Roller derby will bounce back, skates are already hitting the track: Ottawa edition

As pandemic-related restrictions loosen, many people across Southern Ontario and beyond are hoping they can lace up their roller skates and hit the roller derby track again. This series of articles will check in with teams as they prepare for some action in 2022. This time, sharing the progress of their league are Ottawa Roller Derby’s Bethany Vowles-Hartree and Alyx Gardner, who some people in the derby community might know as  RapunzHell #666 and Coco Flannel, respectively.

If your roller derby league is on its way back to the track, please get in touch for an interview.

OTTAWA – Aquiring outdoor practice space last summer meant Ottawa Roller Derby has been lucky enough to have been able to do some practicing through the pandemic, even though it was amended to comply with COVID rules.

“We’ve tried to do a lot of individual skills, so we weren’t doing as much contact and close skating, but then this year we’ve started to get back into our regular schedule, which is good,” said RapunzHell. “Wearing masks, but we are still doing contact and closer quarters.”

The league curriculum is laid out differently than many others.

“We take a graduated approach to skills,” she said. “We have a level one where it’s just individual skills, and we work on things like stride and form, stops and falls. Once we’ve mastered those skills, we move into level two, and that’s when we start doing more low contact skills and start doing pushes and game formation strategies. Then when those skills are good, we move on to level three, where we do full contact, so the main extra thing is going to be hits.”

The graduated approach allows skaters to take their time and develop skills at their own pace.

“We do league practices where we focus on endurance and cardio, so it’s been good working on those skills and getting that back because many of us didn’t skate much over the pandemic,” said RapunzHell.

Although they practiced during the pandemic, they separated into smaller groups and skated for a shorter time, so they could not work on all the skills they would normally.

“It was a little more free form last year,” she said. “We weren’t focusing on the curriculum and specific skills – it was more like, ‘Hey, we’re skating again, so let’s get back to knowing how that works and reminding our body of what to do.’”

At the beginning of 2020, RapunzHell said they were able to participate in a fun scrimmage inspired by the Harley Quinn movie Birds of Prey.

“Harley Quinn was a roller derby player as a character, so we had a pink and blue scrimmage where everyone kind of dressed up as Harley Quinn in all her different forms,” she said. “We had just gotten that under our belts, and then suddenly the pandemic hit, and everything kind of shut down, so we were like, at least we had one fun thing that we got to do before the games all stopped.”

Like most people at that time, she said they didn’t understand the gravity of what this pandemic would be, so she recalled thinking, “what’s the deal? Why can’t I hang out with these people I know and trust.”

Then as the pandemic progressed, she said they understood it better.

“I was like, ‘Okay, there’s a good reason that everything is shut down,’” said RapunzHell. “It was tough.”

A handful of Ottawa Roller Derby members stayed active on their skates visiting parks and trails.

“Then there were a lot of us that stayed at home on our couches a lot, so not everyone’s fitness was at the same level when we returned to skating for real,” she said. “That was a challenge.”

They held a handful of Zoom-style practices that were off skate workouts and ways to keep in touch, but they also petered off.

“We have an active Facebook group, so we all communicate with each other, and that stayed very active throughout the pandemic,” said RapunzHell. “I think it was hard not to see these people every week. We normally have two practices a week, so you see this community of friends regularly, and then you go from that to rarely. It was tough. For myself, this is my happy place. This is my happy community, and being apart from it sucked, to be honest.”

The Facebook page became a place where mental health check-ins could be done to see how everyone was doing, and it offered a place where people could reach out if they needed a hand.

“There were a few members who were like, ‘I’m struggling, I’m depressed, things are bad.’” She said. “It was great to have that community coming back and saying, hey, we’ve got you, we’re looking forward to seeing you again. So I found that was valuable.”

Flannel was a pretty new skater when the pandemic started and had actually broken her ankle shortly before.

“I was in a rough spot, and the community was super, super supportive even before the pandemic when I was going to games on crutches and helping as a non-skating official,” she said. “That was a tough thing to have just started and been on that curve of starting to get comfortable on skates, and then you go two years without doing it.”

Since many of the mandates and restrictions have loosened, practices more or less have gotten back to normal, besides the fact that they still wear masks.

