“Noise, color, body contact” is how Leo Seltzer, the creator of roller derby, described it to The New York Times in 1971. He invented the game during the Great Depression in 1935. Roller derby, with its rules and chaos as it is known today, was created in the ’30s by Seltzer with the help of sports writer Damon Runyon.

However, until about a month ago, I actually had never heard of roller derby, and when it was described to me, I envisioned something out of a Looney Tunes fight: characters barreling into each other in a cloud of smoke with shoving, pulling and wailing. But what I encountered on Saturday at the Golden Spike Arena in Ogden painted a drastically different picture.

A crowd of more than 200 family, friends and curious onlookers like myself watched as the Junction City Trainwrecks took on the Treasure Valley Rollergirls. The Utah team beat their Idaho rivals in both 30-minute periods, but it wasn’t the violent contact sport I anticipated. Rather, it consisted of much more strategy and more rules than I had expected. In fact, there were seven official referees to ensure the games were played fairly.

That’s not to say the players didn’t encounter any discomfort. Being the full contact sport that it is, the skaters know injury can occur, and it did. Skaters were shoved and rammed. Nearly five minutes into the first game, a skater was having her ankle examined by the on-site medic. And at one point in the second game, the crowd could hear the pain of a burn as one skater’s thigh skidded against the floor.

But as aggressive and physical as the derby was, camaraderie came with it in equal measure. When one of the many referees blew a whistle and the game was paused, hands were shaken, pats on the back were received and smiles were shared between the teams.

It’s the reason Mellory Barnes, or Stranger Danger as she goes by on the track, keeps coming back to compete. “It’s a very bonding experience, definitely. I think that’s one reason that I’ve stuck with it for so long. I took a break while I was finishing my degree, but I came back to it because it is such a good community,” Barnes said.

“And I feel like it’s hard as an adult to find a place full of strong women, where you can have friends and be friends, and we come from all over, and we have people who do all kinds of crazy things for jobs, and it’s a place where we can all just connect and bond and hit each other,” Barnes added. “It is a lot of fun. And I think every league that I’ve played with has been really tight and really close.”

Roller derby is a heavily female-dominated sport. According to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, there are 441 member leagues worldwide, two of which are in Utah — the Happy Valley Derby Darlins and the Junction City Trainwrecks. Every year, the association holds a national championship, and Happy Valley made it to the North America West regional championship this year, where they played against Oregon’s Rose City Rollers, the No. 1-ranking team in the world, per Flat Track Stats.


Fortunately for me, I happened to sit in the crowd next to two Happy Valley players who came to support their fellow skaters and who were willing to explain the game to me. They also shared their fangirl experience of being able to play against such a big team in the roller derby world. Though they didn’t win, they said the experience alone was memorable.

Another popular aspect of the game doesn’t have to do with the game itself but the character you embody while competing. Not all players who participated on Saturday had nicknames on their jerseys, but most did: Violet Nightmare, Rage n Red, Rainbow Rage to name a few, and one referee even had “Kiss off” imprinted on the back of their uniform. There was even one player with “Nutella” on her jersey.

Junction Cities coach Nathan Cunningham, whose derby name is Ichabod Pain, told the Deseret News that it takes a unique personality to want to participate in the sport.

“It’s amazing, but it’s a weird sport, so it takes a weird type of person to really want to get into it,” he said. “Who wants to hit their friends and get hit because, I mean, who thinks about getting on roller skates and hitting each other? Yeah, it’s weird, but it’s awesome.”

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