Mopping the floor with another skater as she hurtled down the oval tracks of the Toronto LOCO Roller Derby just felt like second nature for Knuckle Slamwich.
But roller derby is more than just a sport for Slamwich, or Slam for short, the derby alter ego of Humber student Samantha Barr.
It’s an identity, a community and a passion. It’s the uniqueness of roller derby’s genesis and the welcoming nature of its community that attracted Barr and many others.
“I think there’s a certain aesthetic appeal to it. It’s just a really fun sport. I never successfully played a sport until I played roller derby,” she said.
“I’ve really noticed a change in myself and I think people recognize a change in their friends,”
the Fundraising Management student said. “It’s really amazing for your self-confidence.
Men typically dominate the sports sphere and in Canada it is no different. Barr said that’s what sets roller derby apart.
“It was a woman’s sport first and even historically it has been an opportunity for women to play a sport that’s grassroots, that has a sort of feminist slant,” she said.
Barr said the best way to describe roller derby is simply as a race with obstacles.
“It’s not like any other sport I know. There isn’t a ball, first of all. It’s all done with people. You score points with people,” she said.
The sport combines a high level of complexity and strategy with rigorous physicality.
There are two main positions in the five-a-side sport that sees players skate around an oval track. A designated “jammer” on each team has to skate through the “pack” comprised of four “blockers” on each team. Each lapping of an opposing skater earns the jammer, and the team, a point during two-minute sessions known as “jams”. The team that gets the most points in the typically hour-long match wins.
Barr started off playing five years ago while at Western University and decided to found the not-for-profit Toronto LOCO Roller Derby in September 2012. She created the league for players desiring a more casual low-contact (hence LOCO) environment than the ultra-competitive Toronto Roller Derby.
“We’re a happy little band of misfits,” said Barr.
Barr recently switched from LOCO to full contact to play more games with other full-contact teams and get more experience.
Justin Brown coaches the Mixin’ Vixens, and says the decision was a natural one to make with how the sport’s matured and evolved.
“The game’s really shifted in the last five (to) 10 years,” said Brown, a Humber Industrial Design graduate.
“It’s become more of a sport than a pastime so you’re getting more athletic frames, stronger training, and more of a commitment to athleticism,” he said.
Barr and Brown hold training sessions for strength and technique every week, generally in the expansive basement of Emmanuel-Howard Park Church on Roncesvalles.
The regular training sessions give women like Anita Crawford, a 2014 Media Communications Humber graduate, a chance to play a competitive sport in a comfortable, welcoming setting. Crawford had done some ice-skating in the past when she joined, but knew virtually nothing about how to play roller derby.
“I was literally Bambi on ice,” said Crawford, whose love of everything Disney inspired her derby name Snow Fright.
“They taught me everything and everyone was so patient with me,” she said.
Brown said opportunities to play sports for women like Crawford and Brown’s fiancée, and fellow LOCO member, Eileen Lewis, a.k.a. “Diebrarian”, are really limited after high school.
“Once you hit 18, there’s nothing,” he said.
“Either you’re playing for a college or you’re playing in a beer league. There’s no real organized top end sport unless you’re playing within a university setting,” said Brown.
Katie Davignon, known in the derby world as Gorschach, is another long-time member of the Vixens. She wouldn’t exchange the experiences she’s had for anything.
“There are some delightful weirdos here and I feel like I can really be myself in this environment,” she said.
Davignon said the stereotype that roller derby is only played by angry butch lesbians is far from the truth.
“There are butch lesbians, femme lesbians, there are androgynous individuals, there are heterosexual individuals. It’s really a place for everybody,” she said.
Davignon points to roller derby community events such as Clam Slam as examples of this inclusiveness. Clam Slam is held annually every summer as part of Pride Week in Toronto.
“Clam Slam is open to anybody who identifies as LGBTQ. Whatever kind of non-hetero alignment you are, you are welcome to come and skate in this event,” said Davignon.
Roller derby is booming in the USA and Barr says successful events like Clam Slam prove a growing demand exists in Canada as well. Barr feels like there would be plenty of room for roller derby at Humber too.
“I’d love to see it break into colleges and universities,” she said. “I’d love to see it move into high schools, especially. Having more teenage girls get the opportunity to play roller derby would be fantastic.”