“There’s a lot of misconceptions about roller derby — it isn’t pro-wrestling,” Heather Petersen, the Kenyon College Bookstore’s sales floor supervisor and apparel buyer, said as she proudly pointed to her roller derby t-shirt. “It’s real.”
Petersen, who has been roller skating since she was young, was one of nearly 25 women who are part of the Central Ohio Roller Derby (CORD), a Mount-Vernon based team established in 2011 at a local skating rink. While pro-wrestling aims to please its audience, Petersen likes that roller derby focuses less on the spectacle and more on the competition.
Roller derby is a contact sport in which two teams of five members skate in the same direction around a track. One of these team members is a jammer, who scores points for their team by lapping opposing teams players. Other team members attempt to impede the opposing jammer.
CORD’s team members, who range from ages 18 to 50, practice twice a week and compete from mid-September to mid-August. A typical practice consists of off-skates workouts — such as pushups, planks and sprints — and skating laps around the rink to warm up before working on endurance, turns and formations.
Emily Zeller, visiting assistant professor of studio art, has been a member of CORD for the past four years. Zeller was a Kenyon student herself (she graduated in 2008 and studied studio art and English) when she first attempted to join a roller derby team because she thought “it would be fun and different.”
The Columbus-based Ohio Roller Girls had an age limit of 21 and above, so Zeller did not compete her junior year. During graduate school at Rochester Institute of Technology, Zeller attended fresh meat boot camps for roller derby, but she was too busy to join a team until after graduate school.
Petersen and Zeller emphasized the communal aspect of the roller derby experience. Teammates who work together in training camp, or “fresh meat” camp, often become “derby wives,” who look after each other both on and off the track. After tournaments and bouts (i.e. games), the competing teams often go out for drinks, food and fun.
“There’s a real sense of togetherness, with both your team and the other team,” Zeller said. “[Roller derby] is serious, but it’s a fun experience as well.”
CORD practices at Mount Vernon Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist boarding school, where they also host bouts and tournaments. When the school folded due to financial troubles in 2015, the team continued to rent out the rink space from Isaac White and Adam Miller, who are attempting to turn the old gymnasium into a recreational center. The team is looking into buying space from White and Miller because they are hoping to have more freedom with organizing bouts and tournaments.
About 100 to 150 people attend bouts in Mount Vernon to cheer on CORD or the opposing team. CORD also travels frequently to compete — most of the team’s tournaments and bouts take place within a three-hour radius of Mount Vernon, such as at their sister league Hell Betties, Ohio Valley Roller Girls, Cleveland’s Burning River Roller Derby, the Ohio Roller Girls’ B-Team, Toledo’s Glass City Rollers and Eerie Roller Girls.
“No one expects this to be a real sport, but it is,” Zeller said.
For Petersen, the serious aspect of roller derby is mostly about empowering women, regardless of their individual reasons for joining the team. CORD is currently attempting to start a junior league in which girls under the age of 18 will be welcome to participate.
“Derby is a wonderful place to build self-confidence, and we should start that as early as possible,” Peterson said.
Although Petersen is no longer a rostered member of the team, she attends most bouts and tournaments to cheer on her former teammates. She declined to comment on her reasons for leaving the team.
“Once derby becomes a part of you, it never leaves,” she said.
There will be new skater training clinics, open to anyone ages 18 and up, when CORD’s season begins again. The start date of their season is currently undetermined but they have a tournament in November.