The Radical World of Roller Derby

Roller derby is a sport like no other. Fast, furious and incredibly competitive, it comes as no surprise that roller derby has gained popularity over the years.

Sports promoter Leo A. Seltzer first invented the sport after reading an article in Literary Digest. The piece indicted that 93% of Americans had roller-skated at some point in their lives. Seltzer then developed a new marathon competition, modeling it after dance marathons and bike races.

The Sirens in action. Photo courtesy of Paul Thompson.

Seltzer’s first derby competition debuted successfully at the Chicago Coliseum on August 13th, 1935. Not long after, sportswriter Damon Runyon encouraged Seltzer to develop the derby into a competitive game. Runyon also suggested more contact between the players and more rules. Roller derby as we know it began to enter into the mainstream, through television coverage and a collection of sponsorships.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Natalie Campbell (or also known by her derby name, Drunky Brewster), has been playing flat-track roller derby in Ottawa for eight years. Campbell was initially approached in a bar about joining the first derby team for Ottawa’s league, the Rideau Valley Roller Girls. As someone who is typically up for anything, Campbell decided to give derby a try.

Since then, Campbell has been an active force behind the local league’s growth, and describes the RVRG as a precursor of modern flat-track roller derby. With the league, Campbell has watched the sport grow, change, and legitimize itself in the sporting world.

The Prime Sinisters in action.

There are three home teams in the RVRG: Slaughter Daughters, Riot Squad and Prime Sinisters. The teams play against one another for the annual RVRG home team championship and participate in tournaments designated for home teams each year.

Two all-star teams also make up the RVRG: Ottawa’s B-team, The Sirens, and the A-team, The Vixens. The Vixens are currently ranked 42nd in the world.

The Vixens represent the RVRG internationally and Campbell is their bench coach. This September, they competed in the Division 1 Championship Playoffs in Dallas, TX. The Vixens faced off against teams from all around the world, from Australia to Sweden to the US.

Empowerment is another huge part of roller derby. All body shapes and athletic capabilities are accepted and welcomed into the sport. 

“I think part of the appeal for women is that we see a wide range of body shapes on the athletes, even at the higher competitive levels. That’s not to say that fitness isn’t a huge part of it, but there’s not a ‘typical’ body shape to the athletes,” says Campbell. “In this sport, there are advantages to being tall or short, or to being large or small.”

In the end, it is the skating, footwork, agility and power behind hits that count the most.

One challenge for derby members is trying to maintain a work/life/derby balance. Members are required to participate in a minimum of two practices a week, which last about two to three hours. Approaching playoffs, members are required to practice up to four times a week. 

Along with practices, the team members are also responsible for the administration, promotion and running of the league. The sport’s camaraderie is a massive benefit.

“I’ve met some amazing women and men through playing roller derby. (These are) people I would have never met if it were not for this one quirky thing that we all enjoy.”

The Vixens

In order to introduce newbies and derby hopefuls to roller derby, the RVRG has organized a Fresh Meat program.

The program is a three to four month session that teaches skating basics and accepts about 20 to 30 men and women.

In order to graduate out of the Fresh Meat program, the skater needs to demonstrate a set of skills called the Minimum Skill Requirements. After graduation, the skater is accepted as a full league member and can join in on regular practices, start full-contact scrimmaging and can be recruited to a home team.

While it may seem very intimidating at first, at its core, the RVRG are still a community sports team.

“There was a mythology or hype behind roller derby for a long time about the girls being tough and brash. (However), there are a lot of shy and introverted players who find their place in the league.”

When asked for advice for the derby curious, Campbell’s advice is simple:

“Just do it. There’s really nothing to lose. Don’t give up if skating doesn’t come easy to you. Not everyone progresses at the same speed, and the league is made up of skaters of a huge variety of skill levels. There’s room for everyone.”

You can learn more about the Rideau Valley Roller Girls by visiting their website.