In the mid-to-late 1900s, roller derby was more associated with sports entertainment than a legitimate sport.
It was similar to professional wrestling with staged events and pre-determined winners overshadowing the athletic side of the sport.
Today that’s no longer the case.
It has evolved to a point where competitive teams in flat track roller derby are sprouting up across Canada, and the world.
It’s growth has reached the point where the first World Cup will take place in Toronto in early December.
Two members of the Red Deer women’s A team, the Belladonnas — Amy “Gunpowder Gertie” Thompson and Stephanie “TAZ” Hansen — have been selected to compete for Team Canada.
“I’m stoked,” said Thompson, who has been involved with the Red Deer club for over three years. “It’s the first time for the World Cup and a great opportunity to get the sport’s name out there.”
Thompson and Hansen were the only two members of the Belladonnas to attend the Team Canada tryout in Calgary.
“It was during the long weekend in July and we attended a boot camp to work on our skills and Team Canada held a tryout along with that,” said Thompson.
“There were over 30 girls attending and only four were invited to compete for Team Canada so it’s pretty exciting to be selected,” added Hansen, who has been in the sport for a little over a year.
“I almost didn’t go to the tryout, but Gertie urged me to go and I’m honoured to be selected because I’m so new to the sport. I hope I get a chance to play and show what I can do.”
Canada will play against teams from Brazil, Japan, the United States, France and Argentina.
Both Thompson and Hansen are jammers.
Thompson, who is originally from New Brunswick, became involved in roller derby with the urging of her sister.
“She got me to try out and while I ran into a few walls early I kept with it. I’ve always been involved in sports, but I was never on roller skates so I didn’t know how to stop and so I hit a few walls,” she said with a laugh.
The 28-year-old paramedic knows the sport has evolved considerably over the years.
“In the 1960s and ‘70s there were less rules and equipment and more like WWE. Today the skaters are more athletic, not to say the girls then weren’t athletic, but there’s a lot of speed, agility and athleticism today.”
There’s also more rules and no prearranged winners.
“Back in the day you were allowed to punch to the face, pull hair with a lot of fights,” said Thompson. “Today there’s none of that. You’re allowed to body check, but there’s no elbowing, punching, tripping, hitting from behind or fighting.”
Any of those and you’re in the penalty box.
The sport is still similar to the old days where a jammer on each team battles through a pack of eight skaters — four on each team — to earn points.
“Each jam is two minutes long and each hip you pass (on the other team) you earn a point,” Thompson explained. “There’s also the strategy that if you’re the lead jammer you can call off the jam at any time.”
One aspect of the sport that the modern-day competitor has kept is the use of pseudonyms.
Thompson found her nick-name online.
“I went online to find my pirate name and came up Gunpowder Gertie came up,” she said smiling.
Hansen got her nick-name long before she was involved in roller derby.
“I was into kickboxing and I was smaller than the rest of the people so I had to jump and spin around a lot and one of my friends said I looked like Taz as I was spinning so much.”
The 23-year-old Hansen, who graduated from Notre Dame, has always been involved in individual contact sports. She trained with Lyle Cheney Karate Studios and with Jason MacDonald, competing in kickboxing and MMA. She also boxed in Camrose under the direction of Don Wilson.
“I was never much into team sports, more individual,” she explained. “But I was at a car show and started talking with a girl in roller derby and she said I should come out. I did and never looked back.”
Like Thompson, Hansen never was on roller skates before but she did roller blade.
“It was different in that you stop differently, but I caught on quickly,” she said.
Hansen still loves the individual sports, but is spending most of her time developing her roller derby skills.
“I don’t have time for both and I try to spend as much time on my skates as possible to make myself better, especially with Team Canada coming up.”
Local fans will get an opportunity to see Thompson and Hansen in action, Aug. 27 when the Belladonnas and the Nightshades — the women’s B team — face Oil City out of Edmonton. The competition takes place at 6 p.m. at the Westerner’s Prairie Pavilion.
The Belladonnas are the No. 2 ranked travelling team in Canada with a 9-1 overall record and 3-0 this year. They are gaining more notoriety as they’ve drawn as many as 1,300 for a match.
“We try to play once a month,” said Thompson, whose team is part of the women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association in Canada.
The Red Deer Roller Derby Association has four teams: the Belladonnas and Nightshades, who have a 2-1 record, on the women’s side and the Dreadnaughts, who are 1-0, and the mixed Roller Cops on the men’s side.
The association continues to grow with 16 players on the Belladonnas, with 14 allowed to dress for each match.
“Overall we have about 50 women involved,” said Thompson, who is still looking for sponsorship to attend the World Cup.
“We have to pay our own way there, but if someone wants to help it would be great,” she said. “In fact they can contact teamcanadarollerderby.ca and they can get a tax receipt.”