WRITER | KIM HYTINEN
The sport of roller derby can be traced back to the 1920s, although it was merely a roller-skating race in the beginning. It wasn’t until the late ‘30s that roller derby as we know it started to take shape.
Roller derby resembles skating politely around a rink about as much as it resembles football. It’s a game of jammers, blockers, pivots – and a lot of heart. Unusually, it started out as — and primarily remains — a sport for women, but thanks to its growing popularity, men’s, unisex, and junior roller derby leagues are springing up. Proponents expect that, one day, it may even become an official Olympic sport.
There are varying levels of play in roller derby leagues throughout the state, from Detroit through Flint to Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids – all the way north to Houghton and Iron Mountain! The Michigan Interleague Coordinators put together scrimmages and multileague events and host meetings once a year for statewide teams.
Ali Jahr is a member and president/head coach of the East Lansing Roller Derby. She enjoys the many different playing levels Michigan represents in the roller derby community. In Alpena, Shipwreck is one of the newest teams in the state and competes at the lowest level of play for the Great Lakes Cup. Flint is highly ranked and often competes in tournaments nationwide.
How is it Played?
Two teams of five players skate counterclockwise around a track, with a designated jammer on both teams. Within the two 30-minute periods, they play what are called Jams, two minutes of play. In very simple terms, the jammer tries to score points by lapping the opposing team. Play is fast and furious as skaters play both offense and defense at the same time. There are tactics and strategies for play that teams use to gain and keep the lead. Though penalties can occur, skaters declare that this sport is not a rude one.
Battle Creek Roller Derby has been around since 2011 and is a small-yet-mighty team, according to Rachel Hayes, team captain. She said the biggest misconception is that people assume roller derby is the same as what they saw on TV years ago – very physical. “Because of this, people get scared of trying it out because they don’t want to get hurt,” she said. “To clear this up, I would say that roller derby is only as safe as you are.” Each game is required to have medics, both nonskating and skating officials, player padding, proper conditioning, and practice for techniques on the right way to fall safely.
Many roller derbies are the opposite of knocking people down – they work on bringing them up. Leagues pride themselves on being a place of encouragement and exercise. Diversity in athletic levels and interests means that one team can have a doctor, a lawyer, a stay-at-home mother, a nurse, a retail worker, and a financial advisor all on the court at once. All ages are welcome in this league, an uncommon offering in adult competitive women’s sports.
The Detroit Roller Derby is celebrating their 15th season in November; their AllStar team competes at the highest level of the sport and is ranked 37th in the world. Detroit Roller Derby president and AllStars co-captain Kelly Genei said she is most proud of the team’s ability to adapt their play style through the quickly evolving sport. “Being one of the original teams is both a point of pride and often a challenge,” she said. “With deep roots and many veteran skaters, change is hard, and I’m so proud of our team for their eagerness to evolve.”
Genei is a teacher by day and derby girl by night. She once had a different persona for the derby, but that is no longer the case. The empowerment received from the sport has transitioned into her everyday life. “I ditched my separate ‘derby alter ego’ years ago,” Genei said. “She and I aren’t two different people; we are the same strong, bold, athletic woman during work, personal life, and on the track. Derby is in my soul and is a part of everything I do. Almost every skater I know lives this sport. It makes us stronger in everything, every day, and it’s not a gimmick.”