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And then there’s this…

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Can you imagine a place, a club, an organized group where you aren’t judged for who you are, what color your skin is, your sexual orientation is, or your sexual preference is? Can you imagine now that there are multiple groups and places just like this where you can just show up and be who you are, have a great time every time and go home feeling really good? A place where you have people cheering for you all the time. A place where you have people who can’t wait to have a meal or snack with you. A place where the people simply can’t wait to hip check you… Wait… Hip check? What?

I’m talking about roller derby, and yes, in the roller derby community, we love to hip check one another. It’s our way of saying “I love you”, our way of saying “HI”, our way of saying, I know you’re talking to someone else, but I’m going to check you anyway so you know I’m thinking of you (and of course, it’s also part of the sport)! Roller derby, where no matter what town, city or state you are playing, the community accepts you for who you are and are excited for game play with you, excited to have you help roll the tape out, excited to have you referee, jam time, or score keep. And most importantly, super excited to have you as a fan! Roller derby has been a phenomenal outlet for me in so many directions, but most importantly, as a woman of color, it has created a community where I feel like I just belong and my friends belong as well! Before I get further into that, let me tell you a brief history of this amazing sport!

Roller skating in and of itself started growing in popularity in 1884 after Victor W. Clough made a remarkable skating journey in Illinois of 100 miles in 10 hours. After that, skating competitions and endurance competitions were popping up across the country. A short time later in 1907, the International Skating Union of America was formed in response to speed skating events growing rowdiness at events, tripping, shoving and pushing. A result of the International Skating Union of America being formed would be the establishment of rules prohibiting any rough play at events and later would lay the groundwork for the birth of roller derby.

In 1935, shortly after the great depression, Leo A. Seltzer, created roller derby. The birthplace of roller derby took place at the Chicago Coliseum in Chicago, Illinois. Initially, roller derby was “a mythical marathon race from one end of the country to the other”. A “taboo” sport for it’s time, roller derby started a change when Seltzer made the decision to incorporate both men and women. Over the next several decades, roller derby would go through many changes. The sport went from a fun and leisure endurance and speed skating event to being an organized team sport. Teams were formed across the country and their events were broadcast on radio and television.

Other changes roller derby would face were the waves of growing and plummeting popularity, creation of junior leagues, from stunts and theatrics to legitimate play with real injuries, surviving in popularity and interest during WWII. Roller derby, despite the eventual drastic decrease in recognition and media appearances, would prove to stand strong against the test of time.

With the dramatic changes that took places over time in the roller derby world, I personally find it amazing that it has survived and continues to grow. Not only does this sport grow in numbers, but it grows in love, inclusiveness, understanding, and community. I have yet to meet anyone who approaches any team saying: “hey, I want to join” and be rejected. The roller derby community is a community that doesn’t look at your skin color, sexual preference, orientation, etc. The roller derby community looks at your passion to learn the sport, skills, positions, to learn how you can help. The roller derby community takes your desires, your passions and helps to make them come to life. Prior to joining roller derby, I had not experienced a place where I was fully accepted for who I am. I’m so happy to say that Oneonta has one of the better teams I’ve ever had the pleasure to play and referee for, the Hill City Rollers.

Adventuring into anything new can be difficult and challenging, roller derby is no exception to that rule. For myself, I had a co-worker who was absolutely in love with the sport that she had newly discovered. Every week she kept asking me to go with her to check it out for myself. I kept avoiding going because I had experienced groups in the area where they didn’t have the values that I had (even if they had them in writing, they didn’t practice them). She kept telling me that I was going to love it and how there were people with different backgrounds, professions, ethnicities and how it was just wonderful. So one Monday after clocking out of work, I decided to join her to check out this roller derby stuff. Walking through the doors of Interskate to check it out was really difficult. Why was it really difficult? Well, deep down, I was scared and it was easier and far less scary to just not be there. In my mind, I was already making excuses on why I had to leave, how I was going to dodge conversations with anyone if it was at all awkward. I’d already drawn the conclusion that roller derby was going to be like any other organized thing I had tried in the area. I thought I was going to be the only non-white person in the building, that I was going to stick out from everyone for the way I looked, for my skin tone, and be made to feel uncomfortable. I thought that this organized group was going to have closed minded people who didn’t accept people who didn’t conform to their ideologies or a certain way of life. I just thought it was going to be yet another one of “those” groups. To my suprise, however, it wasn’t anything like that at all. I was greeted with very cheerful “hello”s and excitement of my presence even though I was only there to check it out. I didn’t know anyone there (other than my co-worker), I didn’t know a single thing about the sport other than it involves roller skates, yet these people were excited to get to know me and include me.

Over the following weeks I found myself showing up to work on Mondays even earlier to get more done so I could leave and go to roller derby. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know if it was all it seemed to be from my first night. I wanted to know if it was just a friendly front that was being put on for the “newbie” (or what we in the roller derby community like to call Fresh Meat). With time, however, I observed that it wasn’t just a Fresh Meat thing, it was a genuine excitement and happiness. It was genuine inclusiveness and equal treatment for all.

It goes without saying that roller derby, like any other organized sport, will have some players who make life difficult and are impossible to deal with. I have encountered people who were mean, who were judgmental, racist, ignorant and closed minded in roller derby. That group of people is extremely small though. The overwhelming majority of the roller derby community is supportive of everyone. The very first bout (term used in roller derby which refers to our games) I attended took place in Albany. At this bout, during intermission, a skater on one of the teams made an intentional racist comment towards a black skater. Now, normally I would think that only the black skater would say something back or that the two skaters would go at each other. It was nothing like that though. A couple things happened that I thought were absolutely amazing. First, other skaters who heard the comment (from both teams) stood up for the black skater. Then, not only did they get shamed, but they got disqualified from the rest of the bout for poor sportsmanship. I can’t tell you what happened to that skater after the bout, but I can tell you that witnessing that event and how it was handled made a positive impression on me and has stuck with me 5 years later.

In the following years, I would develop my skills, choose my official roller derby name and number, Peppermint Panda #0317, and travel across New York state and other states to both play and referee roller derby events. There are so many amazing people I’ve met and become close with through roller derby. There are no words to explain what it is like to be part of something where you and your friends aren’t judged for your hair texture, sexual orientation, preference or ethnicity. It is simply a wonderful feeling and I’m thankful there is roller derby to be that place of acceptance and comfort.

From a young, 21st century, biracial, female point of view, I’m so thankful that Leo Seltzer took a chance with creating and organizing roller derby to make it grow into what it has become today! Long live roller derby and equality!

Keshia Genzardi

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