PHOTO FRIDAY: Roller Derby Through The Lens Of A Newbie

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Story & Photos by Michael Brunk

I recently had the good fortune to spend a Saturday evening in Seattle’s Key Arena, surrounded by roaring crowds cheering on skilled athletes. No, not basketball. Something far more interesting to a non-sports fan like me… the Rat City Rollergirls.

Part rock and roll and part spectacle, with a solid base of physical sport underpinning things, roller derby is enjoying a modern resurgence. I’m old enough I can remember watching roller derby on TV but I have to admit I didn’t recall the details as I wandered into the venue.

Fortunately fellow photographer and roller derby super-fan Claw Kelsay noticed my deer-in-the-headlights expression and took the time to lay a little roller derby Zen on me.

First off, the Rat City Rollergirls aren’t a team. They’re a league! I was fuzzy on that point at first. Turns out there are actually four teams that compete against each other within the league and a traveling all-star team that competes against other leagues in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

Claw went on to explain how the competition actually works.

A match consists of two 30-minute periods. In each period there are multiple 2-minute segments called “jams” where each team can score points. Each team sends five players out to skate. The jammer, the offensive player who can scores points for their team. A pivot, who runs the defense and can swap places with the jammer. And three blockers who work to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring.

Defensive skaters from Grave Danger and the Throttle Rockets line up to form the pack

As play starts, the defensive players from both teams start skating in a formation known as “the pack.” The two jammers start skating when the last skater in the pack passes a line on the track. The goal of the jammers is to catch up to the pack, pass everyone and then catch up again and start scoring points.

One point is scored each time a jammer passes a blocker or pivot. Two points are scored if the jammer passes the opposing team’s jammer. The first jammer to pass the pack becomes the lead jammer and can either keep skating and score points or call off the jam.

Of course, the job of the blockers and pivot is to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring points while aiding their own jammer. They can use their hips and shoulders to block opponents but elbows, knees, heads and hands are all off limits.

Still, it’s fair to say that in the midst of all this excitement a skater might earn a penalty or two. A major penalty sends them immediately to the penalty box for one minute, while a total of four minor penalties results in a trip to the box.

Stars on their helmet covers indicate that these skaters are jammers, racing to score points for their teams

It was all a bit confusing at first but once the action started I picked up on it quickly enough. It helps that the skaters wear helmet covers to indicate their role. Jammers have stars on their helmets, pivots have stripes and the blockers wear a bare helmet. The points can roll in fast and furious, but a team of referees and officials keep track and the scoreboard is your best friend there.

The May 1st bout I attended was the second to last match of the season and would determine which two teams would skate in the upcoming championship bout. The evening saw the Derby Liberation Front competing against the Sockit Wenches and Grave Danger going head-to-head with the Throttle Rockets.

The first matchup, while exciting, turned out to be heavily weighted towards the Sockit Wenches with a final score of 258 to 56. Hey, I said the points piled up quickly.

The second bout was the real excitement for the evening as the Throttle Rockets and Grave Danger swapped the lead back and forth right down to the wire. In a final jam that had the crowd on its feet, Grave Danger managed the nail the coffin lid closed on the Throttle Rockets with a final score of 132 to 104.

I have to confess, after spending an evening photographing the event I really enjoyed myself. Traditional, professional sporting events have never held much of an attraction for me but there’s something about roller derby I find compelling. Yes, there’s an element of theater with the campy player names, costumes and mascots but you can’t deny that these women are truly athletes. And they’re doing this because they love it, not because someone is paying them truckloads of greenbacks.

It may look fun, but the potential for injury is very real. Skaters work out regularly and wear protective gear to reduce the risk.

That lends a different vibe to the whole, family-friendly affair. The skaters really embrace their fans and the fans in turn seem to have a vested interest in the success of the league. That investment has seen the Rat City Rollergirls move from a small skating rink in White Center to a former hangar at Magnuson Park to their current digs at Key Arena where they’re breaking attendance records for roller derby across the country, with over 5,700 fans at their April 10th match.

A final point Claw shared with me was the “do it yourself” ethic that the league embraces. The skaters not only get on the track and compete, they also run the league with most of the women wearing multiple hats organizing and managing things when they’re not working out and practicing. Now that’s dedication and a role model for empowerment I can get behind.

Contrast this with the recent news out of Philadelphia where a baseball fan was taser’d for running onto the field. I’m not arguing that the fan had any business being on the field, but it does lend weight to the idea that modern, professional athletes are too often pampered and protected from their fans.

I can’t help but think that if this had happened at a Rat City Rollergirls match, one of the women would have simply hip-checked the offender into the VIP seats and pressed on with the jam. And probably still have extended an invitation to the after-party along with the rest of the fans.

You can learn more about roller derby and get information about the June 5th championship match between the Sockit Wenches and Grave Danger at the Rat City Rollergirls website.

You can also check out this audio slideshow I put together. Note, this has a musical soundtrack so check your volume before clicking!

Click to Play
Click to Play Michael Brunk’s Photo Slideshow

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6 Responses to “PHOTO FRIDAY: Roller Derby Through The Lens Of A Newbie”
  1. Coverofnight says:

    Looks like they’re having fun, which is what it’s all about. I do miss the banked tracks and women flying over the railings, etc., but maybe that will come in time with continued success. I wonder if they’re more prone to injuries on a flat track. Would like to see less tattoos though….they’re scary looking now; just think how they’ll look in another 20 years with those tattoos!

    • Lori says:

      Banked tracks are coming back. Tilted Thunder Rail Birds starting up a Seattle area banked track league, one of only a handful in the entire nation. But you work with what you have and that’s why flat track is so popular.

      • Edie says:

        I love watching Flat track roller derby!! To me it would seem that both flat and bank track skating are dangerous either way. Bank track is sloped so you would probably pick up speed a lot faster without working as hard? I hope with the revival of roller derby that bank track won’t be fake like it was in the 70s. Seeing women beat each other up isn’t what I want to see this time around. What happened to men? There was co-ed roller derby in the 70s. Will Tilted Thunder have co-ed?

  2. jan says:

    Nice shots and story Michael. Felt like i was right there. If you like roller girls, Drew Barrymore had a movie last year featuring Roller Girls. it was pretty sweet.

    • Red says:

      Tilted Thunder is female only. The Puget Sound Outcasts are Washington States male roller derby team. There aren’t very many men’s teams at the moment, and I have yet to hear of a successful co-ed team other than some ad-hoc teams at big tournaments or RollerCon. Most of the men I know involved in derby are refs, coaches, or volunteers, with a handful of those making up the Outcasts.

  3. Maschine says:

    In Philly, we do amateur OSDA co-ed banked track roller derby.

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