I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve fielded the question, “Why roller derby?” As a reporter for this newspaper, I like to be the one asking the tough questions.
I wasn’t too sure “why” myself that day in January when I decided to buy a 97-cent mouth guard, form it in a coffee mug at my office desk and make the 45-mile drive up to northeast Allegheny County for a roller derby tryout. I didn’t have skates, knee pads or a helmet. The terms “jammer,” “bout,” and “toe stops” meant nothing to me.
I had some inline skating experience from high school and, since I’m from Buffalo, I’m decent on ice, too. I didn’t realize how different quad skates are – a newborn giraffe has better foot coordination than I had on skates that night.
The tryouts were for Steel City Roller Derby, a greater Pittsburgh area, flat-track league that practices at the Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena in Cheswick. It’s been three months since I joined roller derby and I’ve learned that it is not what I expected.
At 26-years-old, I was looking for a new active hobby, and I figured a women’s sports league, preferably one that involved skating, would be the perfect fit. I knew derby had a reputation for toughness, but I was tough. I run three miles every day and sometimes lift weights, so how hard could it be?
After passing preliminary skating ability tryouts, I was placed in the league’s beginners class, called “fresh meat,” which, honestly, should have been the first red flag that I would need to get tougher or I’d get tenderized.
I decided that a good derby name would help with this, so I came up with some options and passed them around the newsroom as a survey to help me choose. “Kate Wreckinsale” and “Kategory 5” were in the running, but I ended up choosing “DisloKate.”
One of the first fresh meat lessons, the second red flag, was how to “fall small.” This means that in the split-second you have to brace for impact with the floor, you need to curl up in a ball with your ankles and fingers tucked in so you don’t lose them when people inevitably skate over your body.
As part of the training, we were asked to practice jumps over a pool noodle. The trainers demonstrated effortless hops, but as I started rolling towards that noodle, it felt more like leaping to my death. Some drills included rolling up to other skaters and hitting them as hard as I could with my hips and shoulders. After a few run-throughs, it occurred to me that saying, “I’m sorry,” after every hit was not productive to learning the sport.
With practice, my general skating skills did transfer, and by the second month, I could skate backwards, land jumps and weave in and out of cones. With improvement came enthusiasm and I decided it was time to buy my own gear, instead of borrowing skates and padding that were way too big for me.
Eventually, I passed a round of testing and was deemed ready to scrimmage with the more experienced teams. But that posed another problem – I didn’t know a single rule of roller derby.
Roller derby is stereotyped as a brutal sport with few rules. Whenever I mentioned to people that I’d signed up for roller derby, I always got the more animated reactions from older generations–people who remember watching old-time derby on television. They remember the raised tracks with railings you could send opponents over, similar to pro wrestling, with headlocks and sucker-punches.
That is not today’s roller derby. While it is a full-contact sport and often feels like a line of scrimmage on wheels or a rolling mosh pit, it is an intelligent sport, with more rules and penalties than I’ve yet learned.
The evolution of derby has to do with the style of tracks, according to Jamie Fargo, also known as Ally McKill, the co-captain of Steel Hurtin’, the league’s top team.
“Old school derby was primarily bank track derby, where you could send people over the rails,” Fargo said. “Just from the way the track is set up, it has the possibility of being more aggressive. But flat track is still no joke. The older style of derby is maybe a little more theatrical or exaggerated.”
Fargo said roller derby disappeared for a while, but was revived in 2003, with the establishment of the Texas Roller Girls in Austin, Texas.
“They’re kind of known as the godmothers of modern roller derby,” Fargo said. “It got roller derby back in the popular imagination, and it just grew from there.”
By 2006, when the Steel City league was formed, there were about 50 leagues across the country that belonged to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, which is responsible for rules, sanctioned game play and tournaments, Fargo said.
Steel City was established by five women, who didn’t really know anything about the sport. Fargo was one of them.
“I hadn’t skated since I was a kid, so there was a learning curve, but we were all kind of like that,” she said. “We kind of all learned together.”
Fargo’s team, Steel Hurtin’, is the league’s A-level team. It travels all over for bouts and will even participate in a tournament called EuroClash in the United Kingdom later this year. The league also has a B-level team called Steel Beamers and this year they’ve also organized a new C-level team for newer skaters called the Blitzburgh Bombers, whose bouts will stay within a 2- or 3-mile radius of the city.
Fargo said the league has attracted skaters from across the Pittsburgh area, Ohio and West Virginia. She said there are other leagues in the Pittsburgh area, but some are more recreational than competitive and none are as “established” as Steel City.
“I guess, generally, adult women don’t have a lot of options to play league sports,” Fargo said. “Roller derby is a hobby, but it’s also a competitive outlet for people.”
Fargo also said derby’s camaraderie and “strong community” attracts athletes.
“I’ve made some of my best friends as an adult in roller derby,” she said. “I would say it’s a very eclectic community–there’s room for all types of people. If you come to roller derby and you’re willing to work hard, people will accept you for who you are.”
That type of atmosphere is what brought Lyndsey Seskey of Canonsburg to the fresh meat class in October. Seskey, whose derby name is ScaryJane, said she had been working on fitness and healthy choices when she discovered derby.
“The sport struck me as unique – a consistent way to make me physically, mentally and emotionally stronger so long as I always give my all,” she said in a statement. “I think I simply wanted to find my independence, a fun form of exercise, a challenge and to prove to myself that I could.”
For me, derby has been a financial and time commitment, with a 45-minute drive to and from practice, but the sport has proved worth the effort. Also, the people I’ve met in derby are some of the nicest, truest and accepting people I’ve ever met, making it slightly easier to get back on my skates after I’ve been flattened out on the track.
It’s also provided an opportunity to improve my understanding of Pittsburgh culture. Since joining derby, I’ve tasted my first mac-and-cheese filled pierogi, the surprisingly useful term “yinz” is now a regular part of my vocabulary, and I’ve learned to get through the Fort Pitt Tunnel without causing a 12-car pileup.
Steel City’s season has just started, with the first bout scheduled for 7 p.m. April 7. Both the Beamers and the Hurtin’ will be playing bouts against Roc City Roller teams from Rochester, New York.
I won’t be playing in those games, as I won’t be placed on a team until I pass scrimmage testing March 29. But I’ll be there, cheering on the black and gold.
Reporter Katie Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.