Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Ithaca Week, a weekly magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.
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“Welcome to ‘Your Mom’s Place’,” Johnna Gray shouts above the clamor of skidding wheels and conversation. It’s the end of a sweaty practice for the Ithaca League of Women Rollers Junior Team, and the enthusiastic derby trainer is ushering the night’s “fresh meat” into the rink.
Lingo for new recruits, the continuous turnaround of “fresh meat” to the ILWR mirrors a larger trend in derby. Today, roller derby is considered to be the fastest growing sport, with more than 273 full member teams worldwide listed as of 2013, according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
The game is played with five players on each team — four blockers and one jammer, or point-scorer. Points are scored when the first jammer to make her way through the pack passes players on her second lap. The ILWR has two main teams, the Suffer Jets and the Blue Stockings.
But while the sport is currently a global craze, Gray, a graphic design student at Tompkins Cortland Community College, is honest about the lasting legacy of derby, which has a tendency to fade from the spotlight as fast as team rosters change. Gray skated with the Cortland-based team, the Crown City Rollers, for four years before transferring to the ILWR, which began in 2007, when the team had to shut down due to financial reasons.
The sport’s unpredictable levels of popularity are often attributed to derby’s bad reputation for being dangerous or staged. These misconceptions, Sue ‘Cam Arrow’ Dozoretz, the former Ithaca Suffer Jets co-captain, said detract from the public’s understanding of roller derby as a serious sport that combines athleticism, strategy and teamwork.
It is essential for participants in derby to warm up and properly train new recruits the fundamentals, including skating, blocking, and most of all, how to fall safely and recover, Vancouver-based derby enthusiast, nutritionist and trainer, Carla “Booty Quake” Smith, said.
“Cross training and warming up are really important in roller derby because it’s an injury prone sport,” Smith said. “It’s not a matter of if you’ll get injured. It’s more of a question of when and how badly. We keep insurance statistics in our league and we have lower incidences of injuries after warm ups.”
Dozoretz says even though roller derby is a fast-paced, full contact sport, and participants can have athletic injuries like broken fingers or ACL tears, it is no more dangerous than soccer.
“We’ve grown really smart about how we train, so we train to prevent injury,” Dozoretz said. “I do a lot of cross training outside of derby so that I don’t get hurt, and I don’t think the injury rate is any higher than in any other sport.”
New skater Chrysalis Kendall has been attending roller derby practices for about three weeks. The hardest part about the sport so far for her is the scare factor, but since the team is very inviting she feels accepted and wants to continue playing.
“Before doing this, I had probably roller skated twice in my life,” she said. “[But] everyone here is really nice, [and] they want everyone to learn and be safe. They also want everyone to really have fun and enjoy what they’re doing.”
Dozoretz, who retired in October, is still active in roller derby and continues to help train the new members. She said as a competitive athlete, she stayed involved in the sport because the SufferJets continue to improve and she wants to help the next generation of skaters.
“I really like the physical challenge of this sport,” she said. “I like that every season I come back, there’s new skills that I want to master, and continue to become a better skater.”