“Two years ago, my friends invited me to a movie, it was called Whip It. After 10 minutes I turned to my friends and said I have to do this.”
Great ideas can happen anywhere; in Prague inspiration often strikes in a pub (that comes later in this story). But for the Prague City Roller Derby, it was a cinema that inspired co-founder Míša Rýgrová (a.k.a BODYCZECH).
“After seeing the film, I started to research it, does it really even exist, is it in the Czech Republic, and I found nothing,” Rýgrová said. “I kept searching and finally found someone who wanted to do it too and there were seven of us who met in a pub. We knew it would be a lot of work because there’s nothing here.”
According to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the international governing body of women’s flat track roller derby, there are 234 member leagues and 89 apprentice leagues from 14 countries. However, there are many more amateur leagues happening – derbyroster.com reports more than 1,300 amateur women’s leagues worldwide. Begun in the Depression era 1930s America, the popularity of the sport began to drop in the 1970s when spectators grew tired of the increasing theatrics (think America’s World Wrestling Entertainment). Resurgence out of Texas in the early 2000s has led to the current boom.
With lots of energy, Rýgrová and her co-founders (Blanka Mácelová, Eva Smulíková and Michaela Rejnková) charged ahead, translating the rules, looking for a place to practice, and of course, trying to teach themselves the sport.
“We all had to learn by ourselves, from YouTube, we went to Vienna, to Berlin, looked for every opportunity to see it, as none of us had seen it live,” Rýgrová said. “I went to the US five months after we started and that was the first time I’d seen it live. We had no equipment; I drove to Berlin and got gear for seven girls so we could start skating.”
The team has since had seven bouts, all international as they are still the only team in the Czech Republic.
“We’ve played Hamburg, Vienna, Berlin, Dresden. A Finnish team came in October, kicked our asses, but we got a big lesson from them,” Rýgrová said. “If we are serious, we’ve got to practice and the next bout we won so we could clearly see how everyone improved.”
The sport is a fast-paced one, though the girls on the Prague team say it isn’t as brutal as it sometimes looks. The rules are basic – two teams of five members each skate in the same direction around a track. Both teams designate a scoring player, called the jammer, who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams’ other four skaters (called blockers) attempt to assist their own jammer while simultaneously getting in the way of the opposing jammer. A match is called a bout which is played in two 30 minute periods. Point scoring occurs when a jammer laps the members of the opposing team. The blockers use body contact and quick skating tricks to prevent the other team’s jammer from getting through, while creating a clear path for their own jammer. There are referees who call penalties and skaters can end up in the penalty box.
Roller derby seems to inspire a passion in its players. April Bagley (a.k.a. Harley Kwin), an American on the team compares it to a virus.
“Even if you suck, it pulls you in, I’ve never experienced anything like it before,” she said. “The camaraderie, I can’t stop. You get bit and are infected.”
Whip It was the inspiration that led Bagley to start looking for a Czech roller derby team. At maybe five feet tall, she is tiny, not one you would think would go in for a sport with such contact. But as she tells it, the lead character in Whip It was also small so it gave her the confidence to at least try it out.
“I didn’t do any sports, I couldn’t skate so this was really out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I’m still in the process of learning, I couldn’t even stand up the first time and everyone reminds me how terrible I was.”
Bagley acts as a non-skating official for the bouts. NSOs assist the refs in keeping score, keeping time, tracking the penalties, etc. They are essential for a bout – each bout must have seven referees and seven NSOs.
“I enjoy it because even through I can’t skate with the team yet, I’m still contributing to our team and the bout as a whole,” she said.
That’s one of the attractive elements of the sport – anyone can do it, and the team is excited to help beginners.
“No level is too basic, the team will support you and we are growing,” said Hayden McCoy (a.k.a. Hatefield McCoy), another American team member who plays blocker. “It looks brutal but it’s not so bad, we play smart.”
McCoy had been skating since she was child and was excited when she found the Prague City Roller Derby last summer and has since played in two bouts.
“I want to become more agile on skates before trying to be a jammer,” she said. “The thing is, it’s all about your feet, there are some really good skaters and their feet are amazing.”
Even though Whip It was an unintentional inspiration for many roller derby participants, McCoy says the reality is a bit different from the movie.
“There are rules, you can’t punch people, it is quite strict.”
The team is very open and welcoming, wanting to encourage as many girls as possible to have a go at it. And based on these girls’ experiences, there’s a lot more to be gained than just fast skating skills.
“I have very a stressful job so I have this outlet for aggression – it’s challenging, demands dedication and it has pushed me to be more physically fit,” McCoy said. “Plus I like the sport and the team.”
“It’s nice to be part of a team, no one knew anything (about roller derby) so we all learned together and that wouldn’t happen with other sports,” said Bagley. “And for me, it gives me a sense of strength; small people can do big things.”
“We don’t need people to be big sports stars, if it makes you happy, just do it,” Rýgrová said. “I’ve never been good in sports, but I like that this is hard, it clears my brain, my physique is better and there’s a great bunch of girls with me. It’s the first thing I really feel confident in. And it’s just really cool.”