May 25, 2024


It was a doubleheader of pain, glam and fishnets at the New Hamburg arena on Oct. 20.

Fans braved the rain to watch the Tri-City Thunder take on Queen City’s Lake Effect Furies in a fast, hard-hitting game of roller derby. The audience cheered as women sporting four-wheeled skates, fluorescent shorts and tattered tights raced around an oval track taped onto the concrete floor. Tri-City Thunder won the game by a narrow margin of 179-163.

The night began with an exhibition bout between Tri-City’s “Kitties” and Niagara Roller Girls’ “Puppies,” two “fresh meat” teams made up of newer derby girls. The Kitties dominated the match, winning 85-15. Proceeds raised during the game went to support the K-W Humane Society.

By the end of the evening, one thing was clear: this wasn’t your everyday sporting event.

The Tri-City Roller Girls (TCRG) is a full-contact, flat-track roller derby league located in Kitchener-Waterloo. Since its inception in 2008, the league has grown to house three local teams, a travel team that competes internationally and another travel team in the works.

Roller derby is an exhilarating, fast-paced sport that is experiencing a revival. It’s one of the fastest growing women’s sports in the world with over 1,000 leagues across the globe and it’s not hard to see why. It has all the elements that make a sport watchable: entertainment, competition and a little bit of violence.

No longer relying on the staged theatrics of 1970’s derby – this derby is pure grit and athleticism. That means all the hits, blocks and spills you see on the track are real and unscripted.

The rules of derby are fairly simple. A roller derby bout consists of two 30-minute periods played between two teams. The periods are broken up into two-minute jams.

Each team has five skaters on the track during a jam: one jammer (differentiated from the other players by two stars on her helmet), three blockers and a pivot. Blockers and pivots take off from the pivot line on the first whistle, signalling the start of the jam. They skate in a tight pack with the goal of stopping the opposing jammer while making a path for their own jammer to get through.

On the second whistle both jammers race to catch up to the pack. The first jammer to get through the pack becomes the lead jammer and may call off the jam at any time before the two minutes are up. After the initial lap through the pack jammers score points for each opposing skater they pass legally.

The team with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

Roller derby players come from all walks of life. They are students, mothers, social workers, lawyers, office workers, volunteers and pretty much everything in between. The thing they all have in common? They are completely hooked on derby.

Leigh Wylde knows all too well how addictive derby can be. Under the name Leigh-zzie Borden, Wylde divides her time between her league team, the Venus Fly Tramps, and the travelling team, the Tri-City Thunder.

After watching her first game, Wylde decided “I’m going to do that,” then bought her entire derby package the very next day. “I ordered it all,” she laughs. “Skates, helmet, everything.”

She’s played for four years now and says what she loves more than anything else about the sport is the bond she shares with her teammates.

“We all have so much love for each other. It’s all so much fun – the practices, the games and just doing it all together.”

She also enjoys being involved in the league’s training committee.

“I love watching girls start fresh and watching them progress,” Wylde says.

“We had the fresh meat game today and my heart was just racing. The girls were awesome. They were amazing.”

The growth of the league, and perhaps the sport in general, can be attributed to its do-it-yourself attitude and caring, tight-knit community.

Grace Bermingham, who plays for the Total Knockouts and the Tri-City Thunder under the pseudonym Ova’Kill, says the camaraderie between players is what makes derby unique.

“I have never experienced such teamwork as that I’ve experienced as a derby player,” says the mother of two.

“There’s something about this sport that brings out the best in people and, I think, in women in particular because it flies in the face of what you might think of as a feminist or what you might think of as a cutesy sport or whatever.”

That camaraderie even extends to the opposing team.

“We’re all doing this because we love it,” says Bermingham. “I think that when you get a bunch of girls together who are doing this purely because they love it and because it makes them feel strong and because they want to win, then there’s no hard feelings.  I mean, you might have a few hard feelings at the time but they’re gone as soon as the game’s over.”

Tri-City Kitties player Suzanne Noble, a.k.a. Coyote Convict, agrees.

“We’re all friends on the team and you know, off the track, that team that lost, we’ll still drink beers with them later,” she says.

Bermingham says another amazing thing about derby is the amount of strength she now feels in her body.

“The training is very intense – it’s three days a week – and I practise up to eight hours a week. As a result, my cardio’s good, I’m strong and I have done things that I never thought I could do.”

“Every day there’s new challenges,” says Liv’UnDeadGirl, a Tri-City Kitties player who joined the league last April. “But I think that’s what attracts us to it.”

“There’s always something new to learn, something new to get better at,” she continues. “We challenge ourselves every day. If we mess something up one day, we’re going to work twice as hard the next day to make sure we don’t do it again. We kick our own butts.”

She’s speaking both figuratively and literally.

“We don’t have gym memberships,” she jokes. “We just do this.”