Baby Got Back - Body Positivity in Roller Derby

Photo credit: Terri Frew aka I Love Skatin’, #666

Guest post by Terri Frew, a Keweenaw Roller Girls ‘blocker’, wife and mom.

In the summer of 2015, my husband, our five month-old son Alistair, and myself moved from central Ontario to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We had been living apart prior to Alistair’s birth in order to further our careers.  The move was one that would enable us to advance our careers together, but also required an immense leap of faith as we did not know anyone in the area.  In Ontario, I had friends who did roller derby and I admired them for it and wished I too could join them.  Unfortunately my work schedule at the time prohibited it, so I would volunteer with their league, doing NSO work (non- skating official) like score keeping and running the penalty box.

Before moving I was looking into athletic opportunities and was delighted to see that there was a roller derby team in Hancock, MI, right next door to where we were moving.  After the first practice I was sore, exhausted, and could barely walk- but I was hooked!

Derby History

Let’s back the wagon up a bit here.

Roller derby: you probably have heard of it at some point in the last ten years, during which time this emerging sport has exploded in popularity.

Contemporary roller derby traces its roots as far back as the banked track roller skate marathons of the 1930s and the flashy showmanship of the skate contests during the 1960s.  Revived as a sport in 2001, contemporary roller derby features many historical elements, such as colourful uniforms and player pseudonyms, while rejecting others like fixed winners of matches.

Photo credit: Brockit Photography ( and Keeweena Roller Girls

Founded in 2004, WFTDA or The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, functions as the major governing body of roller derby; promoting fair play, athleticism and goodwill amongst skaters, referees, coaches, and volunteers.  There are currently 376 full member leagues and 74 apprentice leagues in their organization.  The league that I skate with (Keweenaw Roller Girls) is an apprentice team.  Apprentice teams are generally working towards becoming full members of WFTDA.  This membership can be obtained through playing a set amount of WFTDA approved (or sanctioned) matches and adherence to the organization’s mission: the fostering of the sport of women’s flat track roller derby by facilitating the development of athletic ability, sportswomanship and goodwill between member leagues.

Keweenaw Roller Girls

The Keweenaw Roller Girls is a recreational roller derby league based out of Hancock, MI that formed in Sept 2012.  The league accepts athletes over 18 who are willing to work hard and have fun regardless of their shape, size, orientation, and level of athleticism.

In roller derby parlance, you will hear the terms league and team used in similar circumstances.  League is often used synonymously with team, and in the case of KRG, because we are fairly small, they are the same thing.  Large leagues may have multiple teams of varying skill level, hence the different designations.  Although they were founded in 2012, 2014 was the first bouting season for KRG.  Through the hard work of dedicated members and volunteers, the league is growing and becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Photo credit: Keweenaw Roller Girls

How to Play

In short, each team begins the match (or bout as they are called) with five skaters on the track: 1 jammer and four blockers per side (one blocker per side is demarcated as the pivot- they can stand in for the jammer should the jammer pass that designation).  The goal of a roller derby bout is to simply be the team who scores the most points.  This is accomplished via the jammer passing blockers who are actively trying to stop them; each blocker of the opposing team the jammer can effectively pass counts as a point for the jammer’s team.  For a more in depth description of game play, WFTDA has a link to a great, informative video on their site.

Training and it’s Rewards

Athletically speaking, much of what we do as derby players is skate, skate, and skate some more!  The outright quantity of skating often leads to well-developed glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.  When I began my roller derby journey last year, one of my goals was to gain a more defined butt, and boy did my dreams come true in that department!  The only casualties have been a few pairs of pants that could not handle my new lower-body development, protesting by ripping while I bend over, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

Many larger skaters, myself included, often run into issues with tight calves and shins, resulting in shin splints from dorsiflexion, tightness of the tibialis, or even developing compartment syndrome.  To prevent being hindered by this shin aching and tightness, I perform a regimen of thorough stretching, muscle rolling, icing, and isometric exercises to strengthen the muscles.

The notion of exercising to strengthen areas of weakness while off skates is a common activity amongst roller derby skaters and is referred to as “pre-hab”.  There are some great online training programs out there to help with derby training outside of practice- one with a great reputation is Roller Derby Athletics.

Another exercise benefit of roller derby is the cardio gains.  My league, the Keweenaw Roller Girls, hold a two or three hour practice two to three times a week.  On an average week, many skaters will get to two practices, resulting in approximately five hours a week indoors, on skates.  Much of this time is spent cardio training. These practices are in addition to off-track training which can range from outdoor skating (works slightly different muscle groups from indoor skating), team hiking, cross fit (my league’s go-to activity in the off season), running, and many more.

Are you a Jammer, Pivot or Blocker?

