Amateur athletes do not usually work out and practice four to five days out of the week in preparation for their sport, but self-proclaimed obsessed-amateur roller derby player Zoey Duncan has been doing this for eight years. She says this is because of the sense of community and personal empowerment that the sporty brings her.

While working as a journalist in a small town in northwestern Ontario, Duncan was asked to find out what was happening outside of the local grocery store. Thinking it wouldn’t be that exciting, she went by only to find out that it was the local roller derby league selling hotdogs to fundraise and promote that week’s game. She thought to herself, “maybe this is my time. Maybe I should try roller derby.”

Bringing roller blades with her (derby players wear quad skates), she immediately noticed how friendly and approachable the team was. This launched a great summer of fun and training.
Joining the team

Fast-forward to Calgary, Duncan joined Calgary Roller Derby, sharpened her skills and gained friendships. Now the team travels around the world. What started as something “fun to do” has turned into a full-blown passion and lifestyle, playing 12 months out of the year and playing, practicing or training four to five days a week.

Duncan’s derby coach, Leon Bellavance, remarks on the commitment of his team, “I have met plenty of people who play volleyball for fun, or hockey, or something like that and I don’t know anybody who hired a trainer to get them better at the hockey game state play on Saturday night.”

Duncan says she has seen her own gains in speed, endurance and strength. “[It’s] some pretty intense stuff that I never imagined myself doing,” she says. “[It’s] been really cool to see that transformation.”

A sense of community

Between training and playing, Duncan sees her teammates most days of the week; coincidentally this social network is “one of the coolest things about it.”

Long-time derby pal, Nazanin Phaff, started roller derby for something fun and active to do. Like Duncan, she got so much more out of the game. “[It] wasn’t just about skating or the skills or the roller derby itself, but the community that we have here is unbelievable.”

 MG 5325The Cutthroat Carhops join hands during their practice at the West Hillhurst Community Centre. Photo by Angela Lackey

The sense of community is almost unavoidable, given the time spent together. “It’s different to show up and play a game a week in that kind of league, versus here we’re seeing each other two, three, sometimes four times a week,” Duncan says.

Player commitment

Bellavance, who coaches Duncan’s team, indicates the disproportionately high commitment rate for derby might have something to do with the fact that roller derby has a lot of players who are new to athletics.

“Most of the adults that I know came into the sport as their first sport,” he says. “We weren’t brought into this when we were kids… it was a choice.”

Team members push and encourage each other to work harder, to make practices and training times, or suggest adjustments while on the track. The team also celebrates wins, big and small.

Duncan says the high level of commitment is worth it.

“To watch your teammate do something for the first time that you know they’ve been working on — it’s just a warm, fuzzy feeling and it makes it feel like all those hours and sweating and skipping out on meeting up [with] your non-derby friends [is worth it].”

For Phaff, encouraging her teammates to get better and receiving the same is empowering.

“It’s women lifting each other up,” she says. “It’s super competitive but it’s also super uplifting.”

There’s the time spent playing, practicing and training for derby, and then there is the physical aspect. It’s a “really interesting” sport in that women are encouraged and expected to be a “physical force,” Duncan says.

The physical aspect

When she was little, Duncan asked her mom if she could play soccer and her mom said, “no, you’re too little.” It’s a total paradigm shift from being told that you’re too little to play sports, to becoming the jammer for your roller derby team, a position that likely receives the most hits.

 MG 5269Roller derby is a physical sport where players take a lot of hits. Zoey Duncan takes the most hits as her team’s jammer. Photo by Angela Lackey

In the early days of a player’s training, you really have to wrap your head around “using your body as a battering ram and to be the target for somebody else to,” Duncan says.

Roller Derby takes a physical toll, and often you leave with bruises. It’s important to know how to, “safely take a hit, and dish one out.” Pain happens, but it’s not about hurting. If you don’t play safe and you hurt people, no one is going to want to play with you, according to Duncan.

“We don’t go out and hit each other because we like hitting each other,” says Phaff. “We just know that it’s part of the sport. There’s a safe way of doing it. We spent all this time practicing to do it safely. It’s to use our bodies in a productive, athletic [and] strong way. It’s super empowering.”

“I acknowledge full contact sports are not for everybody,” Duncan says.

But for those willing to put on skates and give it a shot, it could lead to a good time.

“I would say that if you think people will think you’re crazy for trying it out, that’s all the more reason to come do it,” Duncan says.

Roller derby, “isn’t like the sort of passive things we do to unwind,” she adds. It’s something completely different that takes dedication. If you’re looking to connect with the physical side of existence, “roller derby can do that.”

Duncan takes her derby career one season at a time. She says it would be “amazing” to get another 10 years of derby in.

“I step back a moment and realize I have medals for this sport,” Duncan says. “People are really good at roller derby and me and my team beat them. That is very validating.”

Editor: Brittany Willsie | 

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