Roller Derby is a lifestyle for CNY players

The full-contact alternative sport is a wellspring of camaraderie for dozens of dedicated skaters.

When the SportsPlex arena in Utica succumbed to a mysterious fire in early February, it proved to be a devastating blow to the CNY Roller Derby league. The complex that housed the league's practice space, including its track and most of its resources, was suddenly up in smoke.

“It was unrelated to us, and luckily no one was hurt, but we had a lot of equipment stored there, and it was all just destroyed,” said Andrea Kennedy, who goes by the name “Ganja Ninja” when she competes with her team Blue Collar Betties in the CNY Roller Derby league. “It was just devastating. People put so much into derby, it's a lifestyle for a lot of us, it’s not just a hobby or a sport, so losing something like that is really heart-wrenching.”

Photo: Walter Romero
Andrea Kennedy, known as "Ganja Ninja," skating for CNY Roller Derby team Blue Collar Betties.

Timeline: Highlights from the history of Roller Derby

Word of the tragic fire started to spread swiftly through the local roller derby community. News of the lost practice space quickly traveled beyond New York state, and even made its way overseas.

“People who weren’t even part of our league heard about our situation and wanted to help out any way they could. We had such a wonderful influx of condolences and offers and donations from leagues across the country and across the world,” said Kennedy. “It was really touching to know that even if a league had never met us, they heard about our situation and they could empathize with it enough to want to help out.”

Such warm feelings could initially seem out of place within a sport that counts hip checks, shoulder checks and “booty blocks” among the bruising moves that are legal in game play. “It is full contact, absolutely full contact. The hits are just real; it’s not scripted,” said Assault City Roller Derby member Rebecca Howden, who is known by her roller derby moniker “Morticia D. Kay" on the Assault Squad team. “All of our injuries are real too, unfortunately,” she laughed.

It is understood, however, that the roughhousing is an essential and appealing part of the game. When Kennedy was temporarily sidelined due to an injury sustained during a game, she felt the absence of Roller Derby from her life in a very visceral way. “Those two months were excruciating," she said. "When it first starts, you think you can do it, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can go without derby for a month, it’ll be OK.' Then after a while, you start to lose it, because you’re like, ‘God, I just want to hit someone!’”

Widespread appeal

Roller derby, a seven-decade-old contact sport that involves roller skating around an oval-shaped rink, is experiencing a millennial resurgence in popularity since its previous pop culture peak in the 1960s and 1970s. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the international governing body of women’s flat track roller derby, counts 159 full member leagues and 109 apprentice leagues among its ranks across the world.

Roller derby is incredibly inclusive, with women from a wide variety of backgrounds populating every league. “A lot of people come into it from different stages of their life as well,” said Kennedy. “I’m one of the younger people in the league, being 23, but we have people in their 40s who are married, have children, have full-time jobs, so people come into it from all walks of life, which is great.”

Assault City Roller Derby, Syracuse’s first based flat track roller derby league, currently enjoys apprentice league status, working in conjunction with the Atlanta Rollergirls to continue on its path to full-member status. “They’re mentoring us, getting us through, letting us know what we need to do to graduate and become a full WFTDA league,” said Howden.

“It’s just a matter of time until they achieve it,” said Kennedy of her neighboring league. “They have everything that a WFTDA league has. I’m looking forward to celebrating when they get WFTDA status, because I have a feeling they’re going to have this huge after-party. It’s gonna be awesome.”

Roller derby is of paramount importance for many of the women involved, with league play often taking precedence over other facets of life. “We’re all registering for classes, and my advisor is like, ‘Oh, there’s this class that you need to take that’s on Tuesday and Thursday nights, why don’t you take it this semester?'" said Kennedy, a student at Cazenovia College. "I said, ‘Can’t do it, I have practice.' School is very important to me, but my sanity is also very important to me. I won’t even consider taking classes that would interfere with practice.”

Lasting connections

Although the competition among teams and leagues is palpable, camaraderie among players ultimately triumphs in the end. “We all want to believe, ‘Oh, my league is the best of the best.’ I feel like that, but I love the people that I get to skate with, and I love to be around them.”

The deep bond shared among players shines brightest during the most tragic of circumstances. Kristie Rubino, a longtime member of Assault City Roller Derby who went by the name “Raging Ruby,” died suddenly in August 2011 due to complications shortly after giving birth to her son, Brody. “It was unexpected,” recounted teammate and longtime friend Deb Perry, also known as “Deb Crush.” “It was a shock to the team.”

The sudden loss of their Assault City teammate reverberated throughout the tight community, which is resolute in supporting Rubino's family and having her legacy live on. “We had a bout this year in her honor to raise money for Brody," said Perry. "We did it the year she died too because we had a home bout a couple of weeks after she passed away, so we just dedicated that day. Now, our August bout is going to always be in her honor.”

For those who take part in roller derby, every aspect of the sport, both on and off the track, makes it an indelible part of their lives. “I fell in love it with immediately,” said Perry with a smile. “I loved the roughness, I loved the sistership, I loved the teamwork, and I’ve been here ever since.”

For Kennedy, it is the centerpiece of her life, an essential component that has shaped her world outlook in a very beneficial way. “It really impacted my entire life," said Kennedy. "It showed me self-discipline that I didn’t have before. It’s more than just a sport for me, it’s really my whole life. It really has helped me realize a lot of things about what kind of person I want to be.”


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