There’s something about roller derby…

Aoife is talking roller derby.

I play roller derby. Wait- let me say that properly: I skate motherfuckin’ ROLLER DERBY, beaaaatches. That’s more like it. Y’see, roller derby isn’t something I can talk about neutrally. This is a game where “derby saved my (metaphorical) soul” has gone from a common statement to a boring-ass cliché. Practically everyone I know who plays this game says it’s changed her life. It’s helped her find her confidence and her grit. It’s shown her how to love the body she has and appreciate it for what it can do, not how conventionally attractive it is. It’s given her a community, friends and role models. It’s taught her how to (literally) get beaten down and (literally) get back up again. In this game I’ve gotten bruises and sprains. I’ve seen people break bones more times than I care to remember. Far more important than that, though? They get those bones healed and put their skates back on. I see us getting knocked over and getting up again and knocked down again until our muscles will barely obey us when we stand again, and I see us doing it again and again until finally, somehow, we break through.

I have this fond memory of roller derby back in the 1960s and 1970s. I’d visit my great grandmother, who was very old and frail and had this almost incomprehensible Minnesota/Scandinavian accent, and roller derby was her thing. She couldn’t do it — she could barely hobble, and was mostly confined to her chair, crocheting away, but she was fanatical about watching roller derby. She clearly saw it as this remarkably empowering activity…women aggressively competing in sports. I think I saw a lot of hours of competition just sitting with her. That’s still how I remember her: a little old lady, eyes sparkling and chuckling, and occasionally saying “goot vun!” at a solid check.


  1. Pieter B, FCD says

    Of course, back the day, it was scripted, not like today’s game. I heard a disclaimer spoken by an announcer once that was so perfectly worded, I have never forgotten it. Again, this applies to the televised roller derby of the ’60s and ’70s, not the real roller derby of today. “Roller Derby is not a sport, it is A Dramatic Athletic Enactment.”

    I’ll bet if you’d heard that you’d never forget it either.

  2. Larry says

    That takes me back a few decades. I remember watching the Bay Bombers on Saturday afternoons on some crappy UHF station out of Fresno. Joanie Weston was a force of nature on the that track. She simply knocked the ever-loving shit out of the lesser mortals on the other teams. Even got to see her live when the Bombers played a one-night stand in my Central Valley town. People who said it was faked never saw those skaters careen over the rails at full speed.

  3. azhael says

    Not an hour ago i was crocheting and occasionally saying “good one” at the tv-series i was watching. Your grandmother sounds fantastic, but i think i have to take a deep look at my life….

  4. rq says

    I don’t [do/follow] roller derby, but eventually I’ll learn to crochet and then I’ll watch my favourite extreme sports and cackle at the TV, too.

  5. PaulBC says

    Pierce R. Butler #4

    Whoa, that’s obscure, even for Phil Ochs references, and it is what popped into my head when I started reading PZ’s post, but I wasn’t gonna say.

    True story: before I looked up what the song meant, I assumed it was about an actual bomber (with some kind of anti-war message that I didn’t grasp). Ochs holds the record for writing songs (two, count ’em) about sunken nuclear submarines, so it kind of fit. I did read later that he wrote it for a movie of the same name, but it was rejected.

    I don’t know much about roller derby. I’m a big fan of the empowerment messages of our local girls softball league (“Throw like a girl!”). I guess it’s not quite as aggressive, but it does seem good for confidence.

  6. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Sadly, the sport isn’t very popular in Europe. I had no idea about roller derby until I watched Whip it!.

  7. Aoife says

    Beatrice #10

    You’d be surprised! The first derby team in Ireland only got started in 2009, and we’ve got about 10 leagues/teams just in this teensy little island at this stage. Derby teams have been popping up all over the continent in the past few years! And as of this year, London Brawling are currently ranked #3 in the world. You mightn’t know it from outside, but the European derby community’s growing ‘n’ thriving right now :)

  8. says

    I remember seeing roller derby in the fifties and sixties—but only at my grandmother’s next door. We never watched it at home ourselves, but it was often on my grandmother’s screen. When her sister came to this country from the Azores in the seventies, it then became Big Time Wrestling, which my great-aunt dearly loved. (Was roller derby gone then? I have no recollection.) My great-aunt took wrestling completely seriously, marveling that the performers did not kill themselves when they “jammed” elbows into each other’s necks and jumped off the ropes onto opponents. It was real! It was on TV!

    Funny to think about that after all these years.

  9. tiredofusernamerules says

    A few years ago we took in a season of local flat-track roller derby. It’s tough. Those women could skate and both give and take a lot of punishment. Quite exciting.

  10. Menyambal says

    I seem to recall some sort of Roller Derby revival back around 1980 or so. It was fun to watch.

  11. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says


    That’s great! I’ll google a bit, maybe there’s a team even in my little part of Europe.

  12. twas brillig (stevem) says

    All I remember or Roller Derby was the SciFi extrapolation: RollerBall

  13. Cris Waller says

    Right on. I am not into regular sports at all, but I love roller derby- the local Portland team is the Rose City Rollers-

    It’s uplifting to see strong, intelligent women competing at something they love. Plus, the “stage names” are a hoot (Yoga Nabi Sari, Nacho Lucky Day, Coperna Cuss…)

  14. robro says

    When my grandparents in SW Georgia finally let a TV in their house…early 60s…so granddaddy could watch baseball, grandmother found two things to watch: regional professional wrestling and roller derby. Quite a hoot to see an 80 year old country girl get excited over something like that. And don’t tell her it isn’t for real! Shazam!

  15. says

    Pretty popular here in the bay area, and the Richmond team plays a few blocks from me.
    Cool thing is, it’s affordable.
    You can get season tickets for less than the price of one really-bad-seat ticket to one of those other games.

  16. says

    Saw the LA Thunderbirds just before they went out of business in the early 80s at the old Olympic Auditorium, built for the 1932 Olympics boxing and wrestling. Very bizarre evening. As a good friend of mine noted, “This place looks like they steam clean the floor every 20 years whether it needs it or not.” Midget tag team wrestling posters on the walls, and an announcer that spent most of his time castigating the other team’s coach and selling the big match race next week in San Bernardino!

  17. ironflange says

    Your comment brings back memories of my Ukrainian grandmother, also from the 60s and 70s. She was about 4′ 10″ tall, and nearly as wide, and was a hockey fanatic. Not for the game, she didn’t give a damn for that, but for the fights. She always watched Hockey Night in Canada hoping for a good dust-up, and back then she was seldom disappointed. Bench-clearing brawls were the best, she would hop up and down during a “goot vun.”

  18. Derek Vandivere says

    So my wife is the captain of the Amsterdam Derby Dames and skates for The Netherlands. Our ten year old is visiting during her summer holiday and got to practice with Amsterdam last night. She got home beaming about how hard she worked, all the techniques she learned, and how even when she fell and her butt really hurt, she got right back up and skated. Apparently, she was also really good at coaching and coming up with new exercises, too.

    The best bit, though, was her face when we told her how proud we were of how hard she worked. Her mom had better gush over the videos when she gets home to Switzerland!

  19. says

    I see us getting knocked over and getting up again

    I have to laugh when I see professional athletes bump their foot and have to be carried off, but a roller girl will get knocked across the rink then jump right back into the fray.

    Since everyone else is mentioning their local league, shout out to Cleveland’s Burning River Roller Girls.