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The tough yet lovable world of roller derby thriving in Atlantic Canada

Lauren Dolhai fell in love with roller derby because of the community, which brings together women from age 18 all the way to 50-plus, finding common ground in the sport they love. The bonds even cross team lines. - Roy Crawford
Lauren Dolhai fell in love with roller derby because of the community, which brings together women from age 18 all the way to 50-plus, finding common ground in the sport they love. The bonds even cross team lines. - Roy Crawford

Love bruises

Bruises from head to toe. Broken ankles. Fractured tailbones.

This may sound like a nightmare to the average person, but for Lauren Dolhai, these are just the everyday risks associated with her favourite pastime.

The first encounter Dolhai had with the world of roller derby was on the silver screen. At age 15, she caught her first viewing of the movie Whip It, starring Canadian actress Ellen Page. The film follows self-described misfit Bliss, who finds a place of belonging in her local roller derby league.

Instantly, Dolhai wanted to learn to skate.

Being from the small town of Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, Dolhai’s dream of joining a roller derby team wasn’t going to come easily. She hopped online in search of a used pair of roller skates to get started, but instead found an advertisement for the Tar City Rollers, Cape Breton’s own roller derby league. Sadly, 15-year-old Dolhai was too young at the time, but she didn’t let go of her dream completely.

Head over heels

A few years had passed when Dolhai stumbled upon an article about the Tar City Rollers and it was the perfect reminder. Now 20, Dolhai was ready to make her teen-self proud and strap on some skates.

“The second I put the article down, I texted two of my friends and made them come try it with me,” says Dolhai. “I was so excited.”

As Whip It — which portrays an old-school style of derby filled with fist-fights and brawls — was Dolhai’s only prior exposure to the sport, it would be safe to assume she was scared. But Dolhai says that wasn’t exactly the case.

“Was I scared? Of the skates, yes. Of derby, no,” she laughs.

After a few practices filled with countless wipeouts, Dolhai began to steady herself and quickly fell head over heels (sometimes literally) for derby.

On track

Roller derby is a contact sport played on a flat track. Two teams face off, each sending four blockers and one jammer onto the track at a time. Jammers can be identified by the star pinny worn on their helmet; these ladies are responsible for scoring points for their respective teams.

Stripping it down to the simplest of terms, jammers try to break through the pack of skaters and skate laps around the track, while the blockers of the opposing team attempt to stop them. Jammers score points for each member of the opposing team they are able to pass.

The rounds, called jams, last a maximum of two minutes, after which point teammates are swapped in from the bench. The object of the game is to score as many points as possible within each two-minute jam.

So, where do things get physical?

Blockers do whatever they can to stop the other team’s jammer, while also trying to clear a path for their own jammer. This means taking advantage of legal hitting - hip checks and shoulder checks — whenever possible. Illegal hitting includes punching, kicking, or any kind of pushing or checking from behind. Like many team sports, these illegal hits will result in a penalty from the zebras: derby referees.

In the beginning, Dolhai says she spent most of her time falling down.

“I think I collected more bruises in my first month of derby than I had in my entire life,” she says.

Cape Breton’s Tar City Rollers, dressed in green, compete with Fredericton’s Spitfires. - Roy Crawford
Cape Breton’s Tar City Rollers, dressed in green, compete with Fredericton’s Spitfires. - Roy Crawford

Empowering exercise

With so much potential for injury, derby players are almost guaranteed to get hurt. So, what keeps them coming back?

“For me, it’s an incredible stress reliever,” Dolhai explains. “You’re hitting people with everything you’ve got, you’re getting exercise, and you start to realize how strong you really are.” Dolhai says roller derby is one of the most empowering things she has experienced, and her confidence has grown significantly during her years on the track.

“I’ve always been a bigger person, and derby made me realize the things my body was capable of doing because of my size, rather than in spite of it,” she says. “Because of derby, I’ve learned to embrace my body.”

Dolhai also fell in love with roller derby because of the community. Women from 18 all the way to 50-plus come together from different backgrounds, races, orientations, sizes, and more, finding common ground in the sport they love. The bonds even cross team lines.

“Even though we’re competing against these women and hitting them during the game, we’re all best friends,” says Dolhai. “When I get on the track before a jam, it’s the best feeling. I’m looking around at all of these bad-ass women around me and it’s so empowering.”

Wrath Lauren

Although you can call her Lauren in her daily life, when Dolhai is on the track, she becomes Wrath Lauren (a spin on Ralph Lauren), her chosen derby name.

A tradition among derby players, derby names are given or chosen when a player joins a league. The names often play on pop culture references or puns, and players are encouraged to express themselves as creatively as possible.

Two of Dolhai’s favourite names belong to her former teammates Tessa Lachance and Beth McGuire. Lachance, a lover of all things marine-related, goes by H2ohNo, while McGuire, easy to spot on the track by her height, has coined Beth from Above.

Although plenty of fun and games come along with the world of derby, Dolhai says the sport is no joke. According to coffinskate.com, there are currently more than 20 teams operating across the Maritimes, and they’re always looking for fresh meat.

“If you’re thinking about giving roller derby a shot, I would say absolutely go for it,” Dolhai says. “The support you feel from everyone inside and out of the arena is incredible and your confidence will get a huge boost.”

To find a roller derby league near you, visit coffinskate.com's “Roller Derby Leagues” page.

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