The future of competitive roller derby remains uncertain as skaters have been on hold since the pandemic began, and now those who skated with the Toronto Roller Derby Leagues (ToRD) have lost their home track where they scrimmaged and played tournaments.
Bradford resident Emily Gordon has been skating competitively with the roller derby league for the past six years and began the contact sport after watching the movie “Whip It”.
“It’s terrifying, but so much fun,” said Gordon. “When I first started, I had one giant ongoing purple bruise on my shin from the top of my knee to three-quarters down my leg.”
Gordon plays on the team Chicks Ahoy! and her roller derby name is Annie Social, formerly Scandal-Navian. Gordon also runs her own roller derby outfit business, Methuselah Designs.
Roller derby has been around since the 1920s and evolved from a ‘skate race’ to a more physical high-contact sport, known for its collisions and falls.
The game itself involves two teams of blockers and jammers that race around a track trying to get through packs to accumulate points. Penalties are given to skaters who use their hands or throw an elbow or knee, but are allowed to use other areas of their bodies to block, such as shoulders, upper arms, hips, and buttocks.
“I’ve seen people break bones very badly,” said Gordon. “The worst that’s ever happened to me was a sprain (ankle, wrist, and hand a couple times)… I’m also very aggressive so I do it to myself.”
The ToRD League formed in 2006 and is an incorporated business run entirely by skaters, for skaters. Gordon’s team is one of four house teams, plus one farm team that would play out of a hangar unit near Downsview Park in Toronto, which is leased to the association.
The last game the Chicks Ahoy! played was in summer 2019. Since then, the leagues have been in “hibernation” as they await the outcome of the pandemic.
“It’s not safe to play a high contact sport right now,” said Gordon. “Members couldn’t pay dues without playing, so we went into hibernation.”
As ToRD began to lose all streams of income, the league had to make the difficult decision not to renew their lease in Toronto.
“Finances are a big issue,” admitted Gordon, who used to be on the finance committee. “We don’t have any sponsors… we’re a women’s sports league and no one cares about women’s sports… the future at this point is that individual teams are left to find their own space to practice.”
Gordon says roller derby leagues are not just a group of skaters, but a family that supports one another, and not being able to skate together has taken a toll on everyone, both physically and emotionally.
“That’s the one thing that is a con to this… a lot of skaters practised two to three times a week for exercise, and after the pandemic a lot of us had nothing to resort to.”
The importance of continuing the sport is especially important to the players, but is especially to the ‘all-star’ skaters who compete. Many of the players compete in tournaments all over the province, some even travelling to Quebec to take part in the large 'The Beast of the East' tournament.
“There’s a whole committee of skaters in Toronto looking for spaces in their spare time right now,” said Gordon. “We’re applying and working with real estate agents… trying to find space for our teams to play… we need a proper practice space where everyone can play.”
After a year of hiatus, Gordon was able to meet up with fellow roller derby skaters last weekend where they did a relaxed, non-competitive skate at ODAS Park in Orillia.
“When I was skating on Sunday, I felt so good, I can’t even describe it,” said Gordon. “That blissful joy of being on skates and being able to move again, dancing to the background music, cheesy music, there’s nothing bad about it at all… the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
Gordon said Chicks Ahoy! remain hopeful they will find a new space to start practicing again, but in the meantime, she may join a league in the Simcoe County area.
“To get to be a part of an awesome, crazy, non-binary empowering group is just amazing,” said Gordon. “I didn’t realize how much I desperately missed this (sport)… my muscles, I was in agony for days! But it was worth it.”
To learn more about the Toronto Roller Derby League (ToRD), visit https://torontorollerderby.com.