After working alongside men as a mechanic for the last 20 years, Jenn Talarico assumed she’d never be friends with a group of women.
It wasn’t until she joined the Thunder Bay Roller Derby League four years ago that she discovered there were other women out there like her.
“We get along really well. It’s a bond I suppose of some sort – a different breed of women,” she said.
Talarico is one of about 40 women in the city’s roller derby league, which is entering its third season this spring.
The sport originated in the 1930s and lost its popularity in the 1970s after theatrics took over the game. But in the early 21st century, a roller derby focused more on athletics and camaraderie witnessed a resurgence.
There are more than 1,200 roller derby leagues in the world, about half of which are in North America, according to a Feb. 3, 2013 article on the Wall Street Journal.
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Just a few months before Talarico saw a recruitment poster for the Thunder Bay league, she had watched the 2009 Drew Barrymore film Whip It. The movie starred Ellen Page as a Texas teenager who discovers the sport.
Talarico came home that day and told her better half she wanted to join.
“This is the most easy-going person that I live with and he has never said no to me and I said ‘I want to join roller derby’ and he looked at me and said ‘no.’ Being that kind of personality, that’s the worst word in the world you can say to me … just ask my mom.”
So Talarico found roller skates, borrowed some gear and came to an information night. That night she was able to try out those roller skates.
In the Thunder Bay Roller Derby League, Talarico found herself around like-minded women – self-proclaimed misfits.
“We belong together. We just didn’t know until we found derby,” she said.
Like boxing or other combat sports, a competitive roller derby game is referred to as a bout. During a bout each team has five players on the track – one jammer and four blockers. The jammer’s job is to pass the opposing team’s players; they score a point for each member of the opposing team they lap.
It’s the job of the blockers to help out their jammer while blocking the other team’s jammer.
And while today’s bouts may not have the theatrics of the past, each team member still has an animated derby name.
Talarico’s name on the track is Jenny Chaos; it comes from her avatar’s name from the video game Rock Band.
Alyx Sparkes goes by AllSpark; in the 2007 Transformers movie, the AllSpark was the source of life for the alien robots.
The derby names often help players to bring out a different side of themselves on the track, said Sparkes.
“I think I couldn’t do half the stuff I did if I didn’t have the other persona that I kind of thought of myself as on the track,” she said.
It’s not just the derby name that brings out that confidence, but the support of her teammates.
Sparkes has always liked athletics, but never found a sport that was right for her.
“Roller derby is different,” she said. “I think it’s the community and you’re being surrounded by these strong, intelligent women and everyone is so supportive.”
“Half the time they’re pushing you to do better than you ever thought you could do. I think for me, it’s also given me a lot of confidence in my life in general. Just seeing all the things I can do that I thought I couldn’t do.”
It’s also the first time Angela Benedict has felt like part of a team.
Benedict, or Bean Stalker, played volleyball and basketball in high school, but didn’t ever spend time with any of her teammates off the court.
“I was definitely always sort of an outsider,” said the Lakehead University education student.
“I guess in roller derby everyone is kind of their own little outcast and weirdo so we all happen to get along for some reason. Probably because we spend the time getting our aggression out on each other with a good hip-check,” she said.
While roller derby is a contact sport, it isn’t no-holds barred. Players can use their shoulders and hips to check opposition players. Pushing, tripping, blocking from behind and hitting with any part of the arm from the elbow down are illegal.
Mandatory equipment includes a helmet, wrist guards, mouth guard, elbow pads and knee pads.
While the rules are in place to protect the players, it doesn’t stop competitors from sustaining injuries entirely.
“I think we’ve all got a picture of a good derby bruise,” Talarico said.
Sparkes has fractured her sternum and Benedict has hyper-extended her hamstring.
And since the Thunder Bay league’s inception there have been about seven broken ankles.
Marissa Posmituk, also known as Militia, works at a local health-care store and one day last fall she saw a woman looking for an ankle brace.
“She pulled out a skate and she was trying to see if (the ankle brace) would fit in a skate and I thought, ‘what the heck is this girl doing?’” she said.
The woman told her she was in roller derby and it piqued Posmituk’s interest. She came to an information session and was instantly hooked.
And while she hasn’t been on the injured list, Posmituk knows it’s only a matter of time.
“I’m just waiting for my turn,” she said.
The Thunder Bay Roller Derby League consists of two teams – the Grizzly Madams and the Elle Capones. Select members from both of those teams form the league’s travel team, known as the Babes of Thunder.
The two teams battle each other each season locally, but the Babes of Thunder have travelled south of the border to Duluth and Fargo, west to Winnipeg and east as far as Montreal.
Melissa Kastern remembers when the league was struggling to find women to play.
The league began with a Kijiji ad asking if anyone was interested in starting a roller derby league in Thunder Bay.
Kastern answered the ad and was one of four people who met at a local restaurant to discuss the sport and whether it was feasible to start a league.
“It took a year to actually get space and skates and start doing things,” said Kastern, whose derby name is Miso Evil.
There were about 15 women playing in the league’s inaugural season and Kastern said it felt like they were fighting to get people to join.
They slowly started to see more people come to recruitment sessions, and while there are only about four girls from the original practice still skating, the league continues to evolve.
“It’s nuts how far we’ve come,” she said, noting last April the Babes of Thunder competed in a tournament in Montreal.
“From most of our skaters not knowing how to skate to going to a tournament in Montreal is pretty awesome. We were beating people that have been around for a couple of years,” she said.
The first home bout of the season is May 11. The Babes of Thunder will take on a yet-to-be-announced regional opponent. All games are played at Delaney Arena.
Anyone is welcome to check out games and practices. The league is also looking for volunteers. For more information see www.tbayrollergirls.com.
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