Roller derby is not a sport for people afraid of falling. Because you will hit the floor at some point. And you have exactly three seconds to get back up.
When most people think of roller derby they likely conjure up images of women skating in fishnet stockings with bright face paint and whole lot of attitude. And in many leagues, roller derby is still all that. But roller derby is also a growing sport around the country for kids who have chosen to break from the pack; it's a sport where players choose who they want to be. And for young girls, that can be truly empowering.
“I think that's one of the biggest blossoming steps when you do roller derby is you get to choose a name, you get to choose your number, and then a lot of people become that person,” said
Merry Cardenas, president of the Wasatch Junior Rollers.
She says the sport allows boys and girls to grow out of their insecurities because in order to play, they have to learn how to take a hit, and how to fall down properly.
“I think this is more of a therapy sport for a lot of people—to help them get through things, to help them become who they are going to become,” Cardenas said. “A lot of our kids that come in have been bullied, don't fit it, don't have any friends, and don't have family roots here and they become one big family. Once they've started moving up or progressing, by the time that they're done, they have a little pack of their own friends, and they believe in themselves. I mean that's one of the biggest things with roller derby is believing who you are.”
You wouldn't necessarily think a full contact sport where players are known more for their aggressive skating and personal flair would be such a welcoming place for adolescents who still figuring out their place in the world. But Cardenas says that the game isn't a place for bullies roller derby is about more than just pushing people out of your way. And players agree.
“A lot of sports are really cliquey and there's always someone who is mean, some person who is going to put you down, and I feel like that is not tolerated at derby,” said 15 year-old Whipper Snapper. “Everyone is always like 'Do you punch people? And it's like no, I hug more there than the entire rest of the week. I think it's really important to know that it is terrifying when you first start. Everyone looks so scary and they seem so terrifying before you learn that they're teddy bears. So you're going to be scared. You're going to be like 'I can't do this.' And just push past that because it's really worth it and it affects your life way more than you could ever imagine.”
Whippersnapper says derby is one of the few places where she can just be the part of herself she wishes she could be all the time. That's part of the beauty of a sport where each player can pick her own persona and be that on the track, and eventually, in everyday life if she wants to.
“I want to be someone who can be weird, and expressive, and do their best,” she said. “Because I always have this feeling where I have to hold down and that's not what it's like in derby. In derby, it's try your hardest ,and even if you fail, that's just going to make you better. And that's what I want to embody when I am out there. I'm not like this a lot of other places, and I do want to, I do want to be able to be as confident and friendly … that's what makes it hard is coming from here because sometimes I'll go home and it's almost painful to switch out of that.”
The transition from who players are at derby to who they are at school is difficult in part because the players on the team are so close—more like family members than friends or teammates. And that has a lot to do with the culture of junior roller derby in Utah. Nikki McCorristin co-founded the Wasatch Junior Rollers seven years ago.
While McCorristin is the team's medic, she's also a nurse at the University of Utah's Neuropsychiatric Institute and she plays roller derby, coaches roller derby, and cheers for roller derby. She loves that the sport teaches players that they can embrace their bodies – just as they are.
“I tell everybody roller skates are the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you are a tall kid or a stout kid or a short kid or whatever, you put anybody on skates and who knows what your skills are.
Roller derby is full contact and on the Wasatch Junior Rollers there is no separation of the sexes. That means that boys can push girls and girls can push boys. The founders decided to make it gender neutral and many parents like it that way.
“I think it's good because it teaches the kids that a contact sport is not just for boys,”said Ray Alviar.“You know, a lot of parents imagine the girls to be really, really delicate. And roller derby teaches the kids and the parents too that girls are just as tough as boys and let them thrive.”
The night before the team drove to Washington state for a regional tournament, where they ended up taking second place, I called Nikki McCorristin to ask her one last question. McCorristin's daughter is one of the original players on the team and I wanted to know what she hoped her daughter had learned from the sport.
“I want my daughter and all of these kids to learn that it's okay to fall, it's okay for life to push you over—it's not okay to not get up,” she said. “They've got to keep fighting.
“When I run out onto the track, the very first thing that I tell them, and they will tell you this, too, is 'I want you to close your eyes and take a breath.' Because sometimes if they can just let their heart rate slow down and get everything back to a normal pace, they realize that it was just the fear of getting hurt that caused them to cry. And so if I can take a moment and just get them past that breath, they get past that fear and they can move on.
It's kind of a metaphor for life for me. Life will hit you down and it's all this practicing that you did before that got you to this moment to teach you how to judge the severity of an incident and if you can move past it or not. So sometimes if life knocks you down, you do, you just have to pause and take a moment, take a breath, hold it if you have to, and then you have to keep going. Because the game is not going to end just because you are sitting on the floor.”
***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.