This NC roller derby league teaches more than sports. It teaches community.

Every week, a warehouse in Apex, NC, takes on an unlikely identity: a roller derby track and training facility for Carolina Roller Derby. (Photo by Jennifer Tran)

By Isabel Mudannayake

February 8, 2024

Three days each week, the Peak Auto warehouse in Apex, North Carolina, takes on this unlikely identity: a roller derby track and training facility for Carolina Roller Derby.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally published at UNC Media Hub, a space for student journalists to practice stories with state, regional, and national appeal.]

Fluorescent lights beam down on the track, where skaters fly past red and black banners and whoops and yells echo throughout the drafty building. A sign on the wall reads “Roller Derby is Back and in Your Neighborhood” in powerful block letters, and a freezer and fridge stocked with frozen peas, popsicles and gatorade hums on the sidelines next to a cabinet filled with a wide assortment of medical supplies.

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Three days each week, the Peak Auto warehouse in Apex, North Carolina, takes on this unlikely identity: a roller derby track and training facility for Carolina Roller Derby.

Since 2004, Carolina Roller Derby, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization run by skaters and volunteers in the Triangle, has welcomed roller derby newbies, veteran skaters and everyone in between. League members practice three days each week and learn to improve their strategy and techniques on the track. But for these athletes, Carolina Roller Derby is also a space to own every part of their identity. When discussing their involvement in this intense, full-contact sport, skaters emphasized two main ideas: self-confidence and community.

This NC roller derby league teaches more than sports. It teaches community.

Tonantzin “Tenacious T” Weathersbee, “Fanny Pack-a-Punch” and “Tyrannosaurus Hex” joke around while practicing a two-versus-one blocking move in Apex, N.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Photo by Jennifer Tran)

“I have learned acceptance. Acceptance with my body, acceptance with my abilities in general,” said Carolina Roller Derby athlete Tonantzin Weathersbee, often known by her derby name, “Tenacious T.”

“I think it’s the first community that I’ve ever been a part of where I didn’t feel pressure about my physical appearance because if you’re small and not a whole lot of muscle and body weight, there’s a role for you. If you’re the opposite, there’s a role for you,” Weathersbee said.

Other athletes have also seen roller derby as a productive and healthy outlet.

“Throughout a lot of my life, I never considered myself an athlete,” said Carolina Roller Derby athlete Ashlyn “Ash Whoopin’” Clark, her helmet, elbow and knee pads strapped tightly to her body as she prepared to start practice. “But as I got older, and especially throughout high school, I felt like I always felt most like myself on the track and I felt the most powerful on the track. There are very limited options for non-male identifying people to be aggressive and embrace being aggressive, especially in a community setting.”

This NC roller derby league teaches more than sports. It teaches community.

Ashlyn “Ash Whoopin’” Clark, “Razzbery Jam”, Anna “Traumagotchi” Faiso and Alicia “Littlefoot” Fischer practices a three-versus-one drill during practice in Apex, N.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. “Littlefoot”, wearing a star cover on her helmet, acts as the Jammer and tries to get through the line of blockers. (Photo by Jennifer Tran)

Every week, skaters double-knot their laces, pop in their mouthguards and glide onto the track at 6:30 p.m. As soon as their warmup is complete, they are skating at breakneck speed and jockeying for position. Even if they leave the track, their skates stay on.

They cheer for each other and pull each other off the ground when they fall until the end of the session at 8:30 p.m. If someone gets injured, one teammate takes off their skates, while another holds them, another brings them painkillers and popsicles and still another cracks jokes to lift their spirits.

The values that athletes learn through roller derby are applicable to their lives off the track as well. Whether in their parenting styles, professions or social lives, roller derby has proven to be a centering and grounding force.

“[Derby] allows me to be good at my day-to-day life. I’m a mom of two toddlers and a school teacher in sixth grade, Weathersbee said, describing how she sought to convey the values of acceptance she has learned from the roller derby community to her sons, as well as her students.

One example of the confidence that Carolina Roller Derby fosters in its athletes can be seen through their roller derby names. These are the names that athletes choose to represent themselves on the track and among their teammates, both at practices and competitions.

But what’s in a name?

