The sport of roller derby is alive and well in the southland. With three teams: the Brawlin’ Betties in Santa Barbara, the West Coast Derby Knockouts in Ventura and the Ventura County Derby Darlins in Camarillo, the sport’s popularity is on the rise.
“Roller derby made a huge resurgence about 15 years ago,” said Rachael Nunez, Derby Darlins skater and owner of The Blue Orchid Boutique located on Linden Avenue. “It’s very physical, but not like what we see on TV,” she explained of the bouts which sometimes involved hairpulling and throwing opponents off of the track.
The term “roller derby” originated around the 1920s when roller skate races were taking place. In the late 1930s, Leo Seltzer directed a tour called the Transcontinental Roller Derby where skaters would compete on a raised track. The game evolved over time into a more physical affair, coming to draw huge crowds in the late ‘40s, as televised broadcasts created a stage for both female and male skaters.
Roller derby gained even more popularity in the ‘60s. “My grandpa, Manuel Ortiz, would make me breakfast in bed and be done just in time to watch the T-birds (Thunderbirds) on channel nine,” recalled Nunez who cheered for the roller derby franchise based in Los Angeles. But in the ‘70s, its popularity began to fade and Seltzer’s son, Jerry, who was put in charge of the tour, closed the organization in ’73.
Nunez started her roller derby career in 2012. “It was initially a result of a bad break-up, (I) felt it would be cheaper than therapy,” explained Nunez. She’s skated for the West Coast team and currently is a member of the Ventura County squad.
Presently governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the sport is played on a flat track with 10 skaters, five on each team. Teams score points by beginning what’s called a jam. The jammer, which the potential scorer is called, wears the helmet with the star on it and is accompanied by the pivot player who dons the helmet with the center line. The jammer must lap the pack in order to start to accumulate points.
Skaters must earn their time on the track. “We have what is called a ‘fresh meat’ program that is initially six months long, then an assessment is taken of your skills, and if you pass, you may start to practice and tryout for a team,” said Nunez, a.k.a. Miss Demeaner, a senior member of the Derby Darlins. Nunez recently passed her skill assessments test, and became a member of the Battalion of Skates, Ventura County’s “B-level” travel team. “I really want to reach the “A-level” of competition. So, I have a lot of work to do in this next year,” explained the skater who wears the number 5150 on her jersey.
There are roughly 10 bouts a year, split between home and away sites. The Darlins make a number of public appearances to help raise money to keep the team and league sustainable. Recently, Nunez and the ladies skated in Carpinteria’s annual Independence Parade. “We also are very involved in community outreach programs, and for every home bout we work with the Ventura County Animal Shelter and have a spotlight on a dog that is available for adoption,” she explained.
Being a shop owner has given Nunez the flexibility to continue her skating career. She plans on continuing to compete as long as her body holds up. “The exercise is intense, but the community and the friendships are lifelong and life-changing,” said the local merchant whose career just keeps rolling along.