Roller derby's mission is more than meets the eye

Articulate, professional, altruistic. Not the first three adjectives that come to mind when you think of roller derby. But for Boston roller girl, Jessica Garretson, these are just a few words used to describe her multi-faceted life.

By day, Garretson, better known to Boston Derby Dames fans as Britknee Breaker, coordinates volunteers for a well-respected non-profit benefiting disadvantaged women. But by night, you'll find her zipping around the flat track in Wilmington, Mass., with either of her two teams, the Boston Massacre and the Nutcrackers.

"Most of the skaters have very professional lives during the day, then go to practice and battle it out on the track. That's the great thing about derby," said the 36 year-old Garretson, who started playing the sport in 2007 with no skating or organized sports background.

Many are surprised to learn the sport has quite a history, too. Roller derby was born in the 1920s as an endurance event, but in the '30s, it began to evolve into a visceral blood sport. By the 1970s, roller derby had devolved into a wheeled version of pro wrestling, replete with campy play sequences and rigged bouts. It had all but disappeared by the mid-1980s, but in 2003, a plucky band of women in Austin, Texas, formed the Texas Rollergirls and lit the fuse that has ignited a revolution in women's sports.

The modern incarnation of roller derby is experiencing a mind-boggling explosion and the type of envy-inducing expansion most other amateur sports could only dream of. The governing organization, Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), just released the results of its second annual demographic survey. It found that the sport now boasts more than 700 leagues across 25 countries around the world, up from 400 teams in 11 countries one year ago.

Juliana "Bloody Mary" Gonzales, WFTDA executive director, says Garretson is typical of the new roller derby participant. "For many women, derby is their first team sport and their first athletic undertaking," Gonzales said. "Certainly, we see our share of former speed skaters or hockey players, but as a rule, flat track derby is the first sport these women have played this seriously in their lifetime."

While the sport is still considered amateur, roller derby's growing popularity and innovative grassroots business model engages and empowers women from all walks of life in a very professional manner.

Statistics released by WFTDA show 35 percent of skaters identify themselves as salaried professionals, with 15 percent employed at a managerial level and five percent owning their own business. Further, 24 percent of skaters reported a 2010 income exceeding $75,000 and 64 percent have college degrees. These numbers refute the popularly held image of derby as an indie, scruffy sport.

On the surface, roller derby may appear to be about women beating down other women, but the opposite is true. The sport is more about lifting each other up, working together and empowering the next generation.

These goals are all in line with those Garretson pursues in her day job. Derby leagues are owned and run by the athletes employing a do-it-yourself business model. The players manage all aspects of their teams and pump every penny they earn right back into the league to pay for equipment, practice space, team travel and other necessities. A self-sustaining business, roller derby leagues rely on the time and skills of their members. Garretson coached her team until being diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. Other members participate in marketing, public relations, accounting and more.

As derby grows and reaches a wider audience, it benefits more women by allowing them to use existing professional skills or build new ones to carry back to their professional lives with confidence.

"We'd love to do derby full time as our job, and sometimes it can feel like our real jobs get in the way," said Garretson, who is cancer free following a double mastectomy. "We're passionate about derby, we're invested in it, and we're pretty successful at it."

On a business level, the Boston Derby Dames aren't just successful; they're thriving. They sold out their most recent bout days in advance and fans are flocking to their events and bringing their daughters, too.

"Some of our greatest fans are knee-high," Garretson said. A crop of young players is learning the ropes in junior leagues popping up across the nation and that's good for the future of derby, in terms of numbers and for its general acceptance as a bona fide sport. "The more women who get involved, the more competitive it becomes," Garretson said. "I mean, what if I'd found this when I was 10 or 16? Where would the sport be now if we'd been doing it for 20 years.

Looking to give roller derby a try -- or maybe just cheer from the bleachers? The WFTDA lists all affiliated leagues and season schedules on its website.

Who knows, you just might find out what Susie from accounting does in her spare time and why she always seems to be limping Monday mornings.

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