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As roller derby evolves, sport leaders look to improve safety

Women's Flat Track Derby Association
Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Four years after the Drew Barrymore film Whip It and the new wave of derby girls the movie brought to the rink, changes in flat track roller derby are aimed at improving skater safety as the sport evolves.

Once a month at U.I.C. Pavilion, people can experience a bout of hard-hitting action from the Windy City Rollers league.

“They used to be a lot more rowdy,” explained Michaela White, a waifish, tattooed D.J. on Chicago’s electronic music scene and a former skater in the Windy City Rollers league.  White hung up her skates about two years ago after a brief stint as K.C. Master-Beast of the Haymarket Rioters. According to her, she retired due to an ankle injury, and some issues she had with the officiating kept her from rejoining the league.

White added, “Refs didn’t call penalties as much, so there was never a girl in the [penalty] box.”

Putting a skater in the penalty box momentarily slows down the action without having to sacrifice explosive gameplay, according to Mack Savage of the Manic Attackers.  “They’re calling more minors [penalties], but girls are adapting,” she boasted. “We still hit hard.”

No girl in the box means a faster, more violent game for spectators. Unfortunately, that freedom for skaters to express themselves on the rink came at the expense of the skaters’ protection from each other.

“Ankle and knee injuries are the most common, “ said Kali Schumitz, Public Relations Manager of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA.)  According to Schumitz, the WFTDA requires anyone on skates to carry their supplemental coverage, but the individual teams and leagues determine any requirement of individual primary health coverage.

Along with a new era of rules enforcement, Schumitz says the WFTDA has also changed its minimum skill requirements for new skaters joining member leagues.  “Of course, safety is a top priority as our sport continues to grow.”

Scary facepaint girl prepares to block at Roll...
Scary facepaint girl prepares to block at Roller derby; Bay Area Derby Girls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the organization’s records, 43 member leagues were successfully launched from 2009 to 2011.  The 2011 season began with 109 member leagues, and 2013 began with 176 member leagues and 119 hopefuls in the WFTDA Apprentice Program, which helps builds prospective member leagues around the country.

With 11 official member leagues currently posted to, California has built more leagues than any other state. Girls frequently travel throughout the state to support other leagues.

“We’re headed to Sac City tonight,” declared Sandy Cruz, who was formerly Motley Cruz of the San Francisco She-vil Dead, part of the Bay Area Derby Girls league. After retirement she and her business partners opened Cruz Skate Shop in Berkeley, Calif.

The shop has been open for five years, and it serves the Bay Area roller derby community.  “We just moved the shop across the bay to be more accessible to the other leagues,” said Cruz. She remembers the hard hits and the pain of past bouts.  “I believe all those crashes were spreading word of the sport, but it was only a matter of time until you suffered an injury out there,” she recalled.

New changes to the WFTDA rules allow for skaters to affix hockey-style face shields to their helmets and other previously restricted protective gear. “Focusing on training and how to skate safely will be the best thing for girls in the long run,” Cruz insisted.

The home of the Sac City Rollers league is about 50 miles northeast of Berkeley in the state’s capitol, Sacramento. It started out as one of nine new apprentice leagues in 2011, and the league will be celebrating its one-year anniversary in June.  Cruz said, “Derby isn’t going anywhere, if anything, worldwide interest in the sport is definitely on the rise.”

After achieving full-member status in the WFTDA, Sac City Rollers sponsored the formation of a junior roller derby league for girls aged ten to 17.  They call themselves The Bad Apples.

The Department of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at University of Alabama at Birmingham is conducting a study into the injuries sustained by roller derby athletes. Information and instructions on how to participate in the survey can be found here.

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