After 16 years, revival of roller derby continues progressive ideas on inclusion

Lisa Michelle Adreani was desperate to join a full-contact sport five years ago, and the local softball league wasn’t exactly the outlet she was seeking. She refused to accept the idea that after college women didn’t participate in competitive contact sports.

Fast-forward five years and Adreani, 43, who goes by VigilAnnie on the track, is suiting up for her fifth roller derby season for the Windy City Rollers. She has no intentions of retiring anytime soon.

“When I found out about roller derby I said, ‘Sign me up!’ ” Adreani said. “I think it’s important for people to see that women who come in all different shapes and sizes, at all different ages, can be competitive.”

Adreani is just one example of the many women who make up the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. There is no ceiling on a skater’s age and no ideal height or weight. If you’re a competitor, you can play.

“Roller derby has always been kind of counterculture, kind of on the fringes,” Rachel “Nicholas Rage” Geistfeld said. “To this day, it still very much [has] a DIY feel to it and [is] celebratory of pretty much anyone who wants to lace up their skates and come play.”

Roller Derby was established August 13, 1935, at the Chicago Coliseum and Leo Seltzer was the man behind it.

It was a derivative of walkathons and teams were comprised of a man and a woman. Over a 30-day period, teams were simulating a skate from Chicago to Los Angeles and whoever completed the trek first won a cash prize of $1,000. By 1937 it had evolved into a contact sport and Seltzer received much pushback for including women.

“Women back then were supposed to stay home barefoot and pregnant,” Seltzer’s son, Jerry Seltzer said. “This sport was not a concept of the little woman. Sports writers didn’t want to cover it because women were involved but in spite of that it became very popular.”

The revival of modern-day roller derby happened in 2003 in Austin, Texas, and the Texas Rollergirls were behind it. The Windy City Rollers, who are celebrating their 15th season, were one of the founding leagues — or grandmother leagues — established within the next year. One goal of the revival was to give women a space to break from the female stereotypes of modern society and celebrate a more diverse image of what it means to be a woman.

It was a far stretch from the version Seltzer created, beginning with the fact that it’s played on a flat track instead of the high-banked track of the old days. Another distinction between roller derby today and the old-school version is the spectacle of the sport. The winners are not predetermined and at no point during a modern-day bout will a fan witness any moves resembling WWE. In fact, throwing elbows, hitting a competitor in the face and takedowns are all penalized moves.

“Back in the day, it was more fake and staged,” Windy City Rollers captain Ashley “Killanois” Perrin said. “Today, we pay homage to the old-school derby with our roller derby names, but everything else is very different than it used to be.”

By 2005, the WFTDA was established, and it had 28 participating leagues. Fourteen years later, the WFTDA is made up of 471 leagues globally — 75 percent are based in the United States. That spike in participation has given some of the WFTDA’s skaters the confidence to say it’s the fastest growing sport in the world.

“Roller derby is a product of its time,” WFTDA executive director Erica “Double H” Vanstone said. “Women have had to develop in sport differently than men. Most other sports have a woman’s version of another rule set. For example, softball is a modified version of baseball. This was able to flourish completely outside of those confines. We weren’t trying to do something that men were trying to do, and I think that’s why it’s been so popular.”

The Windy City Rollers are ranked 27th among the 471 global leagues and their next bout is April 13th at Vertiport Chicago against the Arch Rivals league out of St. Louis.

Windy City’s skaters have full-time jobs that include doctors, lawyers, graphic designers and teachers, while balancing their job as a member of the WFTDA.

Every league in the WFTDA is run by the skaters for the skaters. League members find the venues for bouts, show up early to set up and stay late to tear down. They find sponsors and host community events to raise money. On top of their full-time jobs and competing in roller derby, skaters are working to sustain their league.

It’s a small price to pay to help continue the growth and impact of a sport that has yet to reach its peak.

“It’s bigger than us,” Perrin said. “We’re creating this path for girls and women in the future to hopefully have a sport that is so women and non-binary focused that it becomes just mainstream.”

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