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Bonnie Beck didn’t always go by Bonnie D. Stroir (pronounced “Destroyer”). But the 29-year-old took on the name when she began playing roller derby in her early 20s. Roller derby has changed since it first became popular in the 1970s. Today, most leagues no longer allow fighting. But the basic idea is the same. Teams earn points when a player successfully navigates a path through the pack of skaters. Teams either play on a flat oval track or a banked track with raised sides — like a skateboard ramp. For two years, Beck drove from Oceanside to Los Angeles at least twice a week to compete on a team there.
But the commute became too much. When Beck’s car got repossessed in 2005, she established the San Diego Derby Dolls, an amateur women’s roller derby league. For four years, Beck worked to build up the Derby Dolls. This year, she led the league’s banked track team to a national championship.
“It was love at first skate,” Beck said of the sport that has grown in popularity internationally.
We sat down with Beck this week to talk about starting a grassroots-style business, her goals for the sport and how roller derby changed her life.
So how does it feel to build something that started out as a hobby that now has taken over your life?
My goal is to see roller derby on television. We’re still paying to play our sport. We have people telling us all the time “This is way better than football! I’ve got a new favorite sport!”
I got on this role model kick when I started the San Diego Derby Dolls. Who do little girls have to look up to? Like Margaret Thatcher? You have Hillary Clinton in a pantsuit and then you have Britney Spears. What’s in between that people can really relate to? So I kind of made it my higher purpose to make this about creating good role models for young girls. I moved past the selfish phase of “I’m just in love with this.” There is a reason to make this mainstream.
I only had one goal when I was little and that was to move out of my parent’s house and do whatever I wanted. But I didn’t know what that was. Now I have more goals than I have life to live.
What have you learned about yourself?
I didn’t know that I had the ability to be a leader. I didn’t know that I had anything I was good at. I find a lot of people find roller derby in transitional periods in their lives. Sometimes it’s just a catalyst people need to be empowered to make healthier choices and decisions for themselves. It’s really weird because it’s this contact aggressive sport, and it’s this crazy dichotomy because you’re doing wild and crazy things you never you thought you could do before and it’s making you a better person.
What does it take to start this some place where nobody may know about it, nobody may be interested in it?
Craigslist and word of mouth. We’d do street team fliering, people on skates all around town. Just seeing a group of people on skates and going “What’s this? What’s this?” People would get excited about that.
Were you good right away?
San Diego has some of the best skaters but we didn’t have the strategy for the game. I spent a lot of time making the skating a priority to make sure everybody was safe and looked good and skilled as a skater first whereas a lot of leagues just start bashing each other around.
But now we’re great. Now we’re No. 1. I think it paid off. I would always challenge teams that were way beyond our skill set in the early days. In our first interleague season, we just got our ass handed to us pretty much every game. Which was really hard to keep morale up. There’s a method behind this madness, because they’re like “We’re losing fans!” and I’m just like “You guys, we have to do this.”
What is your fan presence like here in San Diego?
We have people from pretty much every demographic. Families come. A lot of people in their late 20s, early 30s. But then there’s quite a few old folks who remember roller derby from the old days and what’s cool is they don’t even seem to question this evolution of it, they don’t even question that there aren’t any men. Everyone remembers the women in roller derby, which is so ironic because in the old days of roller derby women were the opening act and men were the big finale. It was always that way. And they don’t even seem to question that we don’t do any of the theatrics, like the fake fighting, WWF-style, the big show they used to make it. We don’t do anything like that and they still get excited.
So how did it feel to have the movie Whip It come out? Was it accurate?
Not entirely. The screenplay was written by one of the L.A. Derby Dolls, all of the actors were trained by the L.A. Derby Dolls. So there was a lot of authenticity. But it was still a movie. There was punching.
— Interview conducted and edited by DAGNY SALAS