The local roller derby league has started a weekly event that follows current mask and distancing guidelines.
By Nick Sadigh
The Bellingham Roller Betties are slowing their roll from “breaking hearts and body parts” to hosting outdoor skate parties and rocking masks.
The league had its first casual outdoor skate on July 7 at Whatcom Middle School. The league’s last full-contact, indoor practice was on March 10. After that, the league cancelled practices to ensure the safety of their players, before state mandates were in place, said Nona Larson, the league’s training lead.
“We have open skates now, we’ve been doing them just once a week at Whatcom Middle School,” said Larson. “We are requiring anyone who comes, wear masks, health conditions permitting, socially distancing and asking for groups of five or less.”
For those who are not familiar with roller derby, the sport involves two teams each consisting of 15 skaters. The teams play in two 30-minute periods, according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. These periods, known as jams, consist of one jammer from both teams battling to pass through a pack of other players who help their own jammer and try to block the opposing jammer. The jammers earn points for every opposing blocker they pass, but only after an initial pass-by.
“With roller derby you’re pretty much always touching someone, like at all times,” said Larson. “It’s a heavy, full-contact sport.”
The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association is creating a plan for teams wanting to return to practice, said Erica Vanstone, executive director for the women’s flat track derby association.
The association has devised a plan called the Ladder of Reintegration, the recommended tier system which operates based on mandates and exposure rates, Vanstone said.
“Roller derby is about equity and creating a safe environment,” Vanstone said. “It’s not worth putting people at risk just so folks can hit each other on rollerskates.”
The ladder system allows for leagues to operate while things are unpredictable, said Vanstone. If exposure goes up when a team hits the track they’ll need to go back a level, otherwise they can continue following mandates and practice.
The Bellingham league has decided to forego any physical contact or drills during the middle school social skate sessions. Larson said the optional outdoor skate gives players an opportunity to casually get back on their wheels and get familiar with the track again.
“We’re not engaging in any contact,” Larson said. “It’s really just for all of us getting used to being back on our skates again and just getting used to some physical activity once a week.”
In the past, players would frequently do similar sessions outside of practice as a way to exercise, socialize and practice footwork, said Allison Sowder, a Roller Bettie. It gives players a more casual outlet and a chance to skate outside, since most league bouts and practices are indoors.
“Before the virus, very few people ever mentioned concerns of catching something [getting sick] at practice,” said Sowder. “But now some players may cringe at the thought of ever getting that close to sweaty, heavy-breathing cest pools we call our leaguemate again.”
State guidance still recommends everyone to maintain at least 6 feet of distance around others, said Amy Cloud, public information officer for Whatcom Unified Command.
The league plans to hold social distancing skates and wear masks until told otherwise by the state, said Larson.
The board of directors is in daily communication with one another regarding the safety of the league, said Larson.
“Either way, for anyone exerting energy, we recommend you wear a mask,” said Cloud.
And while Sowder mentioned some players having concerns for safety, feeling that they might not be able to hold the 6 foot rule, she felt the social skate was no more dangerous than working in an office.
“I need skating for my sanity, and those in my same boat should still have the opportunity to participate in derby skates,” said Sowder.
The track is similar to a scaled-down NASCAR track: an oval with the middle punched out. That middle piece plays a vital role, not only in actual derby, but also during COVID-19.
The large middle space is where referees keep an eye on players, start periods and call penalties. During the pandemic, the middle acts as a barrier between players, forcing them to be extra distant on top of their 6-foot bubble.
In Whatcom County, all summer sports for youth and adults are cancelled, with a few exceptions.
“Players are limited to groups of five in separate parts of the field, separated by a buffer zone, and practice can follow social distancing of at least six feet between players with no contact,” according to Whatcom County guidelines.
“It’s a little ambiguous, since technically one should not hang out with more than five people outside of one’s household each week,” said Cloud.
Larson said the Roller Betties will continue following Washington state guidelines until it’s deemed safe by the state to engage in contact methods.
“I hope we can still skate while staying safe and not make others uncomfortable or concerned for their health,” said Sowder.