An inside look at the Niagara Roller Girls

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The Niagara Roller Girls is a not-for-profit grassroots sports organization that provides women athletes with opportunities to compete in a sport called roller derby within the Niagara region. Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members roller skating in the same direction (counterclockwise) around a track. Ellen Page starred in the film Whip It which revolved around the sport, serving to popularize and bring roller derbies back into the mainstream when it came out in 2009.

The Niagara Roller Girls is just one amateur league in what is becoming a global phenomenon as estimates put the total number of roller derby leagues at approximately 1,250 worldwide. Like other sports, roller derby has an official governing body called the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) that was founded in 2004. The League functions exactly like the NHL or NFL as it facilitates athletic development from feeder leagues who draft their best skaters to compete at a professional level.

“There are so many groups that are popping up around the world,” said Leanne Whiteley, President of the Niagara Roller Girls. “I think it’s because of something that happened last year which helped promote the sport. The WFTDA playoffs were televised on one of the ESPN channels, which was groundbreaking. Because of that momentum, roller derby will now be a demonstration sport in the 2020 Olympics.”

Whiteley describes the Niagara Roller Girls as a league for women with all types of athletic abilities ranging from the beginner skater level to the elite level.

“We have a training program which is set up in stages. The first stage is a 101 training where players learn how to skate, stop, fall correctly and basic skills like that,” explained Whiteley. “Then our second phase is the Smash Squad which is for people who have developed those basic skills and we prepare them for gameplay. They learn rules about roller derby and focus on gameplay and hitting. It is a full contact sport so how to hit and receive hits is vital. Once players master that we ask them to join the league.”

The Niagara Roller Girls consists of four teams which play bouts on a monthly basis according to their league schedule at the Haig Bowl Arena in St. Catharines. They also have a travel team which is made up of the league’s all-stars who go on the road to take part in bouts against other amateur league teams. Typically the Niagara Roller Girls traveling team will play teams in Southern Ontario or Western New York but there are around 200 to 300 leagues across all of North America.

Roller Derby is traditionally an all female sport and much of this has to do with the movement that laid the foundation and began the sport in the first place.

“The movement was started by women and it’s about empowerment and empowering women. Not only is roller derby a full contact sport but we also do outreach and volunteer work within the community,” said Whiteley.

Hailey Parker, a 30 year old theatre technician who is a player in the Niagara Roller Girls emphasizes the ethos of inclusivity that has pervaded the sport as a result of the context of its inception.

“Another amazing thing about roller derby is that it is a sport for women young and old. We have girls who are 19 and some skaters over 50. Thick and thin, it does not matter how much experience you have, we will teach you from scratch.”

Modern roller derby got its start in the late 1970‘s, began with strong ties to third wave feminism and is sometimes associated with a punk-rock aesthetic. “A lot of people today associate roller derby with Whip It but I think that a lot of our older members will remember it from [the] 1970s and 80s TV show. I remember growing up watching Roller Derby on TV and wanting to be part of that,” said Whiteley.

The initial movement tried to fight against sexism in sports and provide women with a space where they can safely engage in traditionally masculine roles in an athletic context without judgement. Even today, roller derby still provides that same safety for women and is a conduit for equality in the sporting world.

Whiteley discusses the relevance of roller derby for women and shares her view on the state of sexism in sports today, “There are things like exposure, differential funding and coverage tends to be more male dominated in sports. If you only see men in those roles it’s hard to associate yourself to take on that role. It’s so important for young girls and women to see other women in different roles to know there is potential out there [for them be a part of sports].” The sport goes far beyond just an athletic outlet for women though, at the core of roller derby is a philanthropic, inclusivity and community centered philosophy.

“I have to say, personally, I have not experienced discrimination [in sports]. I grew up playing co-ed soccer and held my own against the boys. I will say the sport being all female did appeal to me. It has been a great community for me to be a part of. I have gained so many new female friends and even though sometimes we don’t always agree on things, if a derby girl is in need everyone bands together to help,” said Parker. Although roller derby started as an all female sport, there are now men’s leagues popping up and sometimes leagues do host co-ed scrimmages.

Even though awareness of sexism and sports has come a very long way since the 1970’s, Whiteley believes that there is still work to be done and that it is always important to be aware of the gender parity in sports.

“I think we need to be aware of it because we haven’t reached equality yet. As a society, we need to work towards equality for all and until that happens we will have people fighting for that and that’s one of the things I like about roller derby. It’s not just about playing a sport, it’s about community; it’s supportive and open to all. It’s so neat to be a part of an organization where you have people from all walks of life and you can play a sport that everyone enjoys to support our community. Not many other sports can say that,” said Whiteley.

Recently the Niagara Roller Girls volunteered at the Pen Center wrapping Christmas presents for Hospice Niagara. Also, at each game a local charity is selected as the recipient of a 50/50 raffle. Typically the league chooses groups in the local community that are in need of funding. Groups who have been a part of this outreach work include: Big Brother and Big Sister, RAFT, Red Roof Retreat, several groups that support animals and Community Clean Up.

The Niagara Roller Girls does also need volunteers in order to facilitate bouts. In the past, high school students as well as Brock students have successfully gone through the training program and were able to serve as referees or scorekeepers in accordance with their curricular requirements. If you would like to volunteer with the Niagara Roller Girls please reach out to them through their Facebook page. If you are interested in supporting and spectating this local group, their 2017 season begins on February 25 at the Haig Bowl Arena in St. Catharines.

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