There are a lot of sports out there, with different qualities that some find appealing, and others don’t. To be honest, I hated them all. When I was in the kid soccer league, I was the one sitting out in the field ripping daisies out of the ground and wondering what the snack would be at half time.
To this day, I haven’t made (or prevented) a single goal in soccer. In High School I was part of the marching band. I went to every football game for four years… and I couldn’t tell you a single rule or strategy.
I managed to prevent one goal in a roller hockey game in high school, but was promptly intimidated into letting the Captain of the hockey team slip about 8 right past me. He decked a teammate right in front of me, and I was disinclined to be next. Sports? Sports are just not my thing.
Or so I thought.
One day, in college, a friend slammed into a seat in college, while simultaneously yanking up the leg of her jeans and revealing the gnarliest bruise and shouting “DUDE! I joined a ROLLER DERBY team!” Roller derby? Never heard of it before. But I did like to to skate… and that bruise looked pretty exciting.
It took me 8 years, 4 cities, and 2 near misses before I finally got a team of my own. Since then, I have learned a lot about sports, my own surprising athleticism, and above all, that roller derby is definitely for the nerds. Here’s 5 reasons why.
#1 – The Subculture
First, derby has a great subculture. Many teams are taking on more serious tones as the game struggles to be legitimized by the mainstream sports world, but even the most serious teams refuse to let go of some of the pageantry. Players are adorned in tattoos, stickered helmets, and a zydeco of brightly colored leggings.
Announcers may choose to wear more subdued attire, but the occasional viking helmet is to be expected. I’ve seen a male and female coach switch outfits at halftime- and that guy certainly knew how to work those heels! Not every team is going to feature glitter and tutus and torn up fishnets, and some reserve them for home-team games or scrimmages only…but you can usually tell a derby person by the stickers on their cars and their cultish love of cat-themed pants.
#2 – The Wordplay
Anyone even glancingly familiar with derby will tell you that the most satisfying part of derby is the kitschy names. From the beginning of the sport (in the 70s! Wow!) players have had great monikers like Luna Shovegood, Chewblocka, and my personal hero- Snot Rocket Science. A derby player recently got the chance to be a real-life hero and chase down a purse snatcher; unfortunately the thief heeded her threat, (“I can outrun you. Give it up.”) and robbed the world of the chance to see her live up to her namesake – Ima B.Choazz.
Player names aren’t the only great opportunity for word play. Some of the strategies get special treatment too. Coaches get to yell out plays with insane names like Eat The Baby, Soul Crush, and Bush Push. It can be confusing for the audience, but it’s also very confusing for opposing players too, which is kind of the point. Teams can be named pretty much however you like – the best team in the world, New York’s team, bears the amazing name of the Gotham Girls. My team, the Flood City Sirens, pays homage to our city’s penchant for devastating floods, as well as a nice tip of the hat to the Greek Sirens that lead men to their deaths. What can I say? We like the imagery.
#3 – The Gearheads
Oh man, the GEAR. So many fun things! Skates! Helmets! Wheels! A rainbow of colors, hardness; all manner of heights and sizes and widths. Equipment to fit every budget, every uniform, customization in nearly every way. Check on a derby group online and you’ll see a myriad of people asking “Which skate is best for X” or “Can anyone recommend good wheels for…” and for every time that question is asked, a dozen gearheads will come out to discuss the pros and cons, in elaborate and helpful detail.
Some gearheads are even lucky enough to own their own skateshops and write blogs about gear; and the companies who make that gear are usually generous enough to share freebies so that they’ll be reviewed. Hey Rollerbones… let’s talk, shall we?
#4 – The Stats
If you’re a math nerd, Derby can be a breeding ground for great stats. Personal and game stats are calculated for nearly every game played, including how many points scored, by whom, how long people spend in the penalty box, etc. It’s an insanely useful tool for players and teams to be able to see on paper how well they’re playing the game.
Team rankings are even more fascinating. There is a very interesting (and more than a little confounding) way that the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association ranks their teams. Wins are usually good things, but since the algorithm bases the ranking on points, a close win can have a similar effect to rankings as a huge loss. Websites like FlatTrackStats.com can even take the win history of two different teams and compare who will win and who will lose, even predicting how the point spread will come out. (We may only have a 6% chance of winning… but we have a 94% chance of having fun!)
#5 – A Culture of Strong Women
The strength of the women in this sport is the most important part of all this madness. While higher level players and higher level teams may have their own trainers, the number of players who started out that way is basically zero. Skaters start out as “fresh meat” and have to build their skills from scratch. Every skater has to face their own inner demons and insecurities, and come out stronger.
Every derby girl I met is a Buffy, a Princess Leia, a Hermione. Many of my teammates had never skated before, and watching them go through the journey of learning how to go backwards, of how to do lighting-fast stops and spins, it’s pretty amazing to watch.
When I started derby, I couldn’t even run two miles in 20 minutes. I had never done a burpee or a squat. Now I go to the gym and lift heavy things, some heavier than my teammates. I found a strength in myself I never knew I had, and I am thrilled when I have the opportunity to help others find that strength too. Out of all the cool and nerdy things about derby, the strength people can find in themselves is probably the most. Just like every superhero, every derby player has their own origination story.
There’s a lot of neat things about derby. Whether you like the glitz and glam, the ridiculous puns, or finding something inside that you didn’t know exist, there’s one thing I can say for sure – Roller Derby is where the cool kids, and the nerds, are one in the same!
Barbie O’Havoc has been considered a nerd since the first time she pissed someone off for having a weird opinion. Since then, she’s been spending her time indulging in the surprisingly expensive habits of reading trashy vampire novels and hitting people while playing roller derby. Both of her main hobbies have led to a love of terrible puns, much to everyone’s dismay.
Barbie O’ also loves coffee and local restaurants, and occasionally rambles about both on the Johnstown Food Blog.
Flood City Sirens photography courtesy of Neil Briggs Photography, and Fausey Photo.