The sport is definitely not socially distant. But players figured out how to make it work.
A few nights before Germany shut down schools, bars, and restaurants in March, Katharina Bohnert — aka Catherine Beat-Her Bonez in the rink — went to grab her skates from her training venue in Kreuzberg, Berlin’s historically punk enclave, “just in case.” The 35-year-old had no idea she’d be away from her 20-person roller derby team, the Wallstars, for nearly three months.
“It was very surreal to take my skates home with me, not knowing how long we would not come back into the hall,” she says.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, professional and amateur sports have grappled with how to resume play in a world that is still social distancing. In the United States, the NBA is in a bubble in Disney World, the MLB already endured an outbreak among the Miami Marlins, and many college football teams haven’t made a decision about their season, which is about to start. But experts lauded the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the international governing body for women’s roller derby, for its thoughtful, methodical, athlete-oriented return-to-play plan — which has let some teams get back to the (outdoor) rink.
Thanks to Germany having contained the virus early on, sports teams in the country were able to return to the field as early as mid-May, to the delight of Bundesliga soccer fans. Roller derby, however, took a more cautious approach. The sport is intensely physical: teammates skate together in tight packs of five, playing both offense and defense simultaneously. The goal is to block the opposing team’s jammer — a single player who races ahead of the pack of blockers to win the jam — or get their own jammer to lap opponents. Physical force — pushing, jumping, swinging, and herding — is encouraged to help players break up their opposing teams’ wall of skaters, lunging counterclockwise around the track. There is nothing socially distant about roller derby.
During the shutdown, Bohnert practiced by skating outside, alone or with one other person at a distance of 1.5 meters, or a little less than 5 feet. The WFTDA, where Bohnert is also the senior education programs manager, offered online fitness classes and virtual hangouts for members while it worked on return-to-play guidelines. Since June 14, Berlin has met the benchmarks to allow her team to return to play at the Tier 1 level, where leagues may resume training in groups outdoors, sans contact.
“I was hesitant to go to that first practice on a Sunday in June,” Bohnert says. “I had gotten very used to enjoying my free weekends, a thing I never had in the last 10 years, as every Saturday was either four hours of practice — and sometimes Sunday too — or a game.” But being able to work out as a team again, with familiar faces and a clear focus, was worth it, she says.
At practice, she runs footwork drills with a group of maximum 12 players at an outdoor track. Since they’re outside, masks are not required and they must stay socially distant. The skills — stopping, edge work, skating strides, lateral movement and agility, skating form, and balancing — will be critical when the league returns to competitive gameplay, at Tier 4, Bohnert says. Practices, which used to take up at least seven hours a week, plus extra prep before games, are now 90 minutes.
“I think we forgot about how much of our social time is structured around practices,” says Bohnert’s teammate, Kassandra Sundt (aka Maya Mangleyou). “All of a sudden, we were like, ‘Oh damn, I haven’t talked to any of my friends in like five weeks’ because [we] hadn’t gone to practice and after-practice beers. We really missed each other.” In Tier 1, players are allowed to linger at the track and social distance. Having after-practice drinks comes with new layers of government-enforced regulation, including needing to leave your contact information with any bar or restaurant you go to.
When the group eventually gets back to gameplay, Sundt, 31, says that a post-pandemic derby is going to look very, very different. “There are shared practice jerseys, and even shared whistles — that go in people’s mouths!” She points to the physicality of roller derby, where a pack of players smushing up against each other is a typical facet of a scrimmage. “It’s weird because you’re used to just walking up to your teammates and hugging [them]. But now there’s a caution, like, ‘Oh, can I get close to this person? Am I comfortable with that? Are they comfortable with that?’”
While roller derby’s return-to-play guidelines outline stages from Baseline — solo training only — to Tier 7, full-scale events with spectators, there isn’t a cut-and-dry timeline for moving into the next phase: It all depends on local transmission rates and player comfort level. (The guidelines are careful to note that leagues must remain in a stage for 14 days before advancing to the next one, and can’t skip tiers.) Bohnert stresses that the single most important condition for coming back to training is self-reporting any exposure. “As soon as you, your partner, or a person from your household are tested positive for COVID-19, or you had contact with someone [who has], we need to let our risk coordinator know,” she explains, later adding that this week’s training is canceled while they wait for a teammate’s test result. “But even besides trusting everyone to make smart decisions, I think [our league is] very hesitant to go to Tier 2,” where drills involving physical contact would be allowed.
Besides the increased risk of exposure, players need time to prepare for gameplay after so much time away from the rink. “My body is happy to have some time to regenerate,” says Bohnert, “but going for a run and doing off-skates workouts is not the same as the constant mental and physical high intensity that roller derby provides and demands. I miss these challenges.”
So far, no one in the league has gotten sick since returning to practice, even as Germany sees case counts rising. Bohnert credits derby culture with creating an atmosphere that’s always put players first, from having a say in the rules of the sport to acting on member feedback. “We are not perfect, but we strive to always be and do better,” Bohnert says. “I can’t say I’m seeing the same in other major sports.”
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