Strength and grace — the first two words that come to mind when picturing roller derby. This may be the exact opposite of what many people who see the sport on television or in movies picture, but after watching for just a handful of minutes it is clear there are no better words to encapsulate it.
To many people roller derby is, more or less, unknown. Those familiar with the up-and-coming sport likely have seen it on TV or are a part of it themselves.
Watching a game, or a bout, to some may look like watching a moving puzzle. There are so many moving pieces at any given time.
There are only two positions, jammer and blockers, and points are scored when a jammer passes a player from the opposing team. It also happens to be one of the only sports where both teams can score simultaneously.
Anahi Espindola, or Victoria Amazonica as she is known with the Palouse River Rollers, said the complexity of the sport is what makes it so special.
“I think people usually consider this, ‘Oh women hitting each other and bouncing,’ but I think it is way more interesting than that,” she said.
Blockers and jammers participate in separate jams that make up a full bout. Espindola said it involves a lot more than what is seen from first glance, from technique and skill to game plans.
“It is more interesting than just hitting things, there is a lot of technique, there is a lot of positional abilities, skills that you have to have to do that, there’s a lot of footwork to be able to do,” she said.
Training and practices involve not only technique but working on plays and learning how to be comfortable in situations that do not feel normal to the body.
“It gets kind of chaotic and you have to be OK with that,” Espindola said of the bouts.
When picturing athletes such as gymnasts, track athletes, or football players, normally there is a clear image of how that athlete should look, like a box they are expected to fit into. Espindola said she fell in love with this sport because there is no box.
“There (are) all these restrictions and then you can’t do it even though you really want to. I feel that in derby, you can be whatever and that will be very valuable successful in whatever team.”
Not only are different body types accepted on the team, they are celebrated.
“Having a very diverse team in terms of body shapes and sizes and styles of skating is better than having a very homogeneous team because having people that move in different way make it more challenging for other teams to adapt right,” she said.
This open and welcoming mindset is not limited to body acceptance but overall acceptance of the individuals.
“This team is one where they try to remind you that your identity is that you are important and they try to help you live into that,” said Jordan Vivier, also known as MugShot.
Family is a common term many athletes use when describing their team, but at Palouse River Rollers, family is what defines the team, not simply describes it.
“This is my family,” said Rachel Olsson, or Rumble Bee. “I love the competitive nature of the sport but the fact that it is a team sport so it is really focused on working together and competing, what is going well. This team is so supportive.”
Olsson said the support from her roller derby family was exactly what she needed when she started over two years ago. As a grad student that was new to the area, she had no friends or family around and found herself putting all her time and effort into her work.
“It was definitely one of the lower points in my life,” Olsson said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through the semester because I had taken on too much and the one thing I allowed myself to do for myself was come to practice… it was the one place in my week that I knew I was going to be well-respected and well cared for and that no matter what I did people were happy I was here.”
Each and every part of the team is focused on embracing the individual, down to team members derby names, which the athletes chose for themselves.
“(Derby names) (are also kind of related to this idea of a very open community that is kind of ready to accept you and follow what you feel about yourself as much as they can,” Espindola said. “It’s like if you come and you tell me your name is Butterknife, I’m like, ‘Sure, I’m going to call you knife, and that will be your name now,’ and that is totally fine.”
When the league was founded four years ago, only 20 women were involved. There are as many as 60 now, Espindola said.
“Roller derby is one of the fastest growing sports in the world right now, so it is an exciting time to be playing,” she said.
And it only continues to grow. Women are drawn to the unique and accepting sport, even if they have never set foot in a pair of skates. It may not be the sport itself that creates the allure, but the mantra surrounding it.
Olsson said she had never skated before joining the league, but loves it all the same.
“From day one you are part of the team. You don’t have to earn a place in the league, you just have to show up. And if you show up you are a member of the league and you are just as important as the people that have been skating, you know, four years or eight years,” she said.
In the end, the league is an extension of family with athletics on the side.
“It is really just like a safe place to come and you know, we are all here to work hard and play hard and love hard,” Olsson said.
Meredith Spelbring can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mere0415