Photos by Michael Philabaum of Philabaum Photography What sport is known for its rough and tumble play, cleverly named skaters – and oh yeah, pink skirts and lack of men? If you guessed roller derby then here’s a cookie. And if you didn’t, well – as Oprah would say – get with the program. If you’ve been living under a rock lately, you may not have noticed that roller derby, the sport that was once likened to “professional” wrestling, is back with a vengeance. On a local level, the Rubber City Rollergirls and NEO Rock‘n’Roller girls were voted first and second, respectively, in the 2009 Beacon’s Best “Sports Event” category. (Suck on that, Akron Aeros.) But the sport resonates with fans even beyond the Akron/Canton area. Women’s roller derby teams have been popping up all over the U.S. – the Windy City Rollers, LA’s Angel City Derby Girls, the Boston Derby Dames – for about a decade now. And while the success of the 2006 A&E television series Rollergirls and the 2009 film Whip It, which starred Juno actress Ellen Page, may have had a hand in that, roller derby has been making a name for itself for almost 100 years.A history lesson The term “roller derby” dates as far back as 1922, when the Chicago Tribune used it to describe flat-track roller races – where both female and male skaters circled thousands of times to simulate the distance between New York and LA. In the 1930s, promoter Leo Seltzer and sportswriter Damon Runyon began emphasizing the physical contact and teamwork involved – ultimately, bringing new dynamics of the sport to life. Seltzer slapped a trademark on the term “roller derby” around 1935 using it for his own group of traveling professional skaters. Derby saw its official debut in the form of a co-ed Chicago marathon race. Over the next few years, Seltzer tweaked the game to bring physicality to the forefront. Two teams now came together to form what is known as a “pack”, or a group of each team’s members that skates in close formation. As the pack circled the track, “jammers” from each team would skate around the track and try to lap members of the opposing team, scoring points for each opponent passed. And of course, the sport had come into its full-contact glory, complete with elbows, body-checks and all-you-can-watch fights. Fans were hooked. By the late ‘40s, roller derby was at its peak. In 1946, derby made its television debut and its popularity shot up from there. “Bouts: derby’s equivalent of “games” or “events”, began bringing in 30,000 to 40,000 fans. Skaters, now household names, appeared on the covers of national magazines. In 1950, Mickey Rooney and Marilyn Monroe, two of that generation’s biggest stars, appeared in the 1950 roller derby film “The Fireball.” It was official: Roller derby had made it to the big time. But that all came to a not-so-screeching halt in the early 1970s. Some contribute the decline of derby to the national gas shortage while others blame it on the media over saturation of the sport. Whatever the case, derby sputtered to its end after being pulled from television in 1973. Since then, there has been the occasional attempt to revive the sport. Notably, a 10-week televised league called the World Derby Federation (WDF) appeared in 1989 and 1997 brought the addition of RollerJam, which was the inline version of the original derby. And although the show had two years, RollerJam also cheapened the sport by selling it as professional wrestling on skates. Don’t call it a comeback Veterans from early revivals stuck around the scene, usually organizing one-off matches in California. Still, nothing too successful came about for roller derby until the upsurge of all-female leagues in 2001. The explosion came as a result of an international grassroots do-it-yourself revival, which primarily involved girls who had no previous affiliations with the sport. [media id=2 width=320 height=240] Flat track roller derby leagues began emerging from big cities across the nation. In 2004, a handful of these leagues came together to form the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Started with the mission of bringing worldwide recognition to roller derby, WFTDA now stands as the governing body of the sport; providing rules and league requirements to the skating masses. Although the sport has, for the most part, abandoned its co-ed past, the spirit of the original game remains intact with what can only be described as an event; a mishmash of hard-hitting action and entertainment (without the pro-wrestling staging). “The public – I think, just because of the fishnets and the whole style and the names – really wants to see it as an exhibit,” says Natalie David aka “Chrissie B. Hynde”, a skater for NEO Roller Derby of Akron. “There are a lot of problems just trying to get people to understand that it’s not your mama’s roller derby from the early years”. The days of clotheslining a girl and throwing elbows were left in the 40s. This is a legitamate sport now. Local leagues For Natalie, a life of roller derby began when she joined the league in 2007. While living in Florida, she had seen the A&E special “Rollergirls” which features a league based in Texas. Instantly she started to become interested in playing the sport – especially since it seemed like an escape from everyday life. “My husband said, ‘Absolutely not.’ We are not moving to Texas so you can deal with your midlife crisis,” she recalls. But after moving home to Ohio and having a discussion with a friend, Natalie stumbled across the NEO Rock‘n’Roller Girls. “Then, they were practicing in North Canton, which was literally three minutes from my house,” she says. After a month of attending practices, Natalie officially joined the team, forever thereafter known as “Chrissie B. Hynde”. Vallerie Walker aka “BF Goodbytch”, another skater for the team, has been involved since the start of the league. “When I was pregnant with my last child and I was watching Rollergirls and I wanted to do it,” she says. “I knew there was a league in Columbus and another was starting up in Cleveland. Gradually, there was a group of us that met online to form a league in this area.” Given the interest and the recent demise of the Rubber City Derby Demons, a former Akron team, the girls came together to form the NEO Rock‘n’Rollergirls. The Rollergirls were together for less than a year when they hit a snag. Several members of the teams departed and formed the Rubber City Rollergirls (RCRG) in July 2008. Rubber City began its first bouting season in April 2009. The teams have taken on new lives since then. Both NEO and Rubber City are currently in the process of amping up their training programs. The members of NEO have already seen a new program take effect. In October, after recruiting girls in the “Rollergirl Round-Up”, the training staff of NEO let the veterans take two months off while they worked the “fresh meat.” “We wanted to make it so that when the veterans came back these new girls would have all their minimum skills and be ready to intermingle with the veterans,” Natalie says. “I did a lot of research over the last year and I actually went and met with my high school football coach,” she says. “We sat down and went through all kinds of different drills and I came up with a training program based on football conditioning. We did an 18-week training program this year. We are just entering the scrimmage phase.” The first three phases involved muscle-building, endurance and derby-specific training. Now that the girls have the minimum skills down, they’re in the process of being analyzed based on a 15-page training rubric of derby skills. And Rubber City is right on the heels of their skates. Tracy Soulsby aka “Eighty-SixHer”, Director of PR and Marketing for RCRG, said some changes are in store for the team once this season ends. “At that point, we’ll start recruiting people to come in and do a training camp,” she says. “And at the end of camp, they’ll have to try out.” The Rubber City skaters are currently going over a check list of derby skills, too. Now that both NEO and RCRG have enough for two teams (14 girls makes a full roster), the girls’ evaluations will help determine who goes to A and B teams later this season. Both teams have stopped recruitment for the 2010 season. “We used to take girls all year long and it would interrupt the rest of the training,” Natalie says of NEO. “You’d have girls at all different levels and you’d always have beginners. The girls who were trying to excel would have to fall back.” Tracy says the same thing applies to RCRG. “Whenever we bring new people in it seems like all the girls that we have now sort of have to bring down their level of playing to fit the new girls,” she says. “So we’re starting to say, ‘Look, you have to have certain skills when you come in. We’ll teach you the game but we’re not going to teach you how to skate.’” Another league that is looking to push its program beyond its current state is the Burning River Roller Girls (BRRG). The Cleveland-based league made its debut in 2006 and is now paving the way for local derby. Despite humble beginnings (they started because of the interest of four or five girls) the league now has four home teams, as well as a traveling team for the home team’s All-Stars. And this season, because of their growing popularity, the girls have found a new home venue – Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center. “I know we had originally looked into the Wolstein back in 2006 when we were looking for our first venue,” says Marcie Sandine aka “Morbid Cherub”, a skater and Director of Sales and Sponsorships for BRRG. “And, since we didn’t have any history, they didn’t really want anything to do with us; and it was way more than we could afford at the time.” But given three years of exposure and a devoted following, the team finally made it in the door – and is bringing loads of fans along with them. “We actually had our first bout there back in November for our annual charity event. That went really well; we pulled in about 1,200 people there,” Marcie says. “For this first (2010 season) bout, we more than doubled that. We had almost 3,000 people there. So if things continue to go well and we continue to draw the crowds then I don’t see why we wouldn’t stay there.” From the players’ perspectives Drawing in the crowds may boil down to the grassroots efforts of skaters and others involved with the league.