Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby
I was a big roller derby fan. By the end of 2010, I’d been to too many bouts to count, seen numerous leagues in action, had to set aside a new space in my closet just for roller derby t-shirts, and my partner had become a skater on the Death Track Dolls. At some point I’d begun to write fairly regularly about it and took road trips just to see bouts; I had even done some colour commentary in Montreal and was lined up to announce ToRD’s locally televised championship game. I was as big a fan of roller derby that you could find.
Then I went to the 2010 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) Championships and everything changed.
On November 5th, 2010, I walked into the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois, for day one of the Uproar on the Lakeshore. Early on in the tournament and it was already in full swing. There were thousands of fans crammed into the lower bowl of the Pavilion, vendours hawking their wares on the concourse, beer and popcorn sellers squeezing their way through the face-painted, sign-sporting fans in the seats. It was like walking into any North American sporting event, only in the centre of it all was a blue, sport-court track, and skating around it were two roller derby teams. The B.ay A.rea D.erby Girls (San Fransisco) and the legendary Texecutioners (Austin) were already well into the first bout of the tournament, and were engaged in a defensive duel that was taking the fans by surprise: the precocious skaters from the left coast were not only keeping up with the women who’d invented the sport, they were frustrating them to no end. In the end the defending runners-up from Texas held on for a low-scoring victory that would end up being the first sign of a massive paradigm shift in the sport. But at the time, I wasn’t capable of thinking on that scale: I spent most of that first day staring in amazement, my neck swiveling in wide circles attempting to take it all in. Figure out what it all meant.
It probably didn’t coalesce as nicely as I like to remember it, but I eventually came to some realizations that weekend. Thoughts that I’d been having about the sport—the state of the game, its role in my life and the world, the future of it, thoughts that every rollergirl and superfan have probably had—were finally forming into something coherent. I realized that in roller derby, and in women’s flat track roller derby in particular, I was seeing the early stages of the 21st century playing out (at least from a Western perspective). It was a fully wired, internet driven, grass roots (yet increasingly global), non-partisan, ant-judgmental, post revolution…revolution.
Now, I don’t want to sound too hyperbolic, but in the simplest way, I realized that roller derby had grown so beyond its roots—a bunch of strong-willed women in a roller rink in Austin, Texas, concluding that roller derby didn’t need to be banked—that it was here to stay. This had been something that I’d never taken for granted before. Everyone—even my grandmother—was aware of roller derby’s semi-dubious history, its ebbs and flows and shifts and alterations; its languishing in the dregs of sports entertainment; basically, its unshakable status as a spectacle. No matter what the incarnation, it had never lasted, always fading when the novelty of the latest spectacle faded. But in Chicago that weekend, beginning when the Gotham Girls (New York) crushed the Texacutioners in the quarterfinals and ending when the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls were in the midst of a late-game comeback that would see them defeat the defending champion Oly Rollers in the most dramatic fashion imaginable—a bout that at least in these early days of flat track lore will undoubtedly carry the mantle of “The Greatest Game”—it became quite apparent to me that roller derby had grown beyond the Texas Rollergirls, it had grown beyond all of the skaters in the Chicago that weekend, the thousands of fans in the building, the many tuning in to DNN for live coverage, and when we were all gone the sport would not be and it would be played by someone else and watched by countless others, and changed, tinkered with, made better—but for the first time in its somewhat troubled history, roller derby was not going to fade away.
When I got back to Toronto, I decided that I needed to put on some skates.
So I signed up for ToRD’s next fresh meat session, headed to Cardinal Skate Co. to get suited up by Rollerbug (AKA: Kandy Barr of the Gore-Gore Rollergirls), went to the Hangar for the meat and greet session, paid my dues and got insurance, determined to gain a new perspective on this sport that I’d come to love, to get to know it from the inside out.