Peterborough’s Riverside Riot Squad is about 15 minutes into their most recent bout against Kingston’s Skateful Dead at the Evinrude Centre.
They assemble themselves into a new formation they’ve been perfecting this season. Three skaters link arms in a circle to form a defensive barricade while a fourth sets up in front them as a rover, ready to play defense or offense as necessary. Kingston, on the other hand, commits four skaters to a blocking formation rather than three. Standing facing this thick mass of bodies is Peterborough’s jammer Stevie Stitches, who readies herself at the start line, plotting a way through the pack of skaters. (Confused? Read the Roller Derby 101 at the end of this article.)
When the whistle goes, Stevie Stitches (real name Stephanie Lyons) accelerates and throws herself into the four Kingston blockers. But she doesn’t rely on sheer force; she gracefully dekes around the skaters, running on the tips of her skates to speed past them, and then jumps into the open track ahead of her.
Over the next minute or so, Peterborough’s defensive blockers thwart the opposing jammer’s attempts to break through the pack. Stevie Stitches laps the skaters four times, earning 19 points for doing so and bringing the score up to 66 to 4 for the Riverside Riot Squad.
Peterborough takes a big lead into intermission. “A couple of years ago, that would have been Peterborough down by a hundred points,” says one fan during the break. “They’ve been working really hard the last few years.”
It’s true. With their win over the Skateful Dead on June 16, the Squad’s record is now 3-1 for the season, one of the best starts for Peterborough since roller derby first came to the city seven years ago. After the win, the team jumps about 20 spots in the national rankings.
But it’s not all about winning. As the sport grows in Peterborough, local women are finding their place in the derby community, and embracing a team sport environment that is diverse, supportive, and fun, as well as competitive.
“We’re trying to build people up as healthy athletes and healthy individuals,” says Jeannine Crowe, a jammer who skates for Peterborough under the name Molly Spartan. To accomplish that, Peterborough Area Roller Derby, along with hundreds of other derby leagues in Canada and thousands more around the world, are building a new kind of sport and a new kind of sport culture: one that’s queer-friendly and inclusive, accessible to different body types, and one that values and supports the women’s game equally (and in many cases moreso) than the men’s.
All this on top of being hard-hitting, competitive, and athletically demanding. “Sometimes I rank games based on the bruises I take home,” says Crowe.
Sherri Owen, who skates as Pip Tatters, says she’s drawn to both the athletics and the community. “I feel like roller derby is a huge positive influence on my life, both socially and physically,” she says, “and I just really enjoy being able to spend my time with these strong, sporty women.”
Roller derby has gone through a number of incarnations throughout the 20th century. Its popularity has risen and fallen sporadically, its fortunes tied to league owners and media executives who pedalled the game as a travelling road show and television spectacle for most of its history.
By the 70s, its choreographed violence and outsized personalities made roller derby more like professional wrestling than a sport. The game, while at times very popular as a spectator sport, had no grassroots, no amateur leagues. A handful of teams groomed for television were the extent of the game’s playership, and when roller derby’s television audience dried up the game nearly disappeared.
But in the early 2000s a group in Austin, Texas revived the sport, reclaiming it as a primarily women’s game, and it quickly exploded in popularity. In the past decade and a half, a global community of derby players has rewritten the rules, developed new strategies, and grown the sport at the grassroots level. And unlike earlier manifestations of the sport, the derby revival rooted itself in DIY culture and third-wave feminism, which has attracted a wide diversity of people to the game. There are now thousands of leagues around the world.
Vi Markov, who skates in Peterborough under the derby name Vivacious, might be the only local player who remembers the earlier days of roller derby. “I grew up on roller skates,” she says. “We watched it on TV all the time too, and in 1969 I even got to go down to California and meet [legendary skater] Gwen Miller.”
When Vivacious watched roller derby on television in the 70s she wanted to play it, but there was never an opportunity to do so. The derby revival has finally given her the chance. She first joined the Belleville Bombshells in 2013, then moved on to the Northumberland Roller Girls, but she says those leagues weren’t physical enough for her, so she joined the Riverside Riot Squad in 2016. Vi lifts weights three times a week, and despite having broken her leg twice playing roller derby, the sport is still one of the biggest passions in her life.
“People say to me, ‘You’ve already broken two legs—when are you going to stop?’” Vi says. “But when you’ve got a passion and a desire to play it’s like no other feeling in the world.”
Modern roller derby was played in Canada for the first time in 2006, and it came to Peterborough in 2011, when a league called Peterborough Roller Derby was founded. (Derby players generally organize themselves into skater-owned and operated leagues, but in small communities like Peterborough a league may only have one team.) A few years later, some conflicts within the derby community led to a split, and a second league called Area 705 Roller Derby was founded.
“I think they had different cultures,” Crowe says of the two groups. “But Peterborough’s too small to have separate leagues.” After a few years apart, the two leagues reconciled and re-amalgamated, joining forces in 2015 to form a new league called Peterborough Area Roller Derby (a.k.a. PARDy), with the Riverside Riot Squad being the league’s first team.
