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The Geekiest Sport on ESPN: Roller Derby

The Geekiest Sport on ESPN: Roller Derby

I’m going to come right out and say it: roller derby is the biggest, geekiest full-contact sport on the planet. Yes, in a world of chess-boxing and Quidditch, it’s a bold statement.

In case you’re not familiar: roller derby in its most recent modern iteration (circa early 2000s) is a full-contact sport played on roller skates. Ten skaters of two teams (one jammer and four blockers) skate, with the jammer scoring points for each player they lap whilst blockers play both defense and offense, preventing the passing of the opposing jammer while aiding their own. Banked track and flat track rulesets of the sport exist.

Boasting a major motion film (Whip It), several books, documentaries, World Cup-level events (with over 30 countries participating in the most recent Women’s Roller Derby World Cup) and the 2015 Championships of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) most recently broadcast on ESPN, the sport has established itself as both sizable and global.

But underneath the sweat, blood, and sheer athleticism of derby exists a culture that attracts geeks and allows them to express that passion within the sport.

Sledge Antilles

Image Credit: Chris Edwards (Courtesy of Calgary Roller Derby Association)

The photo above is just a single example in a sea of geekiness; a team coach sporting an Imperial tattoo meets with the head ref of Calgary Roller Derby Association, Sledge Antilles. In case you didn’t notice: Sledge’s number is 200; an homage to Wedge Antilles being Red “2” and the fact that Wedge is the only X-Wing pilot to survive 2 Deathstar runs, and have 2 Deathstars painted on his X-Wing (according to now wiped extended universe fiction). There is also an R2D2 helmet floating about if you look really close.

There’s clearly something different culturally in roller derby. Players, officials (non-skating and skating alike), coaches, support staff and announcers of geeky inclinations wear their passions and fandoms proudly. So many people in roller derby empower and identify themselves through their geekiness.

Roller Derby dazzler

Image Credit: Russ Desaulniers

“Dazzler was my comic hero when I was a little kid. She was a disco singer who fought crime on roller skates,” says Aldera Chisholm, a skater with Calgary Roller Derby Association, who also dons the makeup of her comic book hero namesake as warpaint. She is an unapologetic geek. “In my circle, everyone loves Firefly, we all play Carcassone and Catan, and want to go on adventures with The Doctor.”

It’s a common theme. Katherine Oughton, a.k.a. Optismash Prime, discusses why it’s more than a punny name, but an empowering identity: “I get to wear robot tights and yell ‘Roll Out!’ My leaguemates call me Prime, and I love it. I get to channel a childhood hero every time I lace up my skates.”  She and some of her leaguemates recently started a D&D group, DM’ed by her team coach.

Optismash Prime

Image Credit: Violet Deterrent 

Kathleen Janzen runs Nerd Rollerskates, a rollerskate shop that proudly wears its geekiness. Kathleen has a long and storied geeky history in derby, including temporarily changing her derby name from Roxy Acetylene to Dilithium Crystal for a Star Trek vs. Star Wars game at Rollercon, a roller derby convention.  She describes the sport and why it’s so attractive to geeks: “Roller derby grew out of (a) different kind of culture, the first roller derby teams had more in common with circus or burlesque than they did with the kind of sport people knew from high school. Naturally, if you are the kind of geek who likes sci-fi or board games and got made fun of by the jocks, roller derby is a clear alternative.”

Nerd Roller Skates

Photo Credit: (With Permission)

Jim Bourne, Kathleen’s partner, skates under the name Dev Null and is captain of the Chinook City Reservoir Dogs. He observes: “The culture is certainly different, being more inclusive of people who are different and allowing them to express those differences. I think that allowance is why people who are geeky are more visible.”

There’s something intrinsically counter-culture to roller derby.  It attracts many individuals who have been on the fringe and on the outside. The higher visibility of geeks in the sport is undoubtedly a result of its structure; one of inclusion and a come-as-you-are mentality.

Moreover, being a geek can be a valuable asset with involvement. Tabletop gamers especially, often find themselves at home within officiating ranks in the sport; understanding complicated rule sets, anticipating strategic play and keeping detailed paperwork (not unlike roleplaying character sheets or wargaming army rosters) are skills that are oft sought and deeply valued.

That said, whatever your inclination, you can find a home in derby. Look up your local derby league, spectate some games, volunteer or sign up to become a skater. You may just meet a star jammer who has longed to roll a bard for D&D to recruit to your group.

What’s the geekiest sport you’ve been involved in? Let us know in the comments below! 

Featured Image Credit: Teri Litorco

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