Lauren Zhou on July 10, 2022 in Opinions
Yellow Jacket Roller Derby [YJRD] is a co-ed club sport team at Tech in Atlanta. While there are over 2,000 roller derby leagues, YJRD is one of the only collegiate teams in the world! During the pandemic, the popularity of roller skating skyrocketed, and the interest from people who wanted to join our team followed — in the past seven months, we’ve tripled the size of our team and now have 65 beautiful teammates. We’ve grown as quickly as we possibly could, as we can only get as many new members per semester as sets of gear we have to lend out.
We are an incredibly diverse team of women, non-binary folks and men brought together from all types of backgrounds, interests, majors, sexualities, gender identities… you name it! Everyone is unbelievably inspiring and intelligent, with teammates conducting state-of-the-art research, working on cars and robots, acing multivariable calculus exams, and just collectively changing the world for the better — all in their free time apart from roller derby practice. Though we are all so different in our identities and interests, we are all tied together by our devoted love for roller derby. At YJRD, there is no way that you won’t fit in!
Roller derby is a fast-paced, full-contact, collision sport played on quad roller skates on an ovalshaped track. A game, or what we call a “bout,” is an hour long and split into two 30-minute halftimes. Each halftime is further split into two-minute “jams.” There are two teams of 15 skaters with each team being able to supply five skaters for each jam. One of the five skaters is designated as the “jammer.” They are the pointscoring players and are identified by a star on their helmet. The four other skaters are called “blockers,” with one of them allocated with the “pivot” position (they have a stripe down their helmet), meaning they are capable of trading positions with the jammer in the middle of a jam if need-be. The team with the most amount of points at the end of the bout wins!
Jammers earn points for each blocker on the opposing team that they pass, which is where the hitting comes in! Blockers, not wanting the other team’s jammer to pass them, try to stop or knock the jammer out of bounds to prevent them from passing. While scrapes and bruises are unavoidable in roller derby, there are lots of rules to make the sport as safe as possible.
Players may touch their own teammates however they wish, but when it comes to making contact with the other team, they can only use the parts of the body that can be covered with a T-shirt and shorts — and cannot hit opponents square in the back. Protective gear that must be worn to play includes a helmet, mouthguard, wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads. Players may also wear face shields and shin guards if they wish. Contrary to popular belief, roller derby does not allow elbowing, tripping, kicking or punching — that’ll get you sent straight to the penalty box! There are many more nuances to the rules of playing roller derby, like what a “lead jammer” is, “star passes” and other things that qualify as penalties, but this is the main gist!
Roller derby is different from other sports in that it is truly meant for anyone and everyone! This past year was one of the worst years for the transgender, intersex and nonbinary communities with over a hundred bills across the U.S. enacted to limit their participation in sports, access to affirming healthcare, privacy and, in general, prevent this community from safely presenting as their true self.
Roller derby is a sport dedicated to fighting against these restrictions and providing a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community. Our team especially has tried very hard to make YJRD as inclusive and welcoming as possible by creating a Diversity and Inclusion Committee dedicated to publicizing workshops held by our school educating about the gender nonconforming experience, enforcing a safe space for our members, providing mental health awareness and highlighting skaters of color and fat-positive skaters.
We also skate through the Atlanta Pride Parade together! In order to be on the team, everyone must sign a Membership Agreement Form protecting our teammates against bullying, harrassment and discrimination — which can be hard to notice in a sport where we physically hit one another. This trust that we have in each other is what allows us to remain best friends even though we make each other bleed and bruise. No one falls without an apology, another teammate checking in to make sure they’re okay or a congratulations!
Unlike other sports, people of all ages are able to start from the ground up to learn how to play and master our sport, regardless of if you’re a kid or 40 years old. The average age of a derby team is early-to-mid-30’s and the oldest derby player kept playing until they were 75 — proving that age is truly just a number. Anytime we hear, “I wish I could play roller derby,” the only answer is “You can!” Regardless of prior experience or pre-existing injuries, anyone and everyone can learn how to skate and play — all it takes is some practice and dedication.