“Derby names can kind of create a personality for you and it kind of shows who you are and what you love. There’s all kinds of names taken from movies, video games, anime, music—all kinds of different genres of the world,” said Carolina Roller Derby athlete Bryn “Purple Punker” Yoder.

“It’s just the epitome of the excitement of the sport for me, which is: I’m here to wreck some people—and get wrecked also,” said Carolina Roller Derby athlete Dakota “K.O.” Raleigh about their own derby name.

These bold names, along with roller derby in general, give athletes a chance to put aside aspects of their usual selves and adopt a new persona, one that embodies their values and their strengths, with no room for their fears and weaknesses.

This NC roller derby league teaches more than sports. It teaches community.

Adam “Starshine” Weinbaum ties their shoes while other derby players practice warm-up laps in Apex, N.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Carolina Roller Derby rents out Peak Auto Service and Repair, transforming the space from an empty garage to a safe space for players to practice their sport. (Photo by Jennifer Tran)

While some leagues are choosing to move away from using derby names in an effort to seek more “professionalism,” UNC-Chapel Hill History Ph.D. candidate and former competitive roller derby athlete Kaela “Lana Del Slay” Thuney says that her derby name helps her express herself in a creative way.

“So, I think I’ll keep it,” she added with a smile.

While the names might seem edgy, fun and playful, Carolina Roller Derby holds itself to a high athletic standard and adopts a progressive view of the sport, which has experienced a resurgence in popularity, as well as notable changes in policy and culture, in the last decade.

Roller derby was not always a welcoming space and, like many sports, it has a history of misogyny, sexualization and limited representation.

“When you’re a 14, 15, 16-year-old athlete who’s working your butt off at practice six hours a weekend and going to do core training, you’re being taken very seriously as an athlete within those spaces, but then outside of them, you become something of an object of ridicule,” Thuney said.

Often, when people hear the words “roller derby,” their perception does not reflect what the sport actually is today.

“They think of the old days of ‘roller girls,’ like punk rock, and fishnets,” said Carolina Roller Derby athlete Deidre “Fanny Pack-a-Punch” Newport, who has been skating with the league for 10 years. “If people want to do that, that’s fine, but we have moved toward trying to present more as a legitimate sport, and now it’s more inclusive for everyone.”

Today, Carolina Roller Derby seeks to encourage diversity, rather than conformity, showing its skaters that they are valued for their quirks, attitudes, senses of humor and the sides of their personalities that they might be told to hide in other spaces. The league provides a community strengthened by its differences and by a shared sense of grit and a love for the sport.

This NC roller derby league teaches more than sports. It teaches community.

Jen “Flexibull” Draughon fistbumps “Oxford Comma” during practice in Apex, N.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Photo by Jennifer Tran)

“I think there’s a lot of things to be said that this originated from a women’s group and now has expanded to nonbinary people such as myself. And so I think there’s just a very different culture, particularly within Carolina Roller Derby, that to me is the exact kind of culture and community that I’m looking for in a sporting sense,” said Carolina Roller Derby athlete Adam “Starshine” Weinbaum.

As skaters whip around the track, their skates click-clack and sweat clings to their bodies. They are all different ages, skill levels and backgrounds, yet their passion is evident. Their energy transforms from competitive to collaborative and back again in nanoseconds.

When they are using their bodies to push each other to the side and knock each other down, the air is full of adrenaline and determination. Yet, the second the drill is finished, they are laughing and supporting each other in a way that makes them appear more like a family than a local sports league.

While Carolina Roller Derby strives to create an equitable and thoughtful environment, their skaters recognize that this task is ongoing, as it is everywhere else.

Coach and athlete Jess “Elastic” Rivera said that Carolina Roller Derby skaters are asking themselves how to help people see the space as one where they belong and their skills are celebrated, highlighting this as a question that will never lose importance.

“I feel like it’s a work in progress everywhere,” Weathersbee said. “I don’t think it is attainable to say we’ve made it.”

Author

  • Isabel Mudannayake

    Isa Mudannayake is a UNC-Chapel Hill student majoring in Journalism and Political Science. She has gained experience in writing, reporting and research through several media internships, as well as UNC classes and study abroad opportunities. Isa is passionate about storytelling and the truth in the news and hopes to pursue a career as an international correspondent.

CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | LOCAL CULTURE
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