Off the Beaten Track

Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby set for release Spring ’16

One of my favourite pics that has been featured on this site; this one is by Kevin Konnyu.

Since the book is historical, I thought I’d take a look at some of the historic shots that have appeared on the site; this one by Kevin Konnyu captures the intensity of the great early ToRD rivalry between the Gore-Gore Rollergirls and Chicks Ahoy!.

I still miss the Hangar and shots like this one (by Derek Lang) remind me why.

I still miss ToRD’s Hangar, and shots like this one by Derek Lang remind me why.

Some may have noticed that I’ve been posting just a little bit less this year as I have in the past—still hitting all the main high points in the season, but fewer of the traveling recaps and extra stuff I used to do. While this may be true, I can assure you that I haven’t been spending any less time thinking and writing about roller derby, I’ve just been focusing those energies toward a different project: a full length non-fiction book about the sport titled Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby that is nearing completion and will be released in Spring 2016 through Wolsak and Wynn.

There are, of course other reasons as well. I’ve been writing a column on WFTDA Canadian roller derby for Jammer Line and I’ve felt less pressure as there have arisen other great resources for derby news out of the ashes of DNN (among others); namely, Derby Central and even Derby Notes, which—even if I don’t always agree with the opinions expressed—is capable of producing very informative articles on the game. And of course, I’ve been on the road as part of the broadcast crew for this year’s WFTDA playoffs.

While the book has a Canadian perspective, the development of the larger game is certainly a focus as well. (Photo by Joe Mac)

While the book has a Canadian perspective, the development of the larger game is certainly a focus as well. (Photo by Joe Mac)

So yes, while my focus has shifted, I’ve still been immersing myself in the game: I’ve been following it as closely as ever, I’ve been researching its place in contemporary culture—how and why it has evolved the way it has. Eight-Wheeled Freedom is part sociological study, part memoir and part historical recounting of the 21st century revival of the sport of roller derby as a flat track game primarily played by women; there is a particular focus on the development of the game since it came to Canada in 2006.

Sustained global growth of the game has separated flat track roller derby from every version that came before it. This is a Greg Russell photo of the first game played at the first ever Roller Derby World Cup (Canada vs. France).

Sustained global growth of the game has separated flat track roller derby from every version that came before it. This is a Greg Russell photo of the first game played at the first ever Roller Derby World Cup (Canada vs. France).

While told from my point of view, it is not really a memoir in any traditional sense, but the structure of the text mirrors my growing understanding of the game and community right alongside flat track roller derby’s own growth. Also, while the text will provide a historical overview of the revival, it is not just a history book, and the focus is on why the sport has become so established in light of past failures of roller derby to inspire a grassroots movement. Another important focus of the text is the game’s evolution from sports entertainment spectacle to a complex, competitive endeavor.

An intense shot of intense action by Neil Gunner. Another focus in the book is on roller derby's evolution from spectacle to sport.

An intense shot of intense action by Neil Gunner. One focus of the book is on roller derby’s evolution from spectacle to sport.

The layout of the book is not chronological, but instead moves thematically in its exploration of the game and the surrounding community, tackling historical moments through an explanation of the cultural significance of the events. For example, a chapter on the influential 2006 A&E television show Rollergirls is framed around a discussion of roller derby’s role in third wave feminism. Another chapter looking at the history of Toronto Roller Derby’s relationship with Toronto Pride and the Pride-affiliated roller derby event that features an international all star game also examines the role that the sport has had in the LGBTQ community and, in turn, the influence this community has had on the development of the game.

With the WFTDA celebrating its 10th anniversary and the Canadian game about to celebrate a decade-long existence as well, it seemed like the perfect time to tell the story of flat track roller derby.

Some of you may recognize that Wolsak and Wynn also published my first book, David Foster Wallace Ruined my Suicide, and did an excellent job on it, so the book and the story are in good hands. That book’s designer, the excellent Marijke Friesen, returns as well. Work on the text is nearing completion with work on layout and other formatting concerns beginning as well, and keep an eye out for a book-specific website launching in the new year.

For now, stay tuned for updates on the final stages in the development of Eight-Wheeled Freedom.

Thanks readers and roller derby fans for your continued support!

Photo by Todd Burgess

Off the Beaten Track: Pain Eyre

Talking Derby Cover (Black Moss Press)

“Roller derby is not a pretty sport.”

