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Rolling out the derby

Shannon Handley and her fledgling roller derby league



It's been called a mosh pit on wheels, and Shannon Handley thinks that's pretty apt.
"It's an underdog sport," she says. "And it appeals to the punk rock crowd. It appeals to people who aren't athletes. So suddenly, we're all athletes. It's a lot fun, and it's good for girls who are tough and don't have an outlet to be tough."
She's talking about roller derby. Imagine a burlesque cyclone of striped socks and fishnets, of tattoos, pig tails and sweat, knee pads and helmets, all of it spinning around an arena in a maelstrom of competition that makes traditional roller-skating look like slow-motion knitting.
"It's kind of like go-karting," she says. "The game is very fast paced and a lot of the time you get hit when you aren't expecting it or don't see it coming. And at the same time you are sizing everyone else up and planning your own hits. The game description itself makes it sound more simple than it is. We spent a lot of time working out strategies and plays to take the opponents by surprise."
An Ontario transplant, Handley is hoping to stoke enough interest in the corridor to start a new league, one that could challenge a few of the already existing clubs dotted here and there throughout the Lower Mainland and on the island. She's got a lot of experience from back east, where, under the name Mala Justed, she kicked ass with a Toronto-based league. And she's good at networking; with the league still just a seedling, Handley has already secured equipment donations from other groups in the area.
The rules aren't exactly simple, if only because there's ample opportunity for penalties. Basically, each game is made up of two 30-minute periods, or three 20-minute periods. Those periods are divided into jams that last no longer than two minutes.
Every jam involves 10 skaters, five from each team. As far as positions go, there's one jammer, one pivot and three blockers. The pivot is the key blocker. She stays at the front of the pack, calling plays and leading the way. The jammer, meanwhile, is the racer, who scores the points and pounds her way through the pack.
The blockers line-up about 10 feet in front of the jammer. They wait for the ref's first whistle before pumping their way up the course. On the second whistle, which is blown only after all blockers have crossed the starting line, the jammer takes off. She has to make it legally through the pack, which means no skating out of bounds or drawing penalties. If she's successful, she calls off the jam and scores the points. If she can't do it in two minutes, the jam is canned to no one's benefit.
Roller derbying has roots in the early 20th century. In the '20s, the term was first used by the Chicago Tribune to describe flat track roller-skating races that span a few days of competition. It gained popularity throughout the '30s, but crashed completely in the '70s.
The contemporary version of the sport is post-millennial. The iconography is part burlesque, part punk rock, all female, and a little bit feminist.
"It can be," says Handley. "There were a lot of lesbians on my league in Toronto. I don't know why there hasn't been a men's revival. Maybe there just isn't enough men who think it's engaging. I don't know how it would be these days with guys and girls beating each other up."
Getting started takes a bit of money: You're looking at about $200 for skates and a helmet, and about $50 a year for league insurance. If enough people show interest, Handley is hoping to rent space at Brennan Park or Quest University.
To learn more or join up, write to Handley at