By Caroline Dinnall
A room full of sweaty girls in fishnets and kneepads is a common view on a weekday night in The Bunker at Downsview. But don’t let their sexy outfits under tightly strapped padding fool you. The women of Toronto Roller Derby (ToRD) are showing off more than skin – they’re showing off serious athleticism.
Like Olympic skaters fighting for gold, the women rush across the oval track with ass-kicking stares. But the clamour of their four-wheeled skates echoing inside The Bunker is frequently interrupted by the sound of girls wiping out and crashing into the concrete floor before they get up laughing.
“You get hit but you’re like, ‘Yes, that was awesome, I’m gonna go hit them back and it’s going to be great!'” said Nicole “Android W.K.” Maxwell – one of the skaters ready to jam, block and push her way through opponents along the curved track.
Maxwell, a fourth-year fashion design student, said she found her first two years at Ryerson overwhelming, but still made sure to fit roller derby into her schedule.
“I told myself that I was going to do all of these cool things, but I was not very sociable,” said Maxwell. “Roller derby eventually made me feel a lot more comfortable with who I was.”
For many women, roller derby has often been associated with female empowerment due to its physical nature and freedom of attire, and while it has been recently considered for an official Olympic sport, it’s still dependent on sex appeal. Even with its rebirth in the early 2000s and its slow transition away from a spectacle sport, most people continue to expect to see women in skimpy outfits crashing into each other when they go to a roller derby game.
“I think a little bit of that spectacle needs to stay now because even with hockey and basketball there is a lot of fan interaction,” said Maxwell. “People come for the porn and stay for the sport.”
At 21 years old, Maxwell is the youngest skater in the league, captain of the Death Track Dolls – one of the four home teams of ToRD – and a member of the Bay Street Bruisers. But her passion for roller derby goes beyond playing the sport. She wants to mix the two things she loves the most – fashion and roller derby.
“For my final collection in fourth year, I’m debating on designing athletic derby wear or a street skate collection,” she said.
Maxwell said that it was the “freedom of uniform choice that all the teams are given” that confirmed roller derby as being the right sport for her. Teams in the past have played in vintage leopard print bathing suits but the sport has seen a lot of costume changes since it first started in Chicago in 1935.
Today, there are over 1,000 amateur roller derby leagues worldwide and about half of them reside outside of the United States. ToRD was founded in 2006 and there are currently 120 skaters and seven teams in the league.
The team’s outfits range from brutal Bay Street bankers-themed to living dead-inspired. Maxwell says that age is not a factor for roller derby – ToRD’s members are aged anywhere from early 20s to late 50s.
Kelly “Heavy Knitter” Stephenson is 30 years old, married and in her fourth year of social work at Ryerson. With encouragement from her husband of seven years, Stephenson attended her first Fresh Meat Program meet and greet two seasons ago. For her, joining ToRD was an effort to stay in shape and spend time in a positive social environment.
“I think that it’s great to be with other women who are supportive and athletic and accepting of different body sizes and personalities,” said Stephenson, who is now in her second season with the Chicks Ahoy!.
But for Maxwell, it’s the league’s acceptance of any sexual orientation that she holds closest to her heart.
“I remember I had just cut the side of my hair off and they had people come to interview us during Fresh Meat. They asked if it was mandatory to wear fishnets and piercings and dyed hair – but that isn’t necessarily true,” Maxwell said. “There is no judgment here and everyone is accepting of who you are.”
Roller derby is like a rat race to the front line, a game of speed and strategy to gain points. Roller derby has nothing to do with one’s job and should not impede on a women’s social status, she said.
“One of the players is a dog walker,” Maxwell said. “There are lawyers, even women [who] have doctorates.”
ToRD will have their season opener with Chicks Ahoy! versus the Gore-Gore Rollergirls, followed by a junior faceoff on Jan. 25. The next day they will be hosting their annual Fresh Meat Program meet and greet at the Sugarbomb.ca Headquarters.