Derby All-Around: Pioneer Valley Roller Derby puts the world’s fastest growing sport on the fast track to gender equality

by Amanda Drane

Originally published on September 14, 2013; re-printed here with permission from the author.

The valley has long been a place where notions of women, gender and sexuality have come into question, so it’s only fitting that its very own Pioneer Valley Roller Derby (PVRD) was the first league in the country to host both women’s and men’s teams. In the spirit of acceptance, athleticism and fun, Pioneer Valley players of all genders get together to take part in the $60 million global industry gaining speed in communities around the world.

When roller derby was first popularized during the Depression of the 1930’s, both women and men enjoyed the sport. In fact, a man named Leo Seltzer is credited for the introduction. Derby remained in demand during the early days of television, yet its popularity ebbed during the 1970’s as viewers complained the bouts appeared “scripted” and “staged.” Now, says PVRD founding co-owner Sarah “Pink Panzer” Lang, derby couldn’t be any more genuine.

“You don’t have to have tattoos or piercings to play roller derby. It’s not a crazy time sport, it’s a real sport . . . so you get a little bit of everything,” says Lang.

Even during bouts, PVRD teams show unity by wearing the same color tops and bottoms, but are otherwise free to wear whatever they choose. That sense of individuality is important to the league—it was created to be a safe space within the community. Though derby’s most recent resurgence, which began in the early 2000’s, has taken hold more quickly with women, Lang and partner Jacob “Bazooka Joe” Fahy started the league in 2006 to bring the sport they fell in love with to everyone in the valley.

That inclusion, however, has made it difficult for the league on a national level. The men’s team, dubbed ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ was accepted into the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA)—an organization that PVRD helped found, yet stringent rules in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) prevent the women’s A-team, ‘Western Mass Destruction,’ from being ranked with other women’s teams on a national scale. WFTDA rules stipulate participating teams must be 51 percent or more owned by women. Fahy and Lang remain fifty-fifty partners and stand by the precedent that sets for their league.

Men’s leagues have sprouted worldwide in recent years, yet the majority of roller derby leagues remain available only to women. Fahy and Lang explain that, in the interest of keeping equality at the forefront and interest on-the-rise, it has not been in the league’s best interest to turn anyone away, regardless of gender.

“Why would we tell people they couldn’t play,” Lang says.

Though PVRD players are obviously serious about their sport in all of its full-contact glory, a spirit of welcoming acceptance permeates the league. In their private practice space in Florence, senior derby players take the time to ensure newcomers learn every aspect of the game, even if they have never skated before (and many haven’t).

Rebecca “Chewbecca” Groveman has been in the league for over three years. Groveman says before joining PVRD, she was shy and less outgoing. Derby has changed that entirely—she now has a large circle of close-knit friends, increased self-confidence and quads like a champ.

Groveman tore her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) during a bout in July, yet continues to attend every practice and anxiously awaits her return to skates.

“I have never once regretted getting involved, even after I got hurt,” says Groveman.

In roller derby, pain is part of the game—bruises, bumps and sprains are commonplace, as with any contact sport. Derby is all about having fun, supporting each other and toughening up.

“If you don’t fall, you’re not trying hard enough,” says Groveman.