-from Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels (Black Moss Press, 2013)

Since the rebirth of modern roller derby in 2003, the sport has been slowly jamming its way into mainstream culture, fighting a constant battle—it sometimes seems—against stigma and preconceptions, the most notable of which, is that roller derby is a staged, sexy throwback to the sports entertainment version that prevailed in the 70s and 80s.

Of course, those in the know are well aware that for every game-day polished, crisply uniformed skater who takes the track, hours of blood, sweat and tears have been shed to get there.

Pain Eyre helped found the Border City Brawlers in 2010. (Skater Photo)

Pain Eyre (AKA: Kate Hargreaves) helped found the Border City Brawlers in 2010. (Skater Photo)

In her book Talking Derby (Black Moss Press, spring 2013), Border City Brawler skater Pain Eyre (AKA: Kate Hargreaves) takes great pains to present flat track roller derby in all its smelly, oozing, gut-wrenching reality. Most importantly, in its raw, honest glimpse behind the scenes, Hargreaves presents roller derby as a highly competitive, deeply challenging sport. It’s an approach that created a book that has garnered attention within the roller derby community (Scald Eagle, Bonnie D. Stroir, Luludemon, and Greorgia W. Tush all contributed blurbs), but outside of that community as well, especially within the literary community of which Pain is a part.

While most books about roller derby have been in some way instructive or explanatory (even Talking Derby includes a glossary), Pain Eyre’s collection dives straight into the action, giving readers an honest, almost autobiographical portrayal of the sport and its competitors.

Urged on by an acquaintance—Ladytron—who had the idea of starting a roller derby league in Windsor, Ontario, Pain Eyre got swept up in the derby revolution in August 2010.  Hooligal, at the time a skater with the nearby Detroit Derby Girls but with roots in Hammer City, helped Pain and Ladytron and the other interested skaters in Windsor get things started, including providing important early coaching of the league. Aside from Hooligal (who now plays in Montreal), none of the skaters had derby backgrounds. Pain Eyre had virtually no skating experience.

“There was a bit of a learning curve,” she admits, noting that her last team sport experience had been soccer when she was 13-14 years old. “But it motivated me…it gives me motivation to exercise.” Like so many involved in this sport, Pain had little sporting background but was nonetheless overwhelmingly drawn to derby. By 2010, the sport was booming in Southern Ontario and Michigan State. Windsor, teetering on the border of both regions, was a prime location to start a roller derby league.

But it was also post-2009, after flat track roller derby’s Great Leap Forward, and roller derby was rapidly moving away from simply being a lifestyle sub-culture and into being a highly competitive sport.

Pain Eyre in action with the Border City Brawlers All Stars. (Photo by Robert Bornais)

Pain Eyre in action with the Border City Brawlers All Stars. (Photo by Robert Bornais)

“I’m lucky that I came into it at a time when the level of competition started rising rapidly, and I came into it knowing what it demanded,” she says of the atmosphere surrounding derby when she started. “Hooligal was a great coach right off of the bat, letting us know that if you weren’t willing to work, maybe it wasn’t the sport for you.”

With her background in the literary community, her base as a writer and her newly forming identity as a roller derby skater, it seemed inevitable that a book—or some form of literary endeavor—would accompany the transition.

At the same time that Pain Eyre discovered roller derby, Kate Hargreaves was just beginning her graduate degree at the University of Windsor. As part of her graduate assistantship, she was working for the literary journal, The Windsor Review, doing layout and design and other editorial duties. The managing editor of the journal, Marty Gervais, noticed that Kate was always coming in to the offices covered in bruises. Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he enquired about them. Intrigued by the sport, he encouraged Kate to start journaling about her experiences.

Those initial scribbles would form the basis of what would become Talking Derby.

The book is fascinating in its structure. As series of short stories (or more accurately “vignettes”) that traces the story of a skater through a series of practices, games and tryouts interwoven with intriguing pieces—sometimes just lists—that read like poetry (no surprise that in her writing life Kate is primarily a poet). While the book is seemingly episodic, there is a discernible arc, and with its focus on Pain herself, is almost autobiographical.

“I thought it would end up being a lot different from my poetry and it did end up becoming a lot different,” she says, admitting that there was no sense of what the final shape of the text would be going into it, and also that she’d never written short fiction. “It ended up coming out of those journals and being shaped through the writing and editing process into the form it took…I wanted it to function as a whole, but I also wanted it to be something that someone could pick up, open and read a few pages at a time.”

