ROLL with it
Female skaters find derby mayhem empowering
By: Andrew Evans
DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Winnipeg Roller Derby League saw its second-ever "bout" Saturday night at the convention centre with the Canada vs. USA match of the Murder City Maidens (green shirts) vs. the Fargo-Moorhead (blue shirts) Derby Girls.
In his novel Fight Club, author Chuck Palahniuk envisioned a group of timid men from all walks of life gathering to beat each other senseless in an effort to break from the numbing monotony of their day-to-day lives. They return to their nine-to-five jobs with both bruises and a renewed sense of self-confidence.
Take that watered-down version of Palahniuk's vision, switch the gender, remove the themes of angry disillusionment and chaos, temper the violence and add eight wheels per participant...and you'll be close to the empowering mayhem of the Winnipeg Roller Derby League.
All right, maybe the analogy is a bit convoluted -- "We get penalties for that kind of thing," says league spokeswoman Portage n' Maim, better known as 36-year-old political communications officer Michelle Nyhof -- but still, it isn't hard to see the difference that strapping on roller skates, helmets, and pads and slamming into one another makes in the lives of the league's 80-plus skaters.
Just ask some of the "fresh meat" (the nickname affectionately attached to derby newcomers).
"It's really empowering, because you're basically saying, 'This is my space, no one's coming in my space, and if you come in my space? I'm gonna push you out!'" said newbie Jennifer Karton with a smile, a few hours before taking part in her first bout. By day, she's a mild-mannered graphic designer, "a fairly timid person" by her own admission. But for six hours a week, she is Sluggernaut, an ass-kicking, powerful derby girl.
Winnipeg Roller Derby League participant from Winnipeg's Murder City Maidens takes a fall during Saturday's event at the convention centre. (DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
"It's definitely an alter-ego. The more practise you put in the better you feel... and then your self-confidence is boosted so when you're walking down the street you're feeling that little bit tougher, that little bit meatier."
"I have a bag of derby gear in my trunk," added Nyhof, "and some days I feel like if I was just walking along the street and saw a little lady being mugged I could go and grab my gear and save her! That's how much self esteem (you gain)."
Karton only joined the WRDL in March after their first Winnipeg bout, without even knowing how to skate.
"My wheels came about a week before, I zoomed around the living room a few times and then I hit the track," she said.
After only four months of training -- and one visit to the doctor to nurse some mild injuries -- she was a competitive member of the Murder City Maidens, who battled the Fargo-Moorhead Derby Girls at the Winnipeg Convention Centre on Saturday night.
Flat-track roller derby is experiencing a boom in popularity as women in countries all around the globe are strapping on the pads. (The success of the Drew Barrymore-directed 2009 film Whip It deserves plenty of credit for bringing attention to the sport.) While derby has seen some flashes of success in the past -- typically as a scripted, WWF-esque spectacle -- Nyhof believes this new incarnation as a grassroots, community-driven sport has real staying power.
"I think a lot of women are looking for an opportunity to leave their daily lives a little bit," said Nyhof. "When I'm on the track, I don't think about my day-to-day worries... It's such a stress relief."
Not only is derby relatively unique as a contact-driven women's sport, Nyhof believes it's accessibility will foster further growth.
"I find that the majority of girls in our league come from no sporting background," she said, adding that a majority of the women who join are over 28. "You don't usually take up a new contact sport in your 30s... But we tell people, 'You can come to us with any set of skating skills, we'll teach you to skate, we'll teach you the rules, we'll teach you how to do this safely, and we'll teach you how to make the best of your body type. I don't think there's any other sport out there that's offering that.
"It seems that all the pieces are in line for derby to now really stick around."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2010 A32