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Photos by Ryan Murphy
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More Than Sk8r Girls

Block. Check. Jam. Hit. Trip. Turn. Pass.

These are just a few of the many aggressive movements involved in roller derby, which is a little (a lot) more than just girls skating in circles.

Ohio Roller Girls was founded in 2005 and is celebrating its 10th season this year. The sport of roller derby has expanded quickly, and the team is ranked 22 out of 308 members of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WTFDA).

Ohio Roller Girls has consistently placed in the top 30 for the past four years. In 2013, the women had their highest finish ever, placing second in the playoffs and attending the World Championships, where they beat Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls.

So how does this growing but still unfamiliar sport work? “Someone once described it as ‘football chess,’ and I think that’s pretty apt,” said Amy Spears, one of the founding members.

Each team has four blockers and one jammer. The jammer is the point scorer and basically the “ball.” At the sound of the whistle, jammers maneuver their way through blockers, and blockers assist their own jammer while trying to block the other jammer’s progress. Scoring occurs when jammers lap members of the opposing team. Games consist of two 30-minute periods with halftime in between each period. It’s a full-contact race on skates: highly strategic and very physical.

The first jammer to pass all the opponents and break the pack is designated lead jammer, meaning she can call off the jam by repeatedly putting her hands on her hips whenever she wants. Both jammers then skate around the track and start scoring on their second pass. They receive a point for each blocker they pass, plus an additional point if they lap the opposing jammer. So they can score up to five points per pass. The jam ends when the lead jammer calls it off or when the clock hits two minutes.

Blockers can check, similar to hockey. And there are penalties—you can’t hit anyone above the shoulders or below the knees, skate into them from the opposite direction, push with forearms or hands, block with your head or block someone by grabbing your teammate. You also can’t pass players out of bounds. Penalties last 30 seconds, and after seven you foul out of the game.

When the game started, it was very much about pure speed and big hits. Over the past decade, it’s evolved to become much more tactical. Players form walls to hold jammers back more often, and blockers slow the pack to make it easier for their jammer to pass, or they speed it up to make it harder for the opponent.

Roller derby requires as much conditioning as hockey or basketball, Spears said—competitors have to be able to play both offense and defense simultaneously. So it requires not only mental agility but also a lot of physical strength. The Ohio Roller Girls practice for about two hours at least four times a week. When they aren’t practicing, they hold scrimmages and endure off-skates workouts.

“Some of us are on skates four to eight hours a week, plus cross-training on our own time,” Spears said.

Skating works the entire leg and demands strength, but the constant action and blocking require upper-body and core strength, too. Other types of fitness can also help increase speed and balance.

“The team really tries to encourage plyometric work and yoga work along with the training we do,” Spears said.

The sport demands more from women than common female stereotypes allow, but these women also defy the typical skater typecast. They aren’t all tattooed, punk rockers. They’re moms, students, educators, accountants, nurses and more, they’re just moving faster than usual. Cinch up your helmet strap or get out of their way. 

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