“Roller derby can have a lot of drama,” Crowe acknowledges. “It kind of seems like a sport that can bring up a lot of emotions.”
But by all accounts, the new league has coalesced and put the history behind them. The players I spoke to all feel supported and united around the goal of developing as athletes and growing the sport in Peterborough.
“It’s a nice place for people to belong,” says Cassandra Shaw, who skates as The Body. “It’s a good place for adults to make friends, and you really get a sense of community as you work together for common goals.”
Women take many different paths into the world of roller derby. “I wanted to do something that was badass,” says Crowe of her decision to start playing. “I was having a midlife crisis, and I was going to start smoking, but I decided smoking was too expensive.” Instead, she bought roller skates and joined Area 705 Roller Derby, assuming the derby name Molly Spartan.
Women on the Peterborough team have many reasons for being there, but one common theme emerges when skaters speak of how they first got involved with derby: a dissatisfaction with the culture surrounding other team sports.
“I played team sports before,” Crowe says, “but I didn’t really feel like a team member. I always felt like I was a weird person or something. But roller derby is just full of weird people. It’s probably a more diverse group than you would get in other sports. It’s more physically diverse, it’s more athletically diverse.”
Pip Tatters followed a similar path. She was an experienced athlete, with a history playing ringette and rugby, when she made the transition to roller derby. “I had been looking for a team sport to join for a while,” she says. “I’d tried ice hockey in the area, but it wasn’t really my thing. I didn’t get much ice time and I didn’t click with the girls… but the people in roller derby were really my kind of people. It’s a sport that attracts women from all walks of life and I really appreciate that diversity.” Pip joined Peterborough Roller Derby about five years ago. A little later, she helped to negotiate bringing the two leagues back together.
Riverside Riot Squad co-captain Julie Stender (derby name Car on Fyre) tells a different story. She started skating in Alberta, choosing the game because “it was a sport I could do where I could take my kids to while I participated, since I didn’t have a babysitter.… It was the only thing I could actually do at the time.”
About 25 women have found their way to PARDy and are skating with the league now. It’s a number they’d like to grow, not just so more women can experience derby, but because it would allow them to roster a second team (only 15 women can skate in a bout, meaning some skaters have to sit out each time). The league is also co-ed, though right now not enough men participate to form a team.
PARDy is also trying to grow an appreciation for derby in the wider community, and get more support to run their league. “Peterborough should support women’s sport—and roller derby in particular—more,” says Cassandra Shaw, PARDy’s co-president.
Shaw says the league’s biggest need right now is space. The team currently practices in the gym at the Village on Argyle, but that space is too small to host scrimmages and bouts safely, and while the league also has access to the Douro Community Centre when there isn’t ice in it, that arena is outside of town and only available half the year. “It would be nice if Peterborough could open up an arena to us throughout the year,” Shaw says.
Another long-term goal of the league is to raise money to subsidize the cost of derby for people who can’t afford equipment and the $40/month dues. “I feel like I benefit so much from derby that I think other people without a lot of other opportunities financially would benefit so much from it as well,” Shaw says.
The league hopes that as it grows it will come to be acknowledged like other sports in the city, and recognized for the contributions it’s making towards building a healthier Peterborough. With sports participation declining steadily across Canada, investing more into roller derby, a grassroots sport that is actually growing in popularity, might go a long way towards increasing the physical health of Canadians. More support for the Riverside Riot Squad in particular, even if it’s just in the form of more cheers from the bleachers, would likely have a similar impact locally.
Back at the Evinrude Centre, Peterborough keeps on scoring in the bout’s second half, but Kingston continues to put up a strong fight too. Behind the track, PARDy sells baked goods and t-shirts to raise money for the league, and a little girl sits with a colouring book at the children’s table. About 50 fans are here watching as the Riverside Riot Squad wins the bout, and when the post-game music comes on the announcer invites the fans to encircle the track to high-five the teams.
The Riverside Riot Squad and the Skateful Dead skate by in single file, high-fiving everyone, tired but happy, smiling and thanking the fans for coming. The derby community is made up of skaters and fans alike, all participating in the growth of this odd, but exciting, new style of sport.
Never watched roller derby? Here are the basics:
Each team puts five skaters on the oval-shaped track at a time, one of which is the jammer, who scores points for their team. The two jammers start behind the other eight skaters (called blockers) and score one point every time they pass a skater from the opposing team. Derby is a full-contact sport, and blockers use their bodies to stop the opposing jammer from getting by while trying to open up space for their own jammer to pass.
Bouts are made up of two 30-minute halves, and the halves are made up of rounds called jams. Jams last either two minutes or until the first jammer through the pack of skaters decides to end it. Confused? Come to PARDy’s next bout and ask lots of questions!
Photos by Karol Orzechowski.