Established in 2012, The Derby Cats was the first collegiate flat track roller derby team in the U.S. Ten years later, the team is currently in the process of bringing in new members to continue this legacy, following the difficulties of COVID-19.
Roller derby is an intense, physical sport on wheels. It is a full-contact team sport in which competitors skate in a pack. The players designated as “blockers” try to help their “jammer,” the point scorer, lap the other team’s skaters. It’s not unusual to come away from a bout, as their matches are called, with plenty of scrapes and bruises.
For the Derby Cats, the few experienced members of the team are working to coach up the young squad on proper skating technique and teach them the rules of the game.
Two of these veterans are seniors Julian Wallace and Alex McWilliams, who both joined the team before the pandemic and want to help train new members before they graduate.
“If we want the team to survive, we have to leave a team behind,” Wallace said.
Wallace joined in late 2019 and was able to learn the sport before the pandemic shut them down. The Derby Cats held some virtual meetings during quarantine, but membership steadily declined. This school year, however, they’ve gained lots of eager new members.
“It’s fun to see all the newbies,” Wallace said. “When we went into [COVID-19] we had a pretty decently sized team, and it was stressful to watch because we kind of hemorrhaged skaters.”
But now, they’ve built a substantial team, thanks in part to the many new recruits, who started off the year learning the basics of skating and now are able to teach others.
“I love my team so much,” McWilliams said. “They’re all really positive people and they work hard.”
One new member is sophomore Yesenia Siemens, who joined last semester and has only missed one practice since. Siemens loves having the opportunity to exercise in a fun way and learn the sport in a friendly environment.
“Here everyone’s really supportive,” she said. “If you fall in a cool way, they cheer.”
Siemens also said that the sport isn’t as aggressive as people might think and that the team is always encouraging.
“Plus, it’s really fun to be on wheels and go fast,” Siemens said.
Another fun feature of the sport is the derby names, the nicknames used by skaters in bouts. These names are often zany and inventive. McWilliams’ nickname is Killer Bee and Wallace’s is Ruth Break-Her Shinsburg.
Almost all the members had no prior derby experience and many are fairly new to roller skating as well. Wallace describes learning the sport as a difficult process, where you must be willing to fail and try new things.
In Wallace’s words, it’s all about “being willing to be afraid and still do it.”
Freshman Nawel Fajardo is a biosystems engineering student who joined in the fall without any knowledge of the sport.
“I didn’t know what derby was when I joined at all,” Fajardo said.
Nevertheless, Fajardo has quickly taken to the team and really enjoys spending time with his fellow skaters. He often gives members of the team rides to their late-night practices at an off-campus park.
Fajardo mentioned that it’s not too challenging for him to learn the sport, but it does involve falling frequently.
“It’s fun,” Fajardo said. “I enjoy the pain when it’s for derby.”
Fortunately, the Derby Cats practice their craft armored in elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads, mouth guards and helmets. They are also taught to stop and fall safely.
In Fajardo’s few months with the club, he has been able to learn a lot just from watching other members and adopting their skating techniques.
“No matter what, you’re going to get better every practice,” Fajardo said.
For him, Derby Cats has been an opportunity to meet new people and hang out with students he wouldn’t have met otherwise. He praised the diverse and supportive community the club has created.
“No matter who you are, everyone’s gonna accept you with open arms,” Fajardo said. “Everyone’s gonna really care about you.”
Many members expressed how revitalizing the club has been for them, and how much they eagerly anticipate their meetings.
“Derby’s the best part of my week,” McWilliams said. “I look forward to it, I always try to make it a priority.”
Sarah Olson is a PhD student at the UA and a new member as well. She uses the derby name Serrano and has also joined a community roller derby league.
“Moving from out of state was really hard for me,” Olson said. “Derby saved me in more ways than one.”
Roller derby is a unique sport with its own subculture, and it makes room for all types of expression through makeup, clothes and nicknames. Wallace and McWilliams also spoke of the strong LGBTQ+ presence in roller derby and noted that it’s a sport that works for any and all body types.
“I think derby is a really wonderful sport to play because it’s such an accepting space,” Wallace said.
Before COVID-19, the Derby Cats had bouts against other collegiate and local teams but have not scheduled one since. They are hoping to hold a full scrimmage before the end of the year, possibly against an outside team.
What the Derby Cats may lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm. As they practice drills and attempt scrimmages twice a week, their passion for the sport is palpable. And they’re all more than comfortable falling down and getting right back up, time and time again.
The team is not only passionate about the sport, but also their peers and their growth as a group. The Derby Cats have created a strong community with a place for everyone.
“All you have to do is put on the skates and you’re part of it,” McWilliams said.
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