John White: Derby is dynamic and very real
If you’re old enough to remember the name Skinny Minnie Miller, then you can picture my preconceptions relating to the sport of roller derby.
Gwen Miller, as she was formally known, was a rock star in the late ’70s in U.S. roller derby. She brought finesse, toughness, speed and humour to every match. Her smiling face adorned many magazines for the T-Birds in L.A. during the team’s heydey.
Back then, roller derby was more like professional wrestling, with set moves and storylines to enhance the already exciting athleticism on the bowl.
Skaters worked their wonder inside of a graded plywood-based oval, edged with padded guardrails. This helped maintain forward momentum and protected the skaters when they tumbled. They also wore football-style hip and tailbone padding as the many crashes and spills would otherwise take their toll physically.
It was great entertainment on Saturday mornings on Channel 8.
Fast forward to 2016, and Portland, Ore. I was working there as a media consultant, and my wife said: “Hey, there’s roller derby happening down the road in Eugene, we should check it out.”
I, of course, was envisioning a set-up spectacle like it was in 1977. I was pleasantly stunned with the new reality.
Instead of a sloped oval, the teams were on a gym floor. There was no railing, or curved bowl, just tape on the hardwood floor to outline the track. The only protection worn: helmets, elbow pads, knee pads and a mouth-guard. Yikes.
Instead of fake elbow blocks and exaggerated reactions to hits, the women used proper and legal techniques to block or dodge opponents. It’s much more athletic and brutal than the ’70s version.
I was impressed with the strategy, communication, ferocity and joy exhibited by the skaters. Despite the lopsided result, the teams respected each other.
So, when I heard there was a match scheduled for Castlegar last weekend, I jumped at the chance to shoot photos for the paper and website.
I had to understand the action and key players to capture the energy of the match. I quickly realized the jammer is like a running back in football — needing strength, speed, agility and the sixth sense of knowing where a hole will open in the scrum. They may look unassuming in their uniforms and face paint, but when they get rolling, look out.
Yes, they often managed to juke their way around defenders and skate clear of the pack to score points, but often their path was blocked by steely defenders. Man, did they take some vicious hits. That’s not to mention the blockers in the scrums, doing the unsung heavy lifting to clear the way.
It’s exhilarating to witness, especially right on the floor. It was pure: athletic, strategic, joyful. One of the opposition jammers had a smile on her face every time she rounded the track, despite taking many hits and spills.
It wrapped with a group photo, with players from both teams arm in arm. The score was somewhat secondary to the shared experience. That was the most compelling aspect for me.
“That was very cool.”