Commentary: Wonder Women On Wheels

Jun 16, 2017

The KC Roller Warriors is an all-female, flat track roller derby league located here in Kansas City. Due to the full-contact nature of their sport, these warriors are real-life wonder women.
Credit KC Roller Warriors

On movie screens everywhere, the latest superhero sensation wields a sword, a shield and a magical golden lasso. The only thing missing from Wonder Woman’s arsenal might just be a pair of roller skates. Wait—what? Commentator Victor Wishna explains, in this latest edition of “A Fan’s Notes.”

If you believe the blockbuster numbers — or the nonstop ads — this is the summer of the warrior princess. Wonder Woman, the movie, has come to save the day, riding a wave of good vibes and critical acclaim to the top spot two weeks running — and proving that, on a battlefield or at the box office, women can kick ass, too.

But if you want to see the real thing — that is, in the flesh, with no camera tricks or CGI — then head down to Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas, this Saturday night, when the Roller Warriors, Kansas City’s “premier all-female flat track roller derby league,” will once again take to the track.

On teams with names like the Knockouts and the Black-Eye Susans, women warriors of ranging ages and daytime occupations fight under alter-egos that are simply “wonder”-ful in their own right: Little Miss Rampage, Gloria Strike’em, Georgia O’Grief, and Yoko Oh-No-You-Didn’t. No bullet-deflecting bracelets or steel stiletto boots — just elbow and knee pads and, of course, roller skates.

Each squad deploys five skaters at a time — four blockers and one jammer, whose job is to push through the opposing team’s scrum. So it’s a little like rugby or football — you know, on wheels.

The sport has its own Hollywood roots. Originated by a struggling film publicist, roller derby began in the 1930s as a series of endurance races, but its promoters realized the occasional collisions were the most exciting part and tweaked the model to maximize physical contact between the skaters, including elbowing, arm-whipping and slamming each other into the rink’s outer rail. Teams were formed, the tracks got smaller, and the derby that emerged was far less Kentucky and more demolition. Speed mattered, but not so much as toughness, tenacity and brute force. Contests were no longer billed as races, but as bouts.

After World War II, roller derby’s popularity soared. The league spread from East Coast to west and, in 1953, a new L.A.-based team made its debut at the Rose Bowl. Other teams played home bouts at Madison Square Garden, Comiskey Park, and the Oakland Coliseum — and many were televised.

Yet by the early seventies it was all over, shut down amid rising overhead and dwindling support. For the next 30 years, any effort to revive the sport met with limited and fleeting success.

But then, early in the 21st century, roller derby started to make a comeback as a grassroots sports movement dominated by women — a new wave of leagues and teams owned and operated by the skaters themselves. In 2004, the Kansas City Roller Warriors were among the first few leagues to help establish the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the sport’s international governing body, which now oversees some 400 leagues worldwide. Men’s leagues exist too, but the future (of roller derby) is female. This summer, the Roller Warriors launched another session of Junior Warriors, open to boys and girls — and it’s mostly girls — as young as eight.

As the league’s mission statement attests, the goal is “to foster a positive, hardworking sisterhood that empowers women and girls to be healthy, confident athletes, role models, leaders, and active contributors to our community both on and off of the track.” A proud tribe of Amazons, using their powers to make the world a better place.

But enough of my "mansplaining." Like any good athletes, these Warriors let their game speak for itself.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.