They dress in fishnet stockings, low cut shirts and short shorts. Their names run the likes of Sgt. Harms, Alabama Succotash, Scout Flinch and Mutha Thumper, and their injuries—broken ankles, bruised tailbones, twisted knees—are just as tough. They bring campiness to new levels.
They are the Alberni Valley Roller Girls, and they are bringing the roller derby revival to the central Island with their first official bout this Saturday, Dec. 10 at Glenwood Centre. Slay Belles 2011 is holiday themed and features exhibition teams Violent Night vs. Deck the Dolls. Other teams are coming from elsewhere on Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley..
Make no mistake: under the wild costumes and makeup these roller derby girls are athletes. And they are claiming their sport with vengeance.
“Roller derby is a sport that’s not a women’s sport following a men’s sport. It’s in its own place in the world as a women’s sport first,” says Diandra Jurkic-Walls (she recently changed her derby name to The Con, as her original was deemed too saucy for an all-ages event).
“It’s really exciting when you think about equality in sports,” she adds.
The campy outfits and names “takes the sport and makes it more fun,” says Jurkic-Walls. “It’s a way to bring more girls into the sport.”
Jurkic-Walls has played organized soccer, volleyball, basketball and more. She has a background in community development in sport. She’s not new to athletics. And she loves roller derby. “Roller derby is the most engaging sport I’ve ever played,” she said. “We talk a lot about athleticism…It’s such a great workout.”
Roller derby began in the United States 1935 when an American sports promoter, Leo A. Seltzer organized a roller skating endurance race involving 25 teams of two skaters—one male and one female per team. At the time bicycle races were popular, but Seltzer put a different spin on the sport, according to a report from the American National Museum of Roller Skating.
Seltzer organized a roller marathon that challenged teams to skate 3,000 miles around a track in the Chicago Coliseum. The race took a month and at the end, only nine of the 25 teams finished.
In 1937, sportswriter Damon Runyan suggested more physical contact between the skaters would make the sport more entertaining. Exaggerated physical activity and violence became staples of derbies.
The sport grew over the next three or four years, but the beginning of the Second World War brought on the demise of the sport.
The modern renaissance of roller derby appeared in 2001 in Austin, Texas and centred on women-only teams. The 2009 movie Whip It, starring Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore cemented the sport’s new popularity. South of the border there are more than two dozen roller derby leagues, as well as a magazine dedicated to the sport. Roller derby is catching on in Canada, too: Toronto was recently the scene of the first-ever Roller Derby World Cup.
Jurkic-Walls sits on the Roller Derby Association of Canada, which was formed fairly recently—long after Team Canada was pulled together from a series of regional tryouts (one of Jurkic-Walls’ friends from Terrace, Brie “Bone Machine” Birdsell, earned a spot on the team). Teams like the Alberni Valley Roller Girls operate out of their own pockets, Jurkic-Walls said.
The Roller Girls held a sponsorship drive and have several corporate, business and individual sponsorships in place now.
The team came about after Jurkic-Walls moved to Port Alberni from Prince George, where she was a member of Rated PG. Two things happened, then: she met Holly Massop, a local woman with an interest in the sport, and Jurkic-Walls’ former Rated PG teammate Marissa Balahura moved to town.
“We came up with the concept of having a roller derby team in the Valley early in the spring. We had our first try-it session in May,” Massop said. “We’ve pretty much been going strong ever since.”
The Roller Girls practice a couple of times a week in different venues (Alberni Elementary gym, the United Church gym) and are coached by Balahura and Paul Schroeder. Practices usually draw 15 to 20 members whose backgrounds vary: social workers, nurses, business owners, administrators, community co-ordinators.
Massop (Sgt. Harms) said the sisterhood of the sport as well as the competitiveness are big draws for her. “It’s strong, it’s hard, it’s competitive, it’s super physical. It makes you feel tough and sexy and amazing.
“As athletes, we take ourselves pretty seriously,” she said. Warmup drills are tough, and the team has skill levels they must pass before they are allowed to “jam” in a bout.
“But we recognize the fun and sarcastic irony,” she added. “It’s a little naughty, it’s a little taboo.”
Their derby names are a big part of their identity on the flat track; some of them earn their names in fairly dubious manner, while others choose their own.
“It gives you an alter ego away from your regular life,” Massop said. “You put on your hot pants and you become someone else.”
Carole-Anne Phillips used to watch her husband go play hockey and wondered what she could do. When the roller derby team was formed, she joined.
“It’s so empowering,” she said. “You feel strong. This is something for me.”
Tickets for Slay Belles 2011 cost $10 ($5 for children 12 and under) and are available only in advance at Sweet Avenue or Port Thrift Shop on Third Avenue or from any member of the Alberni Valley Roller Girls. Tickets will not be sold at the door.
Limited track-side “suicide seating” is available. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., first whistle blows at 7 p.m.
For more information on the team, go online to www.albernivalley rollergirls.com.