Rolling with the Punches

Members of the Vancouver roller derby community share their love of the sport while searching for a rink to call home

Bustylicious (left) teaches Kristen (right) how to skate without completely destroying her body. (Sugar Elbows)

I didn’t want to be her from the movie Juno, and certainly not her from Hard Candy. No, what I’ve longed for is the will to warrant the kind of badass montage her character gets in the movie Whip It.

While the film may not be a 100 per cent accurate depiction of roller derby, it is a relatively good introduction to the premise of the sport, and it served as a classic inspiration for many current derby players. Page’s character, Babe Ruthless, is agile and of smaller build, which is traditionally ideal for a person in the Jammer position. A Jammer is a skater who wears a star on their helmet and scores points for lapping the members of the opposing team.

Smashley Simpson, played by Drew Barrymore, is a more hands-on—or rather, elbows-on—player. Despite her character dramatizing violence within derby, Simpson does get penalties for every dirty hit she throws. This is relatively true to life. Skaters are taught how to land hits in a way that is safer for other players, and not to use elbows or try to trip their opponent.

I found the brutality of derby to be enticing. I figured it would be empowering to be in a room full of women who are able to show aggression in the same way that men in sports are encouraged to—hopefully without the notion of being unladylike weighing on my mind.

Little did I know that, by researching roller derby in Vancouver, I was unearthing a welcoming, kind community of players who value inclusivity and sportsmanship.

A large portion of this community is involved with Terminal City Roller Derby, the largest roller derby league in the city, which recently held a vote to change their name from Terminal City Roller Girls to be more inclusive.

Sugar Elbows, a member of Terminal City, says that when the league was getting started, feminism was still a fresh concept.

“We were just fighting to be seen as valid,” she says. “Now the inclusivity has expanded to be more welcoming of LGBTQ+ players.”

“It’s also the history of roller derby and roller sports that has just kind of come up and grown through women taking risks and being showy,” adds Laura Drummond, Chair of the Board of Directors of Vancouver Junior Roller Derby. “It comes from a history of being rebellious and being yourself and being independent. Not worrying about what other people think of you is kind of ingrained in the culture.”

The sport, which used to have more of a pro-wrestling style of glamour and attitude, can often be portrayed as a “butch-women-only club,” but there are positions on the team which play to the strengths of any and all body types, potentially even mine. I am small, I am not strong, I cannot do a single push-up, but strength is something that is developed over time.

“I’ve never really seen myself as that strong,” says Sugar. “When I was a kid I was really boney and lanky.”

Her name is derived from wanting something tough but a little nice, as well as from her preconceived notion that she would be penalized for accidentally hitting people with her elbows. She feels that derby has helped her glow.

“It’s had a huge impact. I totally just feel comfortable in my own body,” she says.

I hadn’t smelled the inside of a gymnasium for almost four whole years because I’m so clumsy and terrible at sports before I got to a Terminal City Roller Derby practice, so upon arriving, I was feeling a little embarrassed.

Despite my reservations, I was greeted by many friendly faces. I was also handed a contract stating that if I walked too close to the skaters and got knocked over, it would be my own damn fault.

Bustylicious—formerly known as Cupid Stunt—and Sugar Elbows took me under their collective wing and babysat me for the evening.

Busty even brought me a whole set of gear. She guessed my size for skates dead-on and provided me with a helmet, knee-pads, and wrist guards. I borrowed elbow pads from another player named Bruiseberry Pie who plays for the Vancouver Murder, B.C.’s only men’s roller derby team.

The Murder are currently ranked fourth in the Men’s Roller Derby Association, and I had the honor of putting my elbows where she also puts her elbows.

Bustylicious helped me stand up while wearing skates and taught me to move forward, stop, and fall without breaking all of my bones. It was terrifying and fantastic. In derby, they call newcomers “freshmeat,” and I was so fresh, I was practically mooing.

“It feels like you’re going to die,” says Sugar. “It can be soul-crushing, but then you start getting better and you start feeling better.”

Freshmeat players can often be disheartened by how many times they are going to fall down, as it can be physically demanding to try and remain vertical for a full 2-minute jam. Starting out with derby can also be costly. “Freshmeat” packages from RollerGirl, which come with skates and all other necessary additions, are available from $300 to $600.

If you are a new skater, many leagues have programs which can get you up to speed. Vancouver Junior Roller Derby is great for those aged six to 18. Rolla Skate Club has lessons for fun and fitness that can teach you to move forward, backwards, turn around, and stop. Once you are at a skateable level, TCRD has a Mix Tapes program to train skaters in approximately six weeks to have the skills needed to begin playing derby.

It’s a slippery slope once you tie on those skates. It’s easy to feel like you’re either going to be horribly disfigured, or morph into an all-powerful she-hawk and take flight. When you pair this with the comfort and safety of a community so generous with support for one another, it’s hard not to become infatuated with roller sports.

“It started because I wanted to get better at skiing,” says Sugar.

She hoped to find something to keep her muscles working on the off-season and joined the Mix Tapes program. Now she plays on the TCRD house team, Team Terminal City.

If you disregard a short-lived and very shameful Heelys phase, I haven’t had wheels on my feet since Stardust was open. Stardust was a roller sport rink in Surrey which tragically closed in 2005, then served as a Liquidation World store for five years before re-opening in 2010 under the name Central City Arena. Central City hosted its final skate on June 23, 2018 and closed its doors once again. The location is now being groomed for a tower development.

My sister and I loved that place growing up and had many birthdays there. We would stick around long after open skate and watch wide-eyed while the derby teams prepared for upcoming games.

Sadly, the City of Vancouver does not currently have a dedicated arena for roller sports. Events take place outside, or piggyback on other spaces like the Roller City Curling Club, but as it stands, there is no reliable spots for roller sports to thrive.

The city does have a lot of indoor spaces that would be suitable, but there is a double standard when it comes to indoor sports. Vancouver won’t allow skaters into spaces because their activity can be “damaging”, but will allow for ball hockey, which has equal potential to damage a space.

“We did a petition as part of our campaign to draw attention to this particular issue for all roller sports,” says Drummond. “It was the start of our louder message to the city of Vancouver that roller sports are growing.”

Although roller sports are for people of all ages, the city is more likely to develop a space when children, rather than adults, are in need of a place to play.

Vancouver Junior Roller Derby hosted an event entitled “Nowhere To Roll” on May 5 to rally for a roller sport space. Alongside allies from TCRD and fellow roller sport enthusiasts, the rally landed them a meeting with Vancouver’s City Hall to discuss the possibility of developing a space where the sport can thrive.

“I think it’s a really empowering thing to watch young people find that connection in community. It’s a very supportive place where kids feel safe to be themselves and strive to be good athletes, but also good members of their community,” says Drummond. “I feel very grateful for previous generations of derby players and the history of derby. These powerful women got this game rolling … and I want to see that continue.”

If you are interested in helping out, support the Nowhere To Roll petition, or check out some upcoming events. On July 6, Rolla Skate Club, RollerGirl, and Jack 96.9 will be hosting an 80s themed pop-up roller rink at Robson Square, and on July 7 there will be a roller rink on the-drive event taking place as a part of Car Free Day, also hosted by Rolla Skate Club. 

On July 27 and 28, TCRD is hosting a tournament at Royal City Curling Club in New Westminster. The tournament is called Summer Slam V: Dead Jams Tell No Tales. Tickets range from $10 to $20, and yes, there will be beer.

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