AZILDA, ONTARIO – They are fierce, tough and very agile. They can stop on a dime and do a 180 in a fraction of a second.
With handles like Annamaul, Star Demon, Misery Business, Mad Megz and Wunder- Woman, they are also intimidating.
Eighteen hopefuls from throughout Northern Ontario tried out on Sunday at the Dr. Edgar Leclair Community Centre in Azilda for the newly launched Team Ontario roller derby squad.
“I understand that in the North, everything is far away from everything else; you tend to be somewhat isolated,” Mike Greaves, one of the Team Ontario organizers, said. He lives in southwestern Ontario but grew up in Sault Ste. Marie. “In southern Ontario there are a lot of teams where you can travel an hour or two to bout. You get that feedback loop and your skill level increases very quickly. In Northern Ontario, there are a ton of talented skaters – I know that because I’ve seen them play – but they are not able to improve as quickly as they could because they aren’t able to travel the distances. Bringing it to Sudbury allows greater access to skaters from Thunder Bay, from Timmins, from Sudbury itself, to be able to compete.”
Greaves said the Northern tryouts were fairly equidistant for girls travelling from points further north, east and south of the city. Team hopefuls at Sunday’s event in Azilda included a group of women from Ottawa.
The Sudbury tryouts were one of two held in the province. Greaves said 49 skaters attended the first session, in Guelph, which took place July 28. The final team will include about 40 skaters.
Alex Sparkes, 26, was one of three women who travelled 12 hours from Thunder Bay to try out for Team Ontario.
“I figured, if worst came to worst, at least I’d get a good evaluation,” she said. “It’s good experience.”
Sparkes has been bouting for four years and currently plays for two teams, including Thunder Bay’s all-star team, The Babes of Thunder. In her day job, she works for Bombardier, making Go Trains.
“It’s the camaraderie and the sisterhood that I love so much,” she said. “No matter where you go, you have sisters everywhere. It’s amazing.”
Sparkes said making the team would be “a dream come true.” She spent about two months training for the tryouts.
“I was mainly training for the skills that we were doing, so lots of backward cross-overs and one-footed transitions, which are scary,” she said. “And then making every practice and scrimmage, and trying out new things. Trying to get comfortable with it.”
Roller derby can be rough. Part ballet, part contact sport, it resembles a dance between skaters, with a lot of black-and-blue choreography. The regalia adds to its rough-and-tumble ambiance.
At Sunday’s tryouts, there were lots of visible tattoos, a pair of Wonder Woman hot pants, tights emblazoned with purple stars, and tank tops with all manner of skeletal embellishment. Some women even had skulls and crossbones on their helmets.
Injuries are common and can be severe. Sparkes fractured her sternum about two years ago.
“There were two incidents – in the first one, someone crashed their helmet into (my chest),” she said. “And then about a week later, a girl can-opened me – basically she put her shoulder into my chest and lifted up. That finished it off.”
She bought a hockey chest pad and continued to skate.
“It’s healed, but it hurts a lot if someone hits it; I’ve got a little protection piece in there now, for a little peace of mind,” she said.
Ashley Rachkowski, 28, a pet groomer from Lively, also tried out for the team. A pioneer of the Nickel City Roller Derby crew, Rachkowski said life without the sport would be unthinkable. There is a spillover effect that impacts her life in other areas.
“It’s rewarding,” she said. “You work so hard and then you achieve it. You get high off of it. You feel so good, like you could conquer the world. Eventually, you keep trying to to that.”
Rachkowski and Sparkes were both inspired by the 2009 film, Whip It, about a misfit teen who learns to cope through roller derby. Greaves said he has seen growing popularity of the sport over the past four years.
Once the lineup has been finalized, Greaves said he expects the team to bout against other high-calibre teams throughout Canada, as well as teams in the United States. The skaters will remain based in their home leagues, allowing for a trickle-down effect, in terms of skills development.
“This is supposed to be a bonus thing in which skaters can compete,” Greaves said. “We want them to take the skills they’ve learned with Team Ontario back to their home and travel leagues, and make those leagues that much better.
“If you play with a team of very strong skaters, you will learn stuff, even if you get the heck beaten out of you, you still learn so much from those games because you’re playing against a higher level of opponent, and you’re seeing things you wouldn’t normally see. You take those things back to your home league.”
Team Ontario organizers hope to announce the final roster by Aug. 15 and are planning their first bout for October, once the regular season ends for most leagues.
There are currently about 50 roller derby leagues in Ontario. A Facebook group, PackItUpOntario, provides resources for women interested in learning more about the sport.
Originally published in The Sudbury Star on Aug. 6, 2013