What do you do with an old gym or parking lot? Easy, say the North Central Kansas Taboo skaters. You turn it into a roller derby track.
When you say the words “roller derby,” most people laugh, admits Erin Boyer.
But for Boyer and other women from North Central Kansas—and a growing number of women around the world—the new roller derby is a serious sport. So serious, in fact, that the U.S. Olympic committee is considering whether to add it to the lineup for the 2020 competition.
“The old derby was about beating up on each other—you go to a fight and a skate breaks out,” says Boyer. “This is not the same roller derby that people have seen in the movies.”
Boyer skates for the North Central Kansas Taboo team, which is organized under the principles of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the largest sanctioning body in the world for women’s roller derby.
The Taboo team practices at the former White Rock High School gymnasium in Burr Oak—which also happens to be where Boyer graduated from high school in 2001.
The building sat unused for several years after the school consolidated with Mankato, but a new owner of the building sees possibilities for roller derby and other activities drawing crowds back to the Jewell County city.
The fact that competitions take place on a 44’x88′ flat track is the first difference spectators will notice in the sport they might remember from the ’60s and ’70s, Boyer says.
Those televised competitions were often scripted, and bouts were staged on a banked track.
“Roller derby is a full body contact sport, but we’re not allowed to hit other skaters with our hands,” says Boyer, who is one of three blockers on a five-member team. “We do knock people down, but we’re training to do it in a safe manner—not be swinging out and hitting, but by leaning and pushing out of the way.”
Other positions on the track during a bout are the pivot — a lead skater who sets the pace of the race — and a jammer, the position that scores points for the team.
The three blockers provide both offense and defense. They help their own jammer advance through the pack — and try to prevent the opposing team’s jammer from moving forward. Jammers score points when they lap other skaters on the track.
Right now, the ten women who make up the newly formed team meet to train, do skate drills, and learn the rules of the game.
“It will probably be next season before we start to compete in actual bouts,” Boyer says.
No Experience Necessary
Boyer’s last experience on skates was ten years ago during a senior class skating party to the rink in Superior, Nebraska.
When she saw a post on Facebook last fall recruiting skaters for a league in North Central Kansas, she called up organizer Angie Kjelberg, of Beloit, and asked what it took to become a roller derby skater.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to want to have a lot of fun,’”Boyer says. “And I said—I can do that.”
Boyer said even women who have never skated are encouraged to try out if they’re interested. Team members will teach new recruits the skills they need.
“It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be,” she says. “We never turn away anyone because of size or ability. You can always learn.”
The NCK Taboos would like to recruit more members, as well as people interested in learning to serve as referees. The current team members hail from Beloit, Osborne, Mankato and Minneapolis. Another woman who calls Belleville home, Nicole Lauber, hopes to start training with the team soon, Boyer says.
We don’t necessarily want to represent one city, but all of North Central Kansas,” she says.
While 18 is the minimum age to participate, there is no maximum. Kjelberg became interested in roller derby when she heard a league was forming in Salina.
“I asked ‘Is 42 too old to roller derby?’” Kjelberg laughs. “And the president of the Salina Sirens wrote me back and said ‘I’m 38.’”
Skaters provide their own gear, which includes “quad” skates — the old-fashioned, four wheeled kind — a safety approved helmet, mouth guard, elbow and knee pads, and wrist guards. Equipment can cost $200 for a basic kit, or more than $500 for more professional brands, Boyer says.
Since flat tracks can be both indoors and outdoors — gymnasiums to parking lots —skaters must own indoor and outdoor wheels.
The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association explains the sport, and why it’s perfect for rural communities:
The flat track version of the sport evolved in 2001, and has quickly grown to encompass more than 400 leagues worldwide. This is in large part due to the ease of setting up a flat track—it can be done on any flat surface that is suitable for skating, such as skating rinks, basketball courts, parking lots, and even airplane hangars.
This greatly reduces the capital needed to start up a roller derby league, and allows small groups of people to get a fledgling league off the ground. The DIY spirit that drives the sport allows roller derby leagues to create their own unique identities and adapt their structures to reflect their local communities.
Although Boyer learned about roller derby on the internet social networking site Facebook, it was the lure of physical activity in a different social setting that pushed her onto the roller derby track.
“I wanted a reason to go out and be active,” says Boyer. “Roller derby is a huge social environment. I could go out and jog, but it wouldn’t be as interactive and entertaining as a team sport.”
Boyer said her husband, Ryan, told her to “go for it,” and even her two children, ages two and five, are interested in skating now that their mom has picked up the sport. The Boyers operate Wicked by Design, a racing graphic design company, and also race cruiser cars.
“Roller derby in general has a strong emphasis that family and work come first,” Boyer says. “When we had our first meeting, Angie told us if there was a conflict with practice and family and work, we have to take practice,” she said. Team members pay $45 for insurance on themselves, and also have a liability policy that protects the venue wherever they skate, she says.
“We’d like to practice other places, maybe move it around,” she says. “We just haven’t found a lot of other places willing to let us use their facilities.”
Before teams are allowed to participate in actual bouts, team members are tested and must meet minimum skill requirements and prove their knowledge of the rules.
Rollers With A Mission
One aspect of the new roller derby that might look familiar to spectators is team members’ penchant for choosing alter egos and outfits that reflect the attitude of their teams. Boyer’s skate name, for instance, is “Bruisin’ Banshee.” On the track, Kjelberg is known as “AntagonizHer.”
The point, they say, is to empower women through exercise and hard work. As well as promoting roller derby, the NCK Taboo team also works to raise awareness of the serious subject of child sex-abuse, Kjelberg says.
“That subject is so Taboo that people don’t want to talk about it and instead sweep it under the rug,” Kjelberg says. “I want to make kids, teens and adults aware that it is okay to ‘Just Tell’ when it comes to sexual abuse.”
Boyer says she quickly became addicted to the sport. And she wants other women to know that it’s okay to take a risk on the unknown — whether it’s something unexpected like roller derby or other new interests.
“If you want to do something you think you would enjoy, just do it,” she says. “Find some other people who enjoy the same thing, and just do it.”
Deb Hadachek is the editor of the Belleville, Telescope of Belleville, Kansas, where this article first appeared. Check out the Telescope here.