The opening story of the book begins in a practice space during a team scrimmage:

“Stale air weighs down the warehouse. 50 feet above our heads,

the grid of fans struggles to manufacture a breeze. A zebra skates

over the door, grabs the iron handle and lurches backward to roll

it open along metal tracks. The sun stretches his shadow across

the dusty concrete, toe stoppers to helmet, as he stands between

warehouse and daylight.”

Pain Eyre must juggle her life as a skater with her busy life in the literary community. (Photo by Jodi Green)

Pain Eyre must juggle her life as a skater with her busy life in the literary community. (Photo by Jodi Green)

It’s an opening that is pleasantly universal in its tone (for insiders anyway), but one that would seem a surreal entry point for an outsider. And during that scene, a few outsiders do stumble into the practice space and start taking pictures, asking, at one point, what it is they are watching. Right from its opening, the book rides that fine balance of speaking to insiders as well as outsiders.

Those early, personal, and visceral journalistic vignettes would shape not only the structure of the book, but the focus of it as well. “I wanted to give a five-senses experience about roller derby: what it feels like to get hit, what it smells like to walk into a dressing room….and talk about how derby impacts that sense. It’s so chaotic out there on the track; you’ve got hits and smells coming at you at the same time.”

The book is relentless in its physicality and despite the raw violence, almost sensuous in its description of the toll that the game can have on the body: bodily fluids spurt, bruises bloom. This is a celebration, sure, but also very much a reality check for those who question the voracity of the game.  “One of the things that I wanted to get across was the actual physical experience of the sport and how difficult it can be,” she admits. And it is something that is clear throughout:

“A split lip. A bloody nose. A goose egg. An elbow to the ear.

Marker smears under the chin. Numbers smudge from arms

to cheeks. I’ve been hit in the face more times than I can count

on my wheels. I’ve tracked bruises tie-dying knees, butt, arms,

legs, hips. Black and purple, fading yellow to green. Bruises I

don’t remember receiving. Bruises that pang every time that flesh

meets chair.”

“It’s one of my preoccupations,” she admits, about the fascination she has with the body and its functions. She has a second book coming out in the spring, a book of poetry tentatively called Leak that shares many of the preoccupations of this book. Pain Eyre does admit that roller derby gave this preoccupation a boost and even became an inspiration:  “There would be bruises turning up (in my poetry) and aches and pains and bloody noses…it gave me a lot of material for sure.”

Writing Talking Derby was somewhat of a throwback for Pain, who actually made a hard shift from prose (even journalistic prose) to poetry only when she began taking creative writing at university. “You can never predict I suppose, even as adamant as I was that poetry was stupid,” she says with a laugh. She explains that it was only after being exposed to a lot of the innovative writing going on in the University of Windsor writing department that she saw the potential for poetry: “I realized that it didn’t have to be what I thought poetry was, and (I discovered) that poetry can be expressive in a wide variety of ways.” She sites Canadian poet (and innovative prose writer) Jenny Sampirisi as an influence, but also Susan Holbrook and Nicole Markotic who also helped introduce her to key poets in her reading life.

Pain Eyre’s breaking through of those preconceived notions of what poetry was mirrors the experience that many outsiders have with roller derby: They come in assuming one thing, only to discover an unexpected depth.

“I wanted to reflect the real sporting nature of derby,” she explains in regards to what she hopes outsiders will take from the book. “People who don’t know about derby will immediately assume that it’s not a real sport or that there is no athletic value to it.” Dealing with these preconceptions is a clear presence in the book, laid bare in one of the more traditionally poetic segments of the text:

faq

So you play roller derby?

do you punch each other in the face?

or wrestle?

on the track?

in the mud?

in jello?

I hear you don’t wear pants

just cute little uniforms like lingerie football

is that true?

While the text does speak to outsiders, it is very much written from an insider’s point of view. Right from the very first Windsor-based book launch, Pain Eyre wasn’t sure how people were going to receive the book. But the reception has been positive and supportive, garnering a number of reviews and interviews, including on CBC radio. “When you get literary people who may not be derby people reading about it, that’s kind of neat,” she says of the positive reception she’s received from the literary community.

Pain Eyre skaters with both the All Stars and also the Hiram Stalkers, a house league team. (Photo by Robert Bornais)

Pain Eyre skaters with both the All Stars (seen here playing Sudbury’s Sister Slag) and the Hiram Stalkers, a house league team. (Photo by Robert Bornais)

As everyone in the derby community knows, managing a derby-life balance can be challenging. Through her first three years of skating, Pain Eyre has grappled with this head on: “It’s sometimes tough. You realize that you’ve had three nights of practice and a game and two days of cross training and there’s a board meeting on Thursday and people are asking you where you have been.”

