In a converted warehouse at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night, a group of women and some men learn how to play roller derby with Wasatch Roller Derby in Salt Lake City. They put on their protective gear, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guard and helmet. And, then they lace up their skates and roll up to the track.
Westminster College student Kenzie Lombard, 21, attends Wasatch Roller Derby’s ‘Crash Course’ at least twice a week in between studying for a political science pre-law major and a gender studies minor.
Roller derby is traditionally an all-female, full contact sport played on four-wheeled roller skates. The sport was created in 1935 in Chicago and garnered mainstream attention in the ’70s and ’80s.
“It’s all about getting knocked down and getting back up again,” said Heidi Bell, team member of Wasatch Roller Derby who goes by the name Ruth Slayer Ginsberg on the track. “And, I can’t imagine a better analogy for what life will throw at you.”
Even though Lombard has only been with the training course for five months thus being termed ‘fresh meat’ she has already made meaningful connections with other people in the community.
“I met Kenzie the very first day she was here [at Crash Course],” said Heidi Allen, a fellow trainee who goes by the name Disco ’70s. “I instantly had a connection to her because of her bubbly personality. I am super proud she can already do 10 laps in 5 minutes, that’s freaking amazing.”
Lombard sat down with The Forum to give insight into roller derby culture and her experiences learning the sport. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Q: What got you interested in roller derby?
A: When I was like 14, I was doing music at a music school and we performed at halftime for a roller derby league that doesn’t exist anymore and I remember seeing it and just thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my entire life and I wanted to do it since. […] I just was so bad at roller skating though so I didn’t start doing it until about five months ago.
[…] One of my friends skated with the rec team that’s part of Wasatch Roller Derby, the Beehive State Revolution. She invited me to come along because they have this training program for new skaters, people who aren’t really comfortable skating or don’t have a ton of experience with it, to learn how to skate and learn how to play derby. So, I ended up joining and I just thought that it was really fun and stuck with it.
Q: What are the rules?
A: I play flat track roller derby. There is also banked track, I don’t know too much about that but they are very similar though. So, you have two teams of five people, four blockers for each team and one jammer for each team. The first whistle blows the blockers move out in what is called the pack and they do a lap and then second whistle blows and the jammers take off. The first jammer to get through then becomes the lead jammer, they come back around and for every opposing player’s hips that they pass they score a point. The lead jammer can also stop the jam at any point by double tapping their hips, to prevent the other jammer from scoring.
Q: Have you had any really bad falls?
A: I bruised my tailbone due to my own foolishness, it was not anyone’s fault but my own. I was skating a cool down lap and I don’t know, I think that I must have locked my wheels on accident against each other because I wasn’t paying attention and I landed on my butt. And, I remember, when I first started [Crash Course], them telling me ‘you’ll take one really bad fall on your butt and you will never do it again’ and I’ve not fallen on my butt since. There is definitely a right way to fall and your butt is not the right way.
Q: What is roller derby culture like?
A: Oh it is the coolest. It is primarily a female and fem-identifying space however, we do have some men that play as well. The men who do it are usually really awesome and they respect that they are in our space […] learning how to do something that’s kind of been traditionally for fem-identifying people. They are really respectful and really willing to listen to what the women have to say in the space and listen to their skill and listen to their expertise. Because of that culture of a fem space, it’s really supportive and fun and everyone is there for each other which I really really like.
There’s just little things that you pick up on, like the term fresh meat for people who are new or people will tease you if your pads are a little gross. Just people being excited about someone getting new skates or like someone making a ton of progress. I’m the first to admit that I’m not the strongest skater yet, but I’ve gotten a lot better since I’ve joined. Everyone is so excited for other people’s successes.
Q: How do you balance your school activities and roller derby?
A: Not as well as I should because it is hard. The training group that I’m in offers three practices a week, I try to go to two. Sometimes it ends up being one. It is a commitment, […] but it makes me happy and so I try to do it even though I’m busy but sometimes it is really hard to balance it.
Q: Did the female-centric nature of roller derby influence your decision to join?
A: Yeah definitely, I am nothing if not an intense feminist and I liked the idea of it being this strong awesome female empowered thing that didn’t require women to be pretty. I think that’s why a lot of times women get scared off of sports and stuff because you feel like you need to be pretty and you don’t want someone to see you and think you’re not pretty and that causes so much anxiety around it. So, it was definitely encouraging to be like if I look gross or I mess a up I’m around other women who are also going to look gross and mess up sometimes and they aren’t going to care and aren’t going to judge you.
Q: What do you love about roller derby?
A: The community. That is my favorite part of it. They are all kind and supportive and just genuinely such amazing people. People who I am lucky to be friends with, people that I want to be like. It’s such a good community and if you’re gone for a while like I was gone because of the tailbone thing, they were so stoked to have me back. I was really anxious to come back because it had been a while and I was worried that I would fall further behind and everyone was just happy to have me there and see me again and that was the best feeling ever. It makes me feel so strong.
I remember, the first time I went to crash course I think it was our medic who said it to me because I was really timid at first and nervous. I worried about taking up too much space and she was like ‘you’re a derby girl now and you can do hard things.’ And that is so empowering to me in every aspect of my life, it’s hard and it’s hard work and I might not be the best at it and I’ve still got a lot of room to grow but every week I get a little stronger and a little better and if I can do that on skates I can do that anywhere.