“We are in Ottawa, and we are on the cusp between Ontario and Quebec, so we have members from both provinces,” said RapunzHell. “So, we decided as a board to go with the strictest measures between the two provinces, so in our case, that still means masks for everybody, but on the other side of things, because everything is opening up again, we can start reaching out to other leagues.”

They have at least one game in the works against a Kingston Roller Derby team for the summer, which they are very excited about.

“The roller derby community is bigger than anyone city,” she said. “It’s always great to be able to interact with other teams, so hopefully, we’ll get a few more of those games scheduled in the summer.”

Flannel said it’s been great to get back to organizing some events since the mandates have allowed it.

“Having roller discos, we’re planning on having a few of those through the summer and being able to have people at matches is going to be huge,” she said. “We’ve got venues secured. We have to find other leagues that have returned to play … we’ve got the infrastructure in place to host a few matches and potentially travel if people are willing to host us.”

“I know Peterborough are back to playing too, and we’ve played against them in the past,” said RapunzHell. “We might be able to meet up with them again.”

Ottawa Roller Derby has had many people reaching out who don’t necessarily want to join roller derby. Still, they want to roller skate, have a roller skating birthday party or do roller discos.

“There is a tonne of interest in skating in Ottawa, and we’re also lucky that there is another group in town called Ottawa Quad Session, and they do host roller discos,” said RapunzHell. “They do recreational skate nights. So, all these people that reach out and say they want to skate for fun, I point them to their event schedule.”

As soon as RapunzHell heard of roller derby thought it sounded cool and a fun place to be.

“Then I saw the movie Whip It, and I was like, holy crap, that’s where I need to be,” she said. “These are my people, and I need to find roller derby.”

Long story short, she found Ottawa Roller Derby’s crash course and joined.

“I fell in love immediately, bought my skates about three weeks in and never looked back,” she said. “I joined the league, started coaching, and started playing. I was like, I’m all in. I love it so much.”

 The sense of community is a big part of what she loves about it.

“There is the support, the encouragement, the enthusiasm, the camaraderie – it’s spectacular, and the inclusivity is another thing I love about roller derby,” said RapunzHell. “It’s that it’s great for all bodies, all ages, all genders.”

Flannel’s journey to derby started because it’s hard to make friends as an adult.

“I’ve lived in Ottawa for a long time, and I went to school here,” she said. “I saw the crash course, and I was really interested in it. I had never really heard of roller derby before, and the community was just so welcoming, and it was a great physical thing to do. I love to exercise. I love running and cycling, but it was a great team sport where I felt like I connected with people. It was competitive but not aggressive, so I loved that.”

Oddly, when she broke my ankle shortly after joining, that almost sealed the deal.

“Everyone was so supportive, welcoming and even though I couldn’t contribute and practice, people said to come out and watch, learn what it’s about and come get a beer after,” said Flannel. “It was such a great community.”

 By the time they were returning to the track after the pandemic, she wanted to join the board and contribute back to the organization.

“I watched Whip It a long time ago, and I never put the two together, to be honest,” said Flannel. “I was like, okay, that’s a fun gay movie, and then I didn’t think about it.”

“It was a gamechanger,” said RapunzHell. “I was like, I need to be in roller derby. I need to. This has now opened my eyes in a way I didn’t realize. I was interested before, but now I need it. It’s the only team sport I’ve ever played. I’m not into team sports whatsoever, but this is the team I need to be a part of.”

People curious about roller derby in Ottawa are encouraged to visit Ottawa Roller Derby on Facebook or Instagram.

“Anyone (is welcome in the crash course), especially people who don’t necessarily think that they would be able to hit people on skates,” said Flannel. “If you watch high-level play, it looks very intimidating and chaotic, and it feels like that when you get to that point, but you don’t start there. You start learning the basics, how to be stable on skates, how to move and how the game is played. It’s surprising how fast you can advance to being excited to start hitting your friends.”

They laughed.

“It’s a special kind of love,” said RapunzHell. “When we got back together, it was like; I missed hitting you, I missed your butt and weird things like that you could never say anywhere else. It’s okay when it’s derby.”

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