grassroots nature. Any number of women, no matter their age or skill level, can form or join a league.

“Derby’s a little unique in the sense that it’s all skater run and not for profit,” said Carrie Livingstone, a blocker for Tri-City’s Venus Fly-Tramps and secretary for the league’s board of directors. “The board is a governing body but everything has to be voted on between the league.”

“Everybody is so different,” said Hillier. “You have house wives, you have religious people, you have country girls, you have all sorts of punks. There is no limit on what people could be into. It’s open, anyone could play.”

Tri-City is divided up into three home teams and one all-star team, the Tri-City Thunder, which is customary of leagues across Canada. However, there is a strong sense of community between the girls as a whole, not only in Kitchener’s league, but within and between those across the country.

“You get that many girls together, there’s bound to be drama,” said Hillier. “But it’s dealt with on the track and it’s left there. As soon as the game is done, we’re talking about ‘where’s the after party’ and ‘let’s go have a drink.’”

“You go from being competitive and fierce beside this one girl and then you’re out afterwards laughing and it’s great,” added Livingstone.

After attending a game three years ago, Livingstone thought she’d give derby a try and joined up with Tri-City. Since then, she has come to be known in the derby world as Ann Killbiter, for her short stature but aggressive edge.

“When I started three years ago, there were about four people starting with me and one of the refs kind of trained us in the corner, taught us the basics,” she recalled. “Prior to that people would kind of just trickle in. And now, because it is gaining in popularity, now we have boot camp.”

Tri-City’s boot camp, an extended try out for women wishing to be drafted for a team, runs simultaneously with their season which begins in the spring and ends in October. This intensive learning experience is still fresh in the mind of Hillier who was selected for the Vicious Dishes — one of Tri-City’s three home teams — just this past December and played her first league game last Friday at the season opener.

Hillier recalls an overwhelming rush of nerves and delight at the calling out of her derby name when Lightning Slim, their league announcer, first introduced her to the crowd. Stepping up to the starting line, Hillier turned to her team captain for reassurance; she felt like she might be sick.

“Once you start skating, you won’t even think about it,” was her response. And she didn’t.

“If I’m struggling with something, like at the first game if I was nervous or stumbling, they literally picked me up. They would not let me fall,” said Hillier. But even causing a fall, in the right circumstance, can be well received.

Courtesy of TCRG Flikr

Courtesy of TCRG Flikr

At one particular moment in her first game, Hillier remembers a fellow team-mate delivering a beautiful hit on the other team’s jammer, sending her soaring and splayed out on the track. Afterwards, the defeated stood up, smiled and rolled over to hug her worthy opponent.

Jammers are the players that are able to score. They wear a star on their helmet and receive points by passing players on the other team. These players are called blockers and they follow the pivot who sports a stripe on their helmet and leads the plays.

“Because the scoring mechanism is a person, each of the jammers can score at the same time so it can get very confusing,” said Jones. Roller derby in this way requires that players be offensive and defensive simultaneously which is very unique in comparison to most organized sports.

“It would be like playing hockey with two pucks,” said Jones. “If you were playing with a red puck and a blue puck and you had to score with your puck and block the other puck at the same time, that’s what it would be like.”

The challenge has had men taking an interest in this flourishing sport with co-ed scrimmages becoming increasingly common amongst leagues. Livingstone even recalled there being a male exhibition game at Montreal Roller Derby’s annual tournament Beast of the East, where the Dishes placed first last year.

Jones explained that with seven referees for each game, males have an opportunity to skate along and learn the rules. Their modern perspective, however, is far different from those who reffed derby bouts of the past.

Roller derby in the 20th century was largely a scripted means of entertainment described by Jones as essentially WWE on skates. But not all of those aspects are lost.

From players sporting fishnets and colourful accessories to showing off with fancy footwork after a nice play, “It’s not only a game,” said Hillier. “It’s also a show.”

This element of performance continues to give roller derby a distinctive appeal, but Jones guesses that it also attributed greatly to the sport’s fading out during the 1960s and ‘70s when civil rights movements had women revaluating that which put the female on display. Nowadays, there’s a much different attitude.

“There’s the clichés, like guys go to roller derby because they want to see girls in miniskirts and booty shorts and that kind of stuff. Of course, those things exist but it’s not the focus,” said Hillier. “Generally speaking, derby girls don’t go to make a big scene of it. They don’t want to be viewed as sex objects ideally; this is a sport.”

Roller derby is slowly building on its revised reputation as something to be taken seriously within the athletic community. Jones predicts there is a third wave coming that will speed the process where the daughters of the first and second wave will be able to build on a foundation in the sport that was not available for their mothers.

“These are going to be girls who have come up through derby,” said Jones. “We already now have the first trickling of juniors starting to come in … and in the next three to five years as the bulk of them come up, you’re going to see the competition level go up incredibly.”

This could mean both good and bad things for roller derby, which fosters deserving talent but also offers an outlet for those looking to express themselves or escape the pressures of everyday life. As a current student, Hillier can relate.

“Derby is my release,” she said. “Right now I’m working on a huge paper and I’m struggling with APA format; I want to pull out my hair. I can’t put semi-colons in the right place and comas are weird and blah, blah, blah. So, I love the fact that when I’m really stressed out, I just put my skates on and it’s gone.”

A more immediate advancement occurred last year when roller derby was selected as one of eight new sports to be considered for the 2020 Olympics at the 123rd International Olympic Committee session in South Africa.

“I find it interesting that a lot of people don’t know about derby; especially in cities where it’s really popular and it’s in almost every city everywhere. So it would definitely put it in the public spotlight for sure,” said Livingstone.

Roller derby as a serious sport is still a fairly recent development but this is not why Jones thinks it is absent from the public eye.

Courtesy of TCRG Flikr

Courtesy of TCRG Flikr

He feels that there is a serious lack of marketing. However, the kind of attention that a place in the Olympics might provide for roller derby could have negative effects as well.

“I actually know people who’ve been involved with Canada’s Olympic Program and some of the stories they’ve told me about the level of control they exert over sports, I’m not sure that the average roller derby girl understands how much change would be implemented,” said Jones.

But roller derby has already achieved an international status on a slightly smaller scale. Thirteen countries took part in the first roller derby world cup which was hosted by Toronto Roller Derby in 2011. The next one is scheduled to take place either late 2013 or early 2014.

“As far as the future of derby goes, it is wide open,” Jones concluded. “They are talking Olympics, we have another world cup coming up, there is a lot happening. My hope is that eventually these girls start getting paid.”