Roller derby is also special in that everyone develops an alter ego! This tradition began in the early 2000s during roller derby’s revival from its theatrical origins in the 1930s. Derby skaters are hardly ever addressed by their legal name… rather everyone chooses their own name to go by on the track (and in effect, real life)! It’s actually a running joke on the team about how new members don’t actually know their teammates’ real names because we only address each other by our derby names. It’s definitely funny to be out in public calling a teammate “Wench” or “Hardass” and watching strangers look confused at seeing them smiling back. This goes on even further as we dress up as our derby persona on fancy occasions like our bouts and team photoshoots. For example, our teammate Fly Fieri will always be covered in flames, and JoJo Jolt will always have a storm cloud and lightning bolt painted across her face. These names can be based on anything the skater wants: their interests, a play on words of their real name, a physical trait, their heritage or nothing at all! They’re typically a little dark, dangerous or aggressive. Other examples of derby names from the team are Primm Reaper, Executie, Sylvia Wrath and She Creature.
So far, our team’s biggest achievement would definitely be the GymShark feature! It was so shocking that out of all the teams in the world, our small team — barely five years old — was chosen. YJRD also had a joint-mixed Exhibition Bout with Atlanta’s main roller derby league, Atlanta Roller Derby, last semester. We held a couple practices with them beforehand and we learned so much from them. Being noncollegiate, most of the skaters on their team were older and have been skating for years, some even on the international scale. They were all so supportive, kind and ready to give us tips and tricks to gameplay even if we were practicing as the opposite team. I really mean it when I say that this altruistic and collaborative environment is just the culture of roller derby! There was such an amazing turnout to the bout — over 150 people showed up and all of the chairs we rented out were filled. Many people had to stand or sit on the ground to watch. After the pandemic halted our ability to play in a bout for two years, it was amazing seeing the support from friends, family, fans and others from the community for the first game that really any team in the world was able to play. We were so happy to expose roller derby to the Tech community and we were asked countless times when our next game was, even before the bout had ended!
Outside of roller derby, we would also love to see more inclusivity for all women in fitness. The world as a whole is, unfortunately, terribly misogynistic. Women from a young age are trained to be pitted against one another, to be called “bossy” rather than “assertive,” to learn to hate their physical appearance, to doubt themselves and to believe that they could never be enough. There’s this belief that women need to be docile, fragile and submissive to be feminine. We’re taught that being strong, ambitious and decisive is a bad thing; that to have muscles is to be too masculine; that being fat is something to be ashamed of. At every turn, anything and everything we could do or be is something that’s wrong and needs to be fixed — regardless of whether it’s hypocritical.
Roller derby has this excellent balance between harnessing masculine and feminine energy and supporting the concept of how to be human. Being a woman-dominated sport — and a sport that originated for “outsiders” — roller derby was able to set its roots and grow welcomingly away from the harsh commentary of a world made for men. Our rough sport is wholly athletic and aggressive. The whole point of the game is to use our bodies as a weapon against the other team. Points are earned by whether or not the jammer can maneuver quickly enough or hit hard enough to make their way through the pack.
On the flip side, our sport is impressively welcoming, inclusive and supportive. The kind-hearted nature of all players and consistently being surrounded by positive women who understand what life is like in the real world allow everyone to connect on an unspoken and intimate level. Roller derby is especially supportive and welcoming of the LGBTQIA+ community. It provides a safe space for those who can’t express their true selves in their day-today life and fosters a family of individuals to help guide and protect people on their path of discovering themselves. Bullying and hurtful commentary about peoples’ physique, race, gender, disabilities, sexuality or anything that cannot be controlled or healthily improved are rejected and are unwelcome in the world of roller derby. Hate does not belong here.
We foster an environment for individuals to be themselves and to strengthen themselves; not just to become more physically fit but to help accept themselves better in a world determined to make them feel less-than. If you would like to support us, we have a GoFundMe. Your donations will help us pay for venues for future bouts (the only place we can host is on an outdoor, uncovered basketball court with no public parking nearby), pay for other bout necessities (referees, announcers, EMTs, etc.), replenish our team gear, pay for team jerseys, pay for coaches, pay for travel for away games and support our teammates whose financial hardships might prevent them from having access to our sport. With much love, we thank you so so so much in advance!