Roller Derby: Embracing Belonging and Celebrating Diversity

Sporting the blue, white, and black uniform of the Ithaca League of Women Rollers (ILWR) B-team, the Bluestockings, Fanny Farmer, Jagger, and Sissy Sledgehammer [left to right] form a wall blocking the advance of the opposing team’s jammer, seen pressing up behind them in the pink helmet cap. Fanny and Jagger grasp each other’s wrists, overlapping their arms to strengthen the wall, while Sissy angles her body into the jammer, boxing her in behind it. Directly behind Sissy, another Bluestocking is just visible, probably with a hand on Sissy’s back to further stabilize the barricade. The goal is to keep the pink helmeted player from exiting the pack. They work to prevent her from making her way around the oval track to score the first points, which would make her the lead jammer and give her the power to strategically call an end to the jam. Meanwhile, her teammates are attempting the same feat against the Bluestockings’ jammer, Machete and Meatballs, her white star on a blue helmet just visible at the back of a sea of pink-uniformed blockers. What’s more, all of this action is happening with quad-style skates laced to the athletes’ feet. What I’ve described so far is a scene just seconds after the whistle blows to begin a jam in a roller derby bout. I suppose I could have set the scene there—a shrill whistle pierces the air, cutting the buzz of anticipatory crowd noise for a split second before igniting a frenzy of action from the athletes, coiled and ready to spring. But that’s not really what this is all about. I keep this photo in my phone—today’s equivalent of the snapshot in the wallet. It’s one of only a few I have from my days playing flat track roller derby and it’s the only one that depicts me in action, looking like I’m competent at what I’m doing. I am Sissy Sledgehammer—or I was, at least for a while. 

Some years ago I was living in Ithaca, New York. My partner was working on his master’s degree at Cornell and I worked at one of the Cornell libraries. I’d made a handful of friends and I had become involved with a local nonprofit organization, but I felt restless, on the hunt for something engaging to occupy my free time. A chance conversation at a party revealed Ithaca had a Roller Derby League and, as luck would have it, they were hosting an open house to recruit new skaters to the sport. 

I talked my friend Tobi into going to the open house with me, because who doesn’t need a pal when exploring a new and scary environment? We parked in a gravel lot in front of an unassuming rectangular cinder-block building on the outskirts of town. Inside, the walls were muraled with vibrant artworks, the floor was concrete, the space was cold. The diverse group of women in attendance—some already equipped in roller skates—projected an air of confidence that both inspired and intimidated. Derby girls are the jam (pun most definitely intended). From their wardrobes, to their clever names, to their skills on wheels, everything is practiced and orchestrated and designed to communicate that these women are smart, fierce, skilled athletes and they are hot as hell. Compared to the rough and tumble, highly dramatic, almost WWF-like sport I remember watching on Saturday mornings, this scene felt real.

Before we knew what was happening, we were strapped into protective gear—elbow and knee pads, wrist guards, helmets—and our feet were fitted with roller skates. I had no idea we’d be roller skating! I thought it was an info session. I had skated in rinks and on sidewalks as a kid, so I had passing balance and stability on wheels, but what the hell is a hockey stop?! Being in hockey country in upstate New York, I could not dare to ask anyone. The very question is sacrilege. The next hour or so was taken up with drills aimed at accomplishing a sense of familiarity with moving on eight wheels and the very basics of how roller derby is played. By the end, I was hooked. 

From those initial moments, a profound connection emerged. Enrolling in boot camp and subsequently making the Bluestockings, the B-team of the Ithaca League of Women Rollers, marked my official entry into this vibrant community. It quickly became evident that our team was a microcosm of diversity—a tapestry of unique backgrounds, abilities, and experiences, bound together by a shared passion for roller derby.

It strikes me right away that what I want to describe first is the play. The strategy is apparent once the goal is revealed. The athletes in the foreground look strong, skilled, unified. Like DEI work, this sport is challenging, both physically and mentally. It requires teamwork and trust. It’s fast-paced and strategic. It’s dangerous and rough, but it’s also elegant. It’s a badass ballet.*

In roller derby, we didn’t just play a game: we built a family. It was a testament to the beauty of diversity and the strength that emerges when individuals unite in pursuit of a common passion. Roller derby, for me, will forever remain a cherished chapter—a vivid illustration of how embracing diversity and celebrating belonging can transform lives. As I look back on those days, I am reminded that roller derby was not merely a sport but a journey of self-discovery, a celebration of unity, and a testament to the enduring power of belonging.

-Carrie Cooper

*Suffer Jets jammer, Ha Ha Hatchet used to be a competitive figure skater. I’ll never forget the bout in which she was moving full speed around the track, coming up on the pack of opposing blockers, each of them braced to take her down and without missing a beat she last-second cut to the inside of the track, jumped the apex, landed on one skate and with a pirouette kept moving. The blockers on both teams dropped their jaws. Suffice to say the crowd went wild. This sport is exhilarating, for athletes and spectators alike.

**Check out our Indianapolis roller derby teams! Circle City Roller Derby  Naptown Roller Derby

Carrie Cooper is an accomplished and passionate individual whose journey has led her to explore the intersections of art, community, leadership, and social justice. She recognizes the power of art in facilitating conversations and evoking emotions, appreciating the significance of storytelling and its ability to invoke recognition of our shared humanity.

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