Like many activities, roller derby appeals to a wide variety of athletes.  Within this mixed bag, there are skaters of different body types.  Traditionally, smaller skaters tend to be jammers and those with a larger frame tend to be blockers and/or pivots.  This arrangement, while common, isn’t etched in stone: there are many powerful jammers and effective blockers (and pivots) of all sizes out there.  The key in being an effective skater, no matter what position you’re playing, is in understanding and maximizing on your strengths.  As a plus sized derby girl, when blocking, I know that if I can get a strong footing, my extra weight makes me nearly impossible for a smaller skater to move.  It’s also that extra weight, once I get going, that makes me a wrecking ball of a jammer.

Photo credit: Terri Frew

Healthy Talk

In my experience, the roller derby community is a fairly body positive one, including skaters of a variety of sizes and celebrating the skills and talents of different body types.  The glute gains I mentioned earlier lead to some excellent curvy booties on skaters- a major asset in a sport where the goal of blockers is to get in the way of the jammer.  Health discussion amongst roller derby athletes rarely references weight loss, but focuses on how to maximize your individual potential on the track.  Talk of calories is unusual, what one will find, however, is guidance insofar as nutrition appropriate to our training- for example what foods are the most nutritious snacks for the after training hunger monster.   I’ve been part of a number of sports and athletics in my life; many times I’ve been made to feel self-conscious or like a lesser athlete because of my size.  I’ve never felt like anything less than the muscular powerful Goddess that I am within the derby community.

Get Geared Up

Hooked yet?  You’ll need some gear first.  Obviously, quad wheel roller skates are a must.  There are hundreds of options, ranging from around $100 all the way up to $1000.  Many beginning skaters start out with more economical options and upgrade as they fall in love with the sport, or maybe have a chance to save up some cash.  Beginners of all sizes often start with a soft, wide rubber skate wheel to assist with stability while learning the basics.  As a skater’s skills progress, an upgrade is advised, with plus sized skaters being advised to go for a harder wheel.  This is due to the fact that a bigger skater’s size will compress a softer wheel more and create extra drag, making it feel like you’re skating through quicksand (not good).

Being a contact sport, proper protective equipment is important.  No matter what your size, a quality skate helmet is a must, as is a mouth guard.  Elbow pads from major brands are made usually up to a size 3X and are often generous in their sizing as they are meant to fit snugly.  Appropriately cushioned kneepads are very important to a bigger skater, as no matter how skilled you become, falls are inevitable.  There are many options for the plus sized skater, featuring extra padding with minimal bulk and generous strap lengths.  Check out WFTDA’s column “Gear Up” to learn more about safety equipment:

In addition to this protective apparel, skaters are encouraged to dress as outlandishly or uniquely as they like.  My sparkly lime green daisy dukes are a favourite and a fierce roller derby classic, available form DerbySkinz.

Good places to buy your gear from include (but aren’t limited to):

Money Matters

Different price points for skates, as mentioned above, is just the tip of the iceberg when pricing out roller derby costs.  All gear is available at varying prices- from economical to quite costly.  As a rule of thumb with protective gear, the more you can spend, the longer it will last (pending that you care for it appropriately).  I also mentioned earlier that many beginners purchase more economically priced gear and upgrade as they become more serious about the sport.  Some larger leagues have gear rental for newbies and those wishing to try something out before making a financial commitment.  This is a fabulous feature that may save skaters some money in the long run.

Other costs to factor in when joining a roller derby league are the payments of WFTDA insurance and dues to your league.  WFTDA insurance covers league skaters for general liability during practices and bouts plus accidental medical coverage.  This is $75 USD for the year and it is mandatory to skate with KRG.  League dues are particular to individual teams insofar as cost; Keweenaw Roller Girls have monthly dues of $40 USD during the skating season (February- November).  These dues cover building rental, bout supplies, advertising, and other sundries.

If your league participates in tournaments, there will be a charge for the league to register, in addition to costs undertaken by individual skaters like hotel rooms and travel expenses.

Overall, roller derby is certainly not the cheapest sport one could choose.  This said, for many the benefits of participating far outweigh the financial sacrifices required to keep rolling.

Why I Do It

Why did I join roller derby at age thirty-four?  I was at a point in my life when I needed an athletic community of supportive positive women, one where I could get my sweat on with no body shaming, where I could try to just be a little bit healthier at the end of the day.

Within the derby community, I’ve had the notion that my size is not a disadvantage confirmed.

Along the way I’ve also discovered that my body can do things that I thought it couldn’t do anymore, and met some wonderful friends whom I hope will be in my life for a few more laps around the track.

About the Author

Terri Frew is a Canadian expatriate living with her husband Kevin and son Alistair in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula.  Her athletic background extends back to childhood where she played hockey, then moved into soccer playing in a recreational league at Concordia University, followed by earning a brown belt in Chito Ryu Karate in 2013.  She is currently a roller derby member of the Keweenaw Roller Girls in Hancock, Michigan.

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