By Dylan Powell
Above Image: Crista Murphy Niagara Roller Girls 2014. Photo Cred: Ian Goring
When Niagara Roller Girls (NRG) formed in 2012, the first and only women’s flat track roller derby league in Niagara, the response from the community was overwhelming. Originally only expecting a couple dozen skaters, the league started with close to 100. Formed with 4 home teams, the Seaway Sirens, Dalhousie Destroyers, Vineyard Vixens and Maids of the Fist — the league restructured last year to include a travel team, reduced to three home teams (with new names), and found a stable home at the Haig Bowl. The league still does not have its Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) certification or apprenticeship, but this is the goal moving forward.
Although the league is still working towards WFTDA certification, it has already produced skaters that have moved to other leagues to play competitive WFTDA derby. Ashley Austin (Dalhousie Destroyers) and Crista Murphy, the original and only Captain of the Seaway Sirens — also my wife — left the league last year to join Buffalo’s Queen City Roller Girls (QCRG) WFTDA travel team the Lake Effect Furies. Within a year those skaters have gone from NRG home teams to Division 1 Playoffs with the Furies playing this weekend in a playoff tournament in Omaha, Nebraska.
Graduating skaters is a large part of this sport which has seen massive growth in the past decade from 10 leagues to over 1,000 worldwide. Skaters moving to larger and more competitive markets frequently bring the skills sets and resources they gain back to their smaller leagues — pushing those leagues forward. Current Niagara Roller Girls President, and former Sirens teammate, Leanne Whiteley-Lagace recognizes the importance of the move, “They have never forgotten their roots. Every now and then they drop into a practice on one of their off nights and still help us out with some occasional training and bench coaching. We are extremely proud of them.”
Still, leaving leagues is tough for skaters — guilt for leaving set up against the increased commitment and dedication. For Ashley and Crista this has looked like nexus passes, tolls, border waits, roaming fees, league dues in US dollars — all for a sport that is highly competitive but all volunteer and out of pocket. Crista says the decision was made easier because of the support that existed within NRG, “It was really hard because of the friendships you make and the role you play in building up a league. But I knew that now was the time in my life to make that transition and that making that change was something that my league mates at NRG would be supportive of.”
The pay off will come this weekend in Omaha where they will play against some of the best skaters in the world. Their tournament bracket includes teams from as far away as Helsinki, and also includes the best team on the planet — New York’s Gotham Girls Roller Derby — who the Furies will play if they beat Toronto in their initial bout on Friday. This is the kind of thing all derby skaters dream of, and to live it has been surreal for Crista, “It all happened so fast. It’s been challenging and fun. I could not have asked for a better derby year.”
While the Furies are playing in Omaha, skaters from their old league NRG will be cheering them on and watching via live stream at Romby’s Tavern on Lake Street. For a league that is currently recruiting for new skaters, and still building on its junior program, watching two local skaters graduate to the highest level of competitive roller derby in such a short span of time is a huge success story. NRG President Leanne Whiteley-Lagace says the move gives leagues skaters motivation and pride, “As a younger, developing league, their story is an inspiration to all of us. Just knowing that ‘one of us’ could reach that potential is pretty incredible.”
Women’s competitive sports are chronically underfunded, lack coverage, and face all of the other existing barriers in place in a misogynist culture that restricts access to sport by gender. Locally, NRG’s initial popularity was part a sign of how much women were looking for an outlet for a competitive, challenging and empowering sport. Neither Ashley or Crista have forgotten where they started and regardless of the outcome of their games this weekend, their former league mates should watch with pride as Niagara is finally represented at the highest level of women’s flat track roller derby.