She used to be involved in a poetry night called TOAST in Windsor, and it used to be on the same night as practice: “I’d have to run out of derby, put on my backpack and jump on my bike; bike to the venue and throw my gear under a table and then jump up on stage and read poetry,” she says of trying to do it all. She’s also knows the toll that being involved in two all-consuming past times can be. “It’s difficult for my friends who are not part of the roller derby community…and that’s something that has been difficult, but I try to balance it.”

She remains deeply embedded in both communities. She remains a key member of the Border City Brawlers where she is immersed in a serious, competitive league nearing completion of a WFTDA Apprenticeship (she plays on the travel team in addition to one of the house league teams), but she remains deeply involved in the literary community as well, both through her writing and through her job as Production and Marketing Assistant for Biblioasis, a literary publisher in Windsor. She has clear goals for both. She’s currently finishing up the manuscript that will become her second book (and first collection of poetry), but also helping Border City navigate its second competitive season.

She is optimistic about the future of the sport (“I’m a little bit terrified about the juniors coming up, to be honest,” she says half jokingly), but also about her league and its travel team, who despite being on a bit of a losing streak this season, is playing better competition and improving all the time.

The book, which kind of has two endings, ends with a note of similar optimism. The second last vignette, “Take a Knee” traces the final game of a season and ends with skaters pulling up the track:

“Skates and helmets off, hair lank and wet, we knee pad clatter

across the floor, scratching at tape and rope. Tug. Collecting stray

programs from empty stands. Black shirts and blue, ripping the

last scraps of derby off the floor.”

It’s a beautiful final image of the track, physical and tangible. But the book adds one more vignette, a description of two snapshots: one of Pain Eyre at her first practice—awkward and uninitiated—and then another from two years later:

“Bigger knee pads. Stronger helmets. Uniforms and strategies.

But we still fall hard.”

The books ends with that dose of thudding reality: “we still fall hard.” For a text that has been so focused on the physicality of derby—of the barely controlled chaos that pushes play and punishes the body—it seems a fitting conclusion.

**Talking Derby is available in bookstores or online. You can also engage with the book on Facebook or on Twitter.

**The Border City Brawlers All Stars take on the Hammer City Eh! Team in Hamilton on August 17th.

Off the Beaten Track: Penny Whistler

Off The Beaten Track

Penny Whistler

On the track, she strikes an intimidating pose: tall, stern, with shocks of red hair spitting out from under her helmet. She’s grown certain on her skates and performs with a confidence and fluidity natural for someone who has been skating week-in and week-out since 2007 when Toronto Roller Derby first began. During league games in Canada’s largest city, she’s as ubiquitous as the very roller skates the game is played on. She’s developed a certain nod when discussing things with coaches and captains in those heated moments in the centre of the track—head tilted, eyebrows raised, never mean or angry. It’s almost teacher-like in its certainty. She’ll listen to you and hear you out; she’ll even seem sympathetic in the moment, but in the end you can just tell that she knows she’s right. No matter how certain you may feel, she’s going to get her way in the end.

Penny officiates a game at the Hangar in 2010. (Photo by Derek Lang)

When you meet Toronto Roller Derby’s head ref in person, Penny Whistler strikes the same kind of pose. Only stripped of the referee’s black and whites and without the helmet and whistle she’s much less intimidating and it’s more striking than anything. But there is little of the awkwardness you see in some people as tall as long and as lanky: it’s a comfort born from familiarity. Though it certainly wasn’t always that way. She reached the six foot mark at the age of fourteen, but at that time, in adolescence, she was far from what you would call athletic.

“I hated sports,” she admits now. “I preferred art class, math, anything that didn’t require being coordinated.” And off the track, that’s not surprising to hear; there is little of the “jock” in her attitude or style, the sternness of competition and confrontation leaves her very quickly when the final whistle blows and the gear comes off. She fits right in, in the artsy/hipster hood of Parkdale in downtown Toronto’s west end.

Raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she began the migration north when she moved to Minneapolis to study at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)and ended up staying in the city for eight years. It was there where her initiation into sport finally took place.  “I tried rowing at university and was actually really good at it. It totally turned me into an athlete and saved me from the ‘Freshmen 15.’ ” She rowed for five years and after university found a job with a travel agency. The job allowed her to travel and broaden her view of the world at a very important time. “I never pictured myself staying there,” she says of Minnesota, and with a three-year relationship ending and her company announcing an expansion into Canada, the opportunity arose for her to move on. “I’d only been to Toronto once before, on a three-hour day trip, but I was ready to try someplace new,” she explains. In 2002, she made the move, heading north to open up a new company branch in Toronto.

Penny inspects equipment before a showdown between ToRD’s D-VAS and Tri-City’s TKOs in Kitchener. (Photo by Sean Murphy)

Things seemed to click into place for Penny. She made friends quickly, befriending a guy named Andrew Wencer within a few weeks of moving to the city, and through another friend connecting with Monica Mitchell (another transplanted American) through LiveJournal. To help broaden her community, she tried rowing again (but it didn’t quite work out) and volunteered at TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival (which she continues to do to this day). She and Andrew eventually began dating and very quickly she began to put down roots in a new city and a new country.

She couldn’t have known that around the time she left Minnesota, the stirrings of a new sport had started to take shape in the city. The Minnesota Roller Girls were part of the first wave of the flat track roller derby expansion. Quietly, in American cities like Austin, Tucson, Seattle, New York, and Denver, the flat track revolution was just beginning to take shape.  By 2006, the sport was on the verge of exploding into the international consciousness. Through the A&E series Rollergirls and the documentary Hell on Wheels, the world was slowly beginning to pay attention. Penny Whistler very quickly discovered that the sport was making its way into her life as well. “I started hearing from my friends in Minneapolis and Milwaukee about roller derby leagues starting there, and they were all getting involved,” and she followed her friends’ progress closely. “I was really envious; it just sounded liked something unique and fun.”

Then, as it eventually began to happen for so many, roller derby came to her.

Penny chats with her crew before this 2012 Toronto Roller Derby game. (Photo by Kevin Konnyu)

On LiveJournal, she noticed her friend Monica (soon to be known as Monichrome) began to post about the creation of a new league in Toronto and that she was going to try out; then she posted that the fledgling league was in need of referees. For Penny, something clicked.  Still searching for that sense of community she’d discovered through rowing, she immediately considered roller derby an option. “If all the cool people I knew in Minneapolis and Milwaukee were getting involved in (roller derby), then that meant there were cool people getting involved in Toronto,” she says of her immediate interest. Having never seen a game (there was simply nowhere to do so, the boutcast boom had yet to begin and as slick and polished as Rollergirls was, it was short on sport and big on drama), she actually saw her first roller derby bout in Milwaukee on a visit home when one of Minnesota’s home teams, the Atomic Bombshells, came to town to school Milwaukee’s newly formed travel team, The Brewcity Bruisers. 

Refereeing appealed to her immediately. “Officiating really chose me,” she admits. “I thought it would be fun to skate (as a player),  but I hadn’t been on skates in years and since I wasn’t at the point where I could just jump into it and there wasn’t really the training program we have now…there was never a calling to (play).”  And even watching that first game she was drawn to the officials. “I was already watching the refs,” she says of that first game, and she even noticed a mistake when both jammer refs signaled their jammer was lead.

Penny talks with Coach Adam of the Slaughter Daughters during the 2011 Beast of the East championship game. (Photo by Derek Lang)

Beyond just ability and experience, reffing appealed to her personality as well. “I’m more comfortable in the background of things,” she admits. “(Roller derby) is a sport ‘by the skaters, for the skaters,’ and as an official you’re mostly in the background; you’re in the middle of everything but barely there.” The subculture within the subculture. “I’ve always been sort of a reject, so I’m right at home as a referee,” she laughs at her own use of the term reject. “We’re kind of like the underdog team,” she clarifies. “And I’m an introvert, so the nerdy part of me likes the whole methodical process of it and the challenge.”

And she makes a good point. In many ways, roller derby has gone out of its way to avoid the trappings of the mainstream North American sports culture; it’s aggressively carved its own path. But the one thing in roller derby that has directly translated from mainstream sports is the vitriol and anger often directed at referees. Penny seems unable to explain why this is, but explains that their role in the sport is much like the roles of referees in all sports. “We have a lot of responsibility as officials to show that roller derby is a credible sport, so we have dress codes and codes of conduct,” she says, searching for words.  “We’re expected to be sports officials at the same time we’re volunteer sports officials, but we’re held up to the same standards.” In the end she says what referees in every sport say: “You can’t take that sort of thing personally, and most of the time I don’t think it is…it just goes with the job.”

