Real women. Real hits. Real heart.
The slogan for the Toronto Roller Derby (ToRD) league doesn’t even begin to capture the essence of the sport.
Women and men participate separately in the flat-track revival of the wild sport that was somewhat popular, or least prevalent in the 1970s, and everyone involved does it on a volunteer basis.
Dolly Destructo’s first impression of roller derby quickly changed when she joined the Chicks Ahoy!.
“I thought cute dresses, girls playing sports and they get to skate around in a circle and hit each other, that’s for me,” Destructo said after the Chicks Ahoy! Advance to the championship game. “But we have rules. It’s a real sport. We’re not just out for blood. There’s a lot of that, but you have to be strategic.
“It’s a real sport, it’s hard-hitting, it’s fast-paced and it’s totally real.”
All of the women in the league have real jobs and lives outside of the hangar, home to the league. They come from all walks of life but as Gamma Rei of the Gore-Gore Rollergirls said, and many of the other players agreed, the people are the best part of the unique sport.
“I’m a scientist, but I’ve met lawyers, I’ve met doctors and I’ve met students,” said Rei, who like all involved goes by her derby name. “They’re my friends and they’re my sisterhood.
“What happens on the track stays on the track. You can totally slam some girl to oblivion on the track and then you’re buying her a beer 10 minutes after the game.”
For Elvis Refsley, a three-year veteran referee, the biggest surprise was the brute nature of the sport.
“It’s a lot more physical than you expect,” he said. “Especially if you can get down at rink level, you can hear the sound of people slamming into concrete.
“It sounds like someone took a side of beef and just dropped it on concrete. It’s brutal. It’s a really physical sport. Pretty much every girl in the league is tougher than I could ever hope to be.”
What can be a challenge for many of the players and volunteers is the amount of time required to keep the skater-run league going.
“I expected a really cool sport,” said Speedin’ Hawking of the Death Track Dolls. “I didn’t expect all the time and effort off skates that you contribute to make the league happen. I didn’t really appreciate that.”
The league is for the skaters by the skaters, meaning all participants help out with matches when they aren’t playing, They run their own ticketing, promotions, fund-raising, media and all other aspects of the organization.
Many come from all over the city to the hangar at Downsview Park just to take part.
Hawking, for instance, comes from the East York area, but thinks it’s worth the sacrifice.
“It’s a challenge but I think all of us are just so dedicated that we make it work,” Hawking said before Saturday’s semi-final bout. “You just find time to make it all happen and you work it into your schedule.”
Refsley comes from the same part of town but enjoys the commute that he makes on his bicycle.
“It can be a bit of a challenge in bad weather,” he said. “When you ride a bike everywhere, pretty much everything is accessible. It’s going to be different in the winter months but thus far it’s been not too bad.”
Destructo does not find any enjoyment in the distance she travels to get to the track from East York.
“It takes forever,” she said. “It takes an hour-and-a-half. It really sucks.”
But the Chicks Ahoy! blocker has a good reason to get to the hangar, even when it’s not a game day.
“My team will kill me if I don’t come to practice,” Destructo said.
The women take the sport very seriously and competition can be intense. Even with the men, who volunteer at games, help with the league, or take part in the “zebra mafia” that are the referees, Destructo thinks that sometimes there can be an overload of estrogen.
“It gets really hard to deal with 100 crazy women every day,” she said. “We fight everything out but we come to good conclusions and we’re always going in a positive direction. We’re all on the same mission and it’s awesome.”