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The City Journals

Inside the underground world of Utah roller derby

May 18, 2020 12:19PM ● By Ron Bevan

Robert Holliday dons the white jammer helmet during roller derby competition. Holliday, known as Diesel on the track, is one of several Sandy youths and adults to find fun in the sport. (Photo provided by Kelly Holliday)

By Ron Bevan | [email protected]

The Diesel sees the path ahead is blocked. A huge jam is directly in his way. But he knows he must get through. People are counting on him. With determination, Diesel accelerates. He looks for an opening in the jam. Seeing none, he makes his own, crashing through until he breaks free. Now his coast is clear and he can accelerate faster.

Rush hour traffic on I-15? No. Just another Friday evening at the roller derby track. 

Diesel, in this case, isn’t an 18-wheeler. He is Robert Holliday, a Sandy youth and sophomore at Alta High School. And for him, roller derby has become a passion as well as a second family. He goes by Diesel because everyone at Wasatch Roller Derby goes by a derby name on the track.

“I used to skate at the Classic Fun Center,” Diesel said. “I had a couple of girls ask me if I would be interested in derby, so I came to check it out.”

From that chance encounter, Diesel knew this was a sport for him. For his mother, Kelly Holliday, the idea seemed preposterous at first.

“My first thoughts were that this was for girls. It is not a boys’ sport,” Kelly said. “I just assumed it was a girls’ sport because of what we watched on TV when we were young. I never saw boys or men playing it, so I didn’t know any different. But he was very determined to come and try it out, so I said we would go see what it was all about.”

“I feel like it has helped me keep my mind focused,” Diesel added. “It helps with school as well, because it helps me keep my stress levels low.”

The roller derby of today is much different than what we watched on television. There is no high banked oval. Instead, the skaters compete on a flat oval track, with no railings to flip the opponent over. In fact, most of the physical part we remember of roller derby is not there. That’s not to say it isn’t physical, but in a more controlled way, like any other contact sport.

“It can get pretty rough, but we wear a lot of pads as well as helmets to help protect us,” Diesel said. 

Play still consists of blockers and jammers. And points are still earned by the jammer passing opponents.

“The blockers try to keep the opponents jammer from getting through, while also trying to open up space for their own jammer,” Diesel said. “The jammer earns a point for every opponent they can pass.”

“After our first session, Diesel wasn’t hooked yet, but I was hooked,” Kelly said. “So now we had the ‘derby mom’ that is very into it talking her son into continuing. What we have found along the way is that is has made a huge impact for Diesel, not just to his self-esteem, but to his life outside derby. It really brings a lot of confidence in the person he is now and has shaped him as an individual. It really is an amazing sport for all kids and people of all ages, male or female.”

There are only a handful of roller derby clubs in Utah, ranging from Moab to Provo and Ogden. The Salt Lake club, Wasatch Roller Derby, began in 2008 as a club for women. It has since grown to include men’s, coed and several youth teams, ranging from beginners to traveling teams.

The youth traveling team also includes Lady J, who goes by Keira MacGilvery when attending seventh grade at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Sandy. Lady J found roller derby after getting a picture taken with some skaters at a winter event. Although she hadn’t skated much before, she wanted to try it, and told her dad, Kevin MacGilvery. He wasn’t sure at first, for the same reasons other parents cited, remembering original roller derby.

“I sat here at the arena for a year and watched every single thing they did because I was worried,” Kevin said. “I wanted to know what was going on and who was teaching my daughter. These guys looked different than me.”

Lady J hadn’t done any physical sports prior to roller derby. She had been involved in ballet and tumbling, mostly individual events and certainly no hitting and blocking. She was also very passive as a child, so naturally this new venture was a bit of a concern. But before the year was over, Kevin was just as hooked as Lady J. 

“What I found out was that this is an amazing culture for kids,” Kevin said. “I have never seen a full contact sport where kids are trying to hurt each other and play hard between whistles, but after the whistle they are hugging each other. It is an amazing thing. And they keep it as safe as possible for the kids. They have very strict rules about moving them up to more physical teams, knowing when they are safe and when they aren’t safe. Pretty much her first nine months she spent learning how to fall safely.”

Even local adults are enjoying the sport. Ciara Jackson found the sport because a friend wanted to try it. Now the 32-year-old mom is known as Big C.

“I went to it as my friend’s emotional support and didn’t even try it at first,” Big C said. “I didn’t even put on skates the first time. Then I began to use it as a way to exercise and somewhere along the way I realized I am very competitive.”