Penny Whistler at The Hangar in 2010. (Photo by Lisa Mark)

That first season in Toronto was one of experimentation. Although a ref crew from Detroit came up to help train the officials, there was still a lot of trial and error. Generally, there were four referees outside and five inside, but it wasn’t consistent: “The first season, we did something different every game.” Although the United Leagues Coalition (quickly changed to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) had formed and disseminated the rules widely, there wasn’t as much overarching control as there would be, and the rules themselves were still far from refined. Changes happened often and were usually major compared to the tweaks that occur now.

“For those first few years there were a lot of inconsistencies…so you’d have two teams come together playing under different rules (interpretations).” But she thinks the rules are always getting better “little by little,” and she thinks that WFTDA is necessary for the consistent and steady growth of the sport. “It has helped package roller derby where a group in a small town can download the rules and lay the track and start playing the game the same way everyone else does.” And she does believe that the moves made have helped and is looking forward to the elimination of minor penalties in 2013. “I think it’s a positive move on a few different levels: it will make it more accessible to the fans. (Right now) people don’t know why skaters go to the box, and it will eliminate a lot of messes with tracking and making mistakes. But it will also be good for the leagues.  It takes a lot of staff to track those minors, so…the whole process will be streamlined. It will keep the game moving and make things a little more cut and dry.”

While she certainly seems to think that the sport is on the right path, she’s a little more guarded than some on the immediate future of sport: She still thinks that we’re far away from seeing roller derby at an event like the Olympics. “You need derby to be a little more universal. We still need to have a few more world cups.” The inaugural, Toronto hosted, Roller Derby World Cup remains one of the highlights of her long and varied career. She still expresses genuine amazement at “being a part of that first world cup and seeing all of these countries come to this tournament to play this weird sport that we do.” She also, wisely, says that more than the Olympics, the future of the sport is in the burgeoning junior roller derby movement.  “There will be a whole new level of skill,” she says of when this generation of junior skaters begins to infiltrate the ranks of the senior leagues.

The crew for the Australia vs. England showdown at the inaugural Roller Derby World Cup (photo by Joe Mac)

What started as a hobby and as a way to gain a community of like-minded friends has turned into much more than that for Penny Whistler. It’s a grueling, hard, almost selfless job that sees her traveling around Ontario and even the United States now with CN Power and she’ll be NSOing this year’s WFTDA North Central Regionals for the first time. It’s become, essentially, a second job.  “I didn’t quite know what I was getting into and I don’t think that any of us at that time necessarily did, which was kind of fun to all start at that level and figure it out together,” she says. And she has a history of diving into things fully.  “When I was on the rowing team I was the treasurer and really involved in the organization; I’m not one to sit back and do anything half-assed: If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.”

One thing about a new and developing sport is that there hasn’t been any traditional career trajectories laid out. No one knows what constitutes a full and successful career.  “I haven’t given myself a deadline. As long as I’m still getting something out of it,” she explains when asked about her own personal timelines. But even after all these years, officiating the sport still challenges and intrigues her.  “I don’t think I’ll ever really know everything about being a roller derby official because it’s always changing and there are a lot of complexities to officiating. There is always something I can improve on.”

Penny Whistler from the series “Facing Toronto: Roller Derby Volunteers” by Neil Gunner.

But then she gets to the heart of being involved in this nascent sport: “It’s more being able to balance volunteering at this and real life. As an official you have to be at every game and you are at the mercy of the schedule. To be a good official, it’s not something you can do only six months of the year.”  But after years of transience and transition, things seem to be settling down in Toronto. “We have a solid crew in Toronto and being able to delegate responsibilities will allow me to have a few more years in derby,” she says hopefully.

She’s already accomplished quite a lot in the game, from helping to start one of Canada’s largest and most successful leagues, to muscling her way into the “boy’s club” of roller derby refereeing. “Being the first certified female referee in Canada was a proud moment, but I certainly don’t want to be the only one!” she says of her position as a role model for female Canadian refs (and others, like Tri-City’s Jules and Regulations have quickly followed). “It’s okay to be a woman in roller derby and not be a skater.”

Despite all of these accomplishments, she is certainly not resting on her laurels and still has clear goals. “Right now there is only one female Level 5 WFTDA certified referee and one Level 4,” she says without explanation. And none is needed. Someday, it almost goes without saying, we will certainly see the name Penny Whistler added to that very exclusive list.