Derby veterans are teaching young girls how to roll.
Richmond’s first junior roller derby league is training the next generation of skaters to jam, block, and pivot, as well as help change the sport’s misperceptions.
The founders of Commonwealth Roller Derby created the nonprofit recreational league out of “our love of the sport and the desire to help it grow and to have all levels of derby available,” said co-founder Marcy Huster. “Growing athletes from the youth stage, we think, is a really important foundation for that.”
In addition to battling opponents, skaters of all levels have to battle the misunderstandings many others have of the sport. “They think we’re just out there goofing around and trying to make an impression from an entertainment standpoint,” Huster said. “There’s something about females doing contact that–I hate to say it–is kind of sexualized and not taken seriously.”
That idea rolls contrary to derby’s original spirit. “Back in 1935, when Leo Seltzer started derby, it was a 50-50, male-female sport,” Huster said. “They’d have teams set up of five women and five men.”
The bodychecking and generous use of elbows that often come to mind when people think about derby weren’t part of Seltzer’s game. “It really started out as a race that turned into a contact sport,” Huster said.
Huster and two other River City Rollergirls retirees opened Commonwealth Roller Derby (CRD) in June 2012.
The league makes it easier for people to play and learn the sport. Huster said the typical recreational organization requires members to perform administrative duties. “In addition to three or so practices a week, they also have to do committee work and outreach work,” she said.
“So we restructured [CRD] to be a lot less commitment and just kind of more for fun for retiring skaters, skaters coming back off of injury, and for people who want to learn the sport to decide whether they want to move onto the competitive league,” she said.
Although CRD began by catering exclusively to adults (the number of which now ranges between eight and 12 members), its founders always wanted to build a junior league, which it did in Fall 2013. CRD now has just under 20 junior skaters.
“The first thing that we do is teach them to skate properly, and have a strong stance to develop their endurance,” Huster said. “We do off-skate exercises to develop the core and the lower body, as well as keeping the upper body fit. Having a strong sense of cross training, health, and nutrition is really important to having a strong body that can actually participate in the sport.”
Following the Junior Roller Derby Association training program, CRD coaches lead juniors through three levels of education and training that end with skaters ready to give and take hits. “While contact is important, it becomes strategic, instead of: ‘Oh, we’re going to go out and hit everybody,'” Huster said. That’s one of the things people misconstrue about roller derby: that it’s a Battle Royale on wheels.
CRD is helping change people’s perceptions by showing juniors, their parents, family, and spectators how the sport really plays. “It’s a matter of educating [people],” Huster said, although admitting, “it’s kind of a slow process.”
As juniors progress through the training levels, they travel to New Jersey, North Carolina, and other cities to scrimmage with other skaters. “That really is a tough part of the sport right now,” Huster said about the lengthy bus rides. Ultimately, CRD would like to add a second local team to make scrimmaging easier.
Despite the travel issues, Huster likes how the junior league is developing. “I think it’s doing well… the kids are committed,” she said. “It’s a complex sport, and watching them learn and pick things up so quickly is really gratifying. They’re coming together as a team.”
Although many co-ed leagues exist across the country,1 and despite CRD being a co-ed league itself, only girls make up CRD’s junior division.2 “Richmond just doesn’t seem to have an interest in a co-ed derby,” Huster said. “We only seem to be recruiting females.”
But while young girls and women play other contact sports (soccer, basketball, lacrosse), Huster said there remains a stigma that roller derby is somehow too rough. “I realize that maybe we still haven’t gotten to the point where people are comfortable with women in full-contact sports,” Huster said. “But when you meet these folks, whether it’s at our junior level or the other competitive teams here in the city, they’re some phenomenal athletes that really are deserving of respect.”
Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Roller Derby