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Roller Derby, Born In Chicago 82 Years Ago, To Get Its Own Week

By David Matthews | July 26, 2017 5:49am | Updated on July 26, 2017 11:48am
 Historic photos of roller derby, the Chicago-born sport that is celebrating its 82nd anniversary next month. 
Roller Derby: Born In Chicago
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SOUTH LOOP — Roller Derby, the occasionally bone-crushing sport born in Chicago, is set to get its own week. 

World Roller Derby Week will start Aug. 13 in Coliseum Park, 1513 S. Wabash Ave., the site of the old Chicago Coliseum where roller derby debuted in 1935. 

Back then the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, and promoter Leo Seltzer was looking for a new draw. Inspired by "walkathons" in the Pacific Northwest and the growing popularity of roller rinks, Seltzer decided to combine the two into roller derby. 

Legendary sportswriter Damon Runyan came out to Chicago on Aug. 13, 1935 to see roller derby's debut. He convinced Seltzer to change roller derby from a marathon skating session to a contact sport between mixed teams of men and women. 

The change has spawned nearly 2,000 leagues still playing throughout the world, and a heyday that included a sellout crowd at Comiskey Park in 1972. 

But Jerry Seltzer, Leo's son, said roller derby's true legacy is as a sport that treated women athletes as equals decades before other major sports were even integrated. Roller derby is predominantly played by women now.

"There was a lot of controversy for years: 'How in the world can you have women in a sport that involves hitting each other?" Seltzer said. "Now it's their thing and I kinda like that."

Roller derby is played between two teams of five. One of the five players on each team, the Jammer, tries to lap the field while the other four players block for her. Each lap on an opposing skater is a point, and hitting is allowed. The team with the most points at the end of two 30-minute periods wins. 

The sport's raucous style grew popular with Americans, and two TV series: "RollerGames" in the late '80s and "RollerJam" in the late '90s, broadcasted games. Roller derby still has a cult following today. 

The Texas Rustlers were one of many teams that competed on RollerJam. [National Roller Derby Hall of Fame]

The derby week will kick off at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 13 at Coliseum Park. Roller derby athletes will skate in uniform, and junior athletes will serve birthday cake. There will also be a blood drive. 

A roller derby doubleheader will close out the week beginning at 2 p.m. Aug. 19 at Fleetwood Roller Rink in suburban Summit. The first game will be played under 1970s rules and uniforms before a junior derby game played under modern rules. 

Jerry Seltzer said his father, Leo, died in 1978. He's glad that, instead of dying with his father, roller derby was reborn as "an exciting game" that was once unexpected: women speeding and crashing into each other. Just like the men. 

"It's become a movement; it's become a symbol of women empowerment," he said.