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COLUMN: Half an hour with the Nelson Killjoys

Reporter Will Johnson learned firsthand what it takes to be a derby girl.
Star reporter Will Johnson participated in a roller derby scrimmage with (L-R) Red Zeppelin

Half-crouched and red-faced, leaning into the track on my sixth or seventh lap around the Nelson Killjoys’ practice rink, I realized that I was about to collapse with exhaustion. Sweat drool-dripped into my ear canal while my legs trembled fawn-like, and as the ladies swept by me effortlessly I scanned the floor for a promising-looking spot to crash-land.

Only twenty minutes earlier, while the Killjoys’ co-captain Sly tutored me on the basics of derby etiquette—at one point slapping down a hefty-looking rule book and ensuring I was fully decked out with pads, mouthguard etc.—I’d been coached to look at the floor if I thought I was going down, aiming to fall forward rather than back. I wrenched my skates outward as I’d been taught, trying to slow myself down with a couple manic tap steps, but at the last moment I spotted the supportive, sweaty rump of Oso Agro only a few inches in front of me.

Without thinking, and with the desperation of a Titanic passenger lifeboat-lunging, I grabbed a fistful of her shirt and coasted behind her like Marty McFly at the beginning of Back to the Future, allowing myself to rest. For at least thirty seconds, while I panted and heaved, she yanked me around the Nelson & District Community Complex arena while the women laughed and war-yodelled.

“It’s not every day that a strong and sturdy man has a petite woman half his size offering to keep him upright,” the Killjoys’ captain Shove told me afterwards, describing my performance.

“We like up to pump our fresh meat up mentally before we knock ‘em down physically, so we made sure you knew we were impressed before we bashed you around a bit. The phrase ‘blood, sweat and tears’ is synonymous with roller derby, and while there was lots of sweat involved for all parties, we were glad to say we managed to keep all of your blood in your body, where it belongs.”

Shove had invited me to experience derby life firsthand, but I'm not sure I realized exactly what I was getting into. I’m lucky they were going easy on me, because as Shove put it: “Brick James alone could have knocked you into next Tuesday with one of her thunderous body checks, but then coach K. Boss would have had to scrape you off the cement, and ain’t nobody got time for that.”

I’m pretty confident I picked up some of the basics, the main thing being the squat stance—which the Killjoys’ repeatedly compared to the stance used for peeing in the woods—and Sly refuted the mythologizing that often goes on around derby. It’s not, as the Ellen Page movie Whip It! would have you believe, chaotic and ultra-violent. Instead it's carefully orchestrated, making it more akin to a dance than a brawl.

And though they like their macho posturing and enthusiastically embrace their warrior-like alter egos, the women participating in this sport are purposefully and proactively inclusive. Their aim is for every member of the team to feel supported.

“Any self-identified woman at any level of fitness can be on our team,” Sly told me, noting that Nelson derby athletes have gone on to compete at the national level. “Even if you don’t know how to skate, we’ll teach you.”

And what was my learning curve like, comparatively?

“Your balance and stability was admirable, even if you didn’t think so,” said Shove. “Your skating form was classic freshie, having to consciously remember to get low, bending your knees and hips, to stay steady. We didn’t bump you very hard because we aren’t jerks, so if you think about how hard people hit into you during the scrimmage and multiply that by about 50, you have an average strength hit of a derby skater. Serious stuff.”

We started with something called a pace-line weave, with the girls circling as I attempted to deke between each one. Next the ladies invited me to a two-jam scrimmage, in which I got the chance to try being a blocker. My job was to stop the opposing jammer from getting past our pack—and you’re not allowed to use your forearms or hands, instead you have to lean in and shoulder-shove.

In the thick of it I felt like Jon Snow in last week’s “Battle of the Bastards”, body-piled and gasping while being surrounded with women sporting names like Red Zeppelin, Meg Ablast, Goldie Gunshow, Squirt and Cleoslaptra. Finally, once they decided they were done with me, the ladies lined up to high-five me and cheer. I shakily rolled past constipated-looking before collapsing into a heap.

I guess this would be the point to mention my honorary Killjoys-provided moniker, which was shouted out amidst the chaos by a woman with pink dreads: UmWillacle Cord.

(The best derby names come with a mix of gender role subversion and cheap punning.)

Speaking of puns: this Saturday is Blood Bath and Beyond, a free all-day tournament featuring the Killjoys, NWO Wolfpack from Chilliwack, Avalanche City Roller Girls from Fernie and TOAST from Thompson Okaganan. Staring with a round-robin tournament, it will culminate in four 30-minute games to determine first through fourth place, wrapping up around 3 p.m. Then at 6 p.m. the hour-long championship game between the top two teams will commence.

Donations will be collected for the Nelson SPCA, Kootenay Co-op Radio and the Nelson & District Women’s Centre.

“We have decided to open up the NDCC to the public at no charge all day,” said Shove. “Partially to support attendance and local sports, as we know sometimes taking the kids (or even ourselves) to events can be cost-prohibitive. We want to see everyone to have the opportunity to participate and see this cool sport.”

After everything was over, I sat steaming with Shove on the floor of the arena, dragging off my kneepads and wriggling out of my wrist-guards. My new Killjoys’ T-shirt was soaked to the belly, and she told me horror stories about the teams’ pad-stink. As it turns out, there aren’t many mens’ derby teams—for much the same reason men’s synchronized swimming hasn’t caught on—but she said there are guy-opportunities to coach and serve as support staff.

“Thanks for being a good sport,” she said, bro-punching my shoulder. “It was fun kicking your ass for a bit.”