The journey to my first roller derby event is probably similar to most.
A friend of a friend was competing in a match-up between the Hidden City Derby Girls, who are based out of San Diego’s North County, and the High Country Mountain Derby Girls from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The event took place in Oceanside, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, on Saturday.
Roller derby has always been considered a bit of a “weird” sport. It’s primarily played by women, many of whom paint their faces to look like zombies, but that doesn’t mean it’s dainty. Far from it, actually. The helmets, elbow pads and knee pads are not worn to keep competitors from getting cuts or scrapes, they’re to keep them alive when they get slammed into the pavement head-first. This might be the roughest sport being played in San Diego County.
Going into my first derby event, I had more background knowledge than most. After all, I had seen the 2009 film “Whip It,” which was based on Shauna Cross’s experiences as a young “derby girl”. The movie did a decent job of explaining the rules and the sport’s level of brutality. Here’s how Wikipedia attempts to explain the sport:
Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members roller skating in the same direction around a track. Game play consists of a series of short matchups (“jams”) in which both teams designate a scoring player (the “jammer”) who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to assist their own jammer whilst hindering the opposing jammer—in effect, playing both offense and defense simultaneously.
It’s like football on rollerskates, if the offensive linemen also played defensive line and both teams had the ball at the same time. Sounds insanely fun, right? It is.
I spent about four hours watching the Beachside Bruisers squeak out a 180-177 victory over the Gold Diggers before the Beachside Bullies made it a sweep for the home town girls with a 174-154 comeback victory over the Hellcats, and came away thinking that it was the most fun I had at a sporting event in a long time.
It was sports at its finest, and most-heartfelt, when the Gold Diggers began to rally and shrink the 60-point lead the Bruisers had built up during the first half. The team began working together, clearing paths for their jammers and blocking the Bruisers’ jammers. When the score was announced, and the Gold Diggers had taken the lead, the outdoor-hockey rink exploded in cheers and applause from the visiting fans. When the Bruisers won the match on the last jam, the hometown crowd was even louder.
The fans were passionate and smart, and many had made the six-hour drive down from Sonora to root for their hometown team. The best jammers, including Mermad and SK80 (“Skeighty”) Perry, had their own cheering sections in the crowd. At the end of each match, fans stood around the edge of the track and high-fived the roller-derby girls as they came by. There was an after-party, that I did not attend, where friends, family, fans and competitors celebrated a fun night of roller derby together.
Like any sport, the referees played a big role in determining the outcome of this one. The visiting Hellcats seemed well on their way to an easy victory before getting called for several penalties in a row, leaving their team short-handed against the Beachside Bullies. It didn’t seem like much, but it was enough for the Bullies to turn a 50-point deficit into a 20-point victory in the final minutes of the 60-minute match. Despite the disappointment of defeat, the Hellcats still hugged their counterparts and posed for the usual post-game group photo of both teams.
Maybe, after watching professional sports for so long, I forgot what it looked like to see athletes putting their bodies on the line for nothing more than a love of the sport. Maybe I just hadn’t ever seen competitors embrace in love and laughter minutes after throwing elbows at one another. Maybe it had been so long since I had to learn a sport while watching it that I was excited by the prospect. Whatever the reason, I fell in love with roller derby this weekend and encourage fans of other sports to give it a try. It may be much more fun than you expect.