Sport, Society, and Soul: The Empowerment in Providence Roller Derby

“We may be knocking each other down, but really, we’re raising each other up,” says new skater RetroRocket.

This isn’t her first year in Providence Roller Derby, but it is her first year on their international travel team, The Rhode Island Riveters. Roller derby is the first sport Rocket has played professionally. “There was something that really spoke to me about the do-it-yourself, rough and tumble derby aesthetic,” she said. “It’s empowering to make the choice to use my body, and use it forcefully every day. The bruises end up being badges of honor. It’s not about ‘pretty’ anymore. It’s about ‘powerful.’”

For over 10 years, the resurgence of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association (WFTDA), from theater-on-wheels to a worldwide regulated sport, has changed the lives of thousands from all races, spiritualities and genders. “The roller derby community is a unique and progressive collective because it aims to be inclusive of trans women, intersex women and gender expansive individuals,” explained Sis Boom Bonnie. The derby world has become more than just a safe zone for all walks of life, but has become a pivotal focal point for personal growth and development. “This diversity and the ability to be an athlete first and a gendered individual second is really liberating,” said Dread Velvet.

“One thing I learned [is to] just be confident with who you are, and it is amazing to see what you are capable of,” said Varla Gunz. Before knowing a single thing about roller derby, she attended a bout featuring PRD against England’s London Brawling. In awe, she said to herself, “This is amazing! I want to do this! I can do this!” Since then, she’s become a personification of team spirit and an advocate for enhancing one’s own health. She explains PRD as a place where “we work to empower each other, hold each other up and find inner strengths we never knew we had.”

When one gets to know the athletes, one realizes that they all are living two lives. One is on the flat track. The other life can be that of a school teacher, a lawyer, a veterinarian, an engineer or someone you might know but didn’t recognize until the helmet comes off.  Even the 50-year-old Sinnamon Splice, who joined only a few years ago, finds that roller derby is a way of “reinventing yourself” and has caught the eyes and hearts of many adolescent girls watching from the stands. Several leagues have started their own junior roller derby to teach girls at a young age not only a great physical education, but also community bonding and self-empowerment. Currently PRD is in the early stages of developing their own junior league to create a new hub for the RI community. “I’d like to see the sport continue to grow in popularity and further develop in younger age groups so that more children have the opportunity to play prior to adulthood. It’s such a great way to gain body-confidence and positive self-esteem,” said Velvet.

Artoo Detoonate defines roller derby as “the great equalizer.” She would know, because she works as a skater in WFTDA and as a coach in MRDA (Men’s Roller Derby Association). “It was revived by women, the rules were built by women, and both the women and the men’s leagues play by identical rules,” said Artoo.

“I love that the men’s leagues are growing. Roller derby should be shared by all. I have a huge respect for the men who play roller derby,” said Smashley Olsen. It might be a woman’s world, but the men do provide something that other male-dominant non-inclusive sports could learn about when it comes to involving athletes of all genders. Smashley explains, “We all think differently and play differently. Watching the men or playing against them challenges me as a skater [and] forces me to try new things.”

If competing on the flat track is not be where you want to roll, PRD is always open to welcoming volunteers to be sanctioned referees, non-skating officials, announcers and live event staff. Many members of the PRD community will happily tell you things they’ve learned not only participating in events, but being members of one of several committees: from dieting and condition to life-hacks and social interactions. “Roller derby is about you. You practice for you. You play for you. You do what makes you happy,” said Smashley.

To learn more about PRD and buy tickets to both 2017’s Travel and Home Seasons, go to ProvidenceRollerDerby.com.