Strong is Our Sexy spoke with two women to learn how they were transformed inside and out by the increasingly popular, but often misunderstood sport of roller derby.
“Let me be really clear – I have never been athletic in my life. Ever,” McKay Talley told us. “I had mostly given up team sports as being a thing I should ever do by about age 20.”
McKay, 33, is a high school art and theatre teacher in Galveston, Texas. She’d been aware of roller derby for some time and had attended a few bouts, but it too didn’t immediately strike her as her thing. As she would find out, there are two different styles of derby – flat track and banked track – and when she found herself at a banked track for the first time she fell in love.
“They were giving out a free month of bootcamp for anyone who signed up, and I had had a few beers at that point and was feeling brave, so I signed up,” she remembers. “I was coming out of one of the roughest years of my adult life – my job had been hell for that year, I’d had some medical issues, and I’d fallen into a pretty severe depression – and I felt like I needed to shake things up a bit.”
Before she knew it, they’d texted her with an invite to start bootcamp the next day. “I was so caught off-guard, and still riding high from seeing that game, that I said Yes without thinking about it too much.
“…and then I immediately thought, oh God, what have I done???”
Roller Derby in a Nutshell
Roller derby is a team game where points are earned when players from each team lap each other as they skate around an oval track – even when it means shoving each other out of the way to do so. It evolved out of similar skating sports, such as racing and long-distance endurance competitions, that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the turn of the next millennium, in the early 2000s, roller derby saw a revival in popularity – spearheaded by women at the grassroots level.
There are three basic positions on a derby team: jammer, blocker, and pivot. Jammers work to score points by lapping the other team, while blockers clear the way while simultaneously trying to keep the other team’s jammers from getting through the pack. The pivot, who also acts as a blocker, stays at the front to control the speed of play. (For a more detailed outline of the positions and gameplay of derby, we found this guide pretty helpful.)
Even as roller derby has gained more public visibility, there’s still an “underground” vibe around it to the outsider. A robust community has grown around this niche interest. It’s hard not to get caught up in the energy at a match. One reason women in particular are drawn to derby: the rules here are different. It’s a place where women can be competitive, physical, and intense in a way the rest of the world doesn’t often allow.
For some women, that’s all it takes to get them to lace up.
Unlike McKay, “Truxtal” Von Roggenkamp, a skater with the Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG), was a natural athlete. “I always hated working out, but I loved playing sports. It wasn’t until I found derby that I had enough motivation to truly push myself to cross train.”
CRG is a flat track roller derby team, while South Side Roller Derby, where McKay skates, is banked. There, she’s known as “Lady MacDeath,” a nod to her background in theatre. Both ladies are blockers.
Truxtal also fell in love with roller derby when she attended a CRG match and began volunteering with the league, the best way to get her fix until she could finish grad school and free herself up to dedicate time and energy to skating. Even the behind-the-scenes experience was illuminating. “I was impressed with how much of a well-oiled machine the league was, both in practice and how they ran the league off the track,” she said. “I didn’t expect to make such close connections with people who were so different from me and my friends.”
The First Few Laps
Getting started with roller derby is a physical challenge from Day One. “It hurts at ﬁrst, the way you have to stand, the muscles you use to skate, getting used to skates on your feet for that long, and just…it’s hard work!” McKay remembers. “I was sore in places I’d never known could get sore.”
“For beginners, everything is a challenge,” said Truxtal. “The most fundamental of skills can sometimes be much harder to execute than the veterans make it look.”
As their bodies adjusted to the physical demands of derby, their own body images started to shift, too. ”Once I started skating, I stopped wanting a runway figure and began to appreciate my athletic build,” said Truxtal. “In the Derbyverse, where strong is sexy, my body is great in form and function.”
McKay shared that being a roller derby athlete changed the way she fueled herself and focused her training: “I’m always aware of how what I eat before practice or a game affects how I play.” She plans her workouts around the specific skills or abilities, such as endurance and agility, that need her attention, instead of just lifting for the sake of lifting.
Roller derby doesn’t give you much choice about staying in shape. “As you advance, there is always a next level,” Truxtal advised. “The game is constantly evolving and new skill sets become necessary. It keeps everyone on their toes.”
See just what that looks like in this video of McKay and her teammates, the Cutthroat Cupcakes:
What It’s REALLY Like to Be a Derby Girl
“I had just started a new job and had a group of about 25 coworkers [at a match] to see me skate for the first time, but all they got to see was me skate in a few jams before my leg snapped in half. I recovered from that and came back good as new!”
As roller derby’s public profile has risen, so have some common misconceptions about the “kinds of women” who would be drawn to such a sport. Raunchy, burlesque-like stage names and uncensored language aren’t hard to come by, and there’s plenty of bare, bruised skin to go around. That’s the first impression that people outside the derbyverse tend to come away with.
“We’ve come a long way from the stereotypical sexy derby girl in fishnets and booty shorts,” said Truxtal. “I wish everyone understood that we train and live like serious athletes. Derby culture is unique and quirky at times, but at the end of the day we are strong, smart, driven and highly skilled female athletes. We are role models, not sex objects on skates.”
When it comes to the rough-and-tumble gameplay, McKay thinks people often draw the wrong conclusions. “We hit each other, just like with football – there’s actually more limits to how and where we can hit than there is in football – and yet somehow, probably because we’re women, we’ve got this reputation as these violent, bloodthirsty harpies.”
Remember, the rules are different here: women can be bold, brassy, and uninhibited, which some people equate with rebellious or even dangerous. For as far as women’s rights have come and continue to progress, there’s still some risk to straying too far outside gender roles.
But where there is risk, there is also reward. “Derby has helped me gain confidence, which carries over into other facets of my life,” Truxtal said. “It’s allowed me to be a part of something greater than myself and given me the closest thing to a family that I have in this city.”
Good to know:
“Don’t ask a derby girl about throwing elbows. That’s bull. It’s illegal to elbow someone, but it’s also one of the least effective ways to knock someone down. If I want someone on the ground, they’re getting my ass.”
McKay has noticed a change in herself off the track, too: she feels braver. “The crazy thing about putting on skates and running full force into other people is, there’s not much that’s scary anymore. If you’ve fallen on your head wearing ﬁshnets and sparkly hot pants in front of hundreds of people and not died of embarrassment, what else is going to be that bad?”
Catch Roller Derby Fever
If you’re looking for something totally different to shake up your fitness routine – and “if you want a nice butt and killer thighs,” adds Truxtal – roller derby belongs on your radar. We asked these ladies what you should know going into it:
“It’s going to be hard,” McKay said right up front. “Seriously, it will be one of the most challenging things you ever decide to do for fun. You’re going to cry on the track at least once, you’re going to get hurt, you’re going to be awful at it, and if you stick with it, it will absolutely be 100% worth it.”
Whether or not you like team sports, one benefit is that they reward dedication. “The more energy you put into derby, the more you get from it,” Truxtal told us. “I could do a lot less for the league and slack on my training, but I wouldn’t have gotten the same all-encompassing experience.”
One thing seems certain: just a few laps around the track could wind up transforming your life.
Connect with McKay and Truxtal on Facebook, and visit South Side Roller Derby and Cincinnati Rollergirls too!