Photo: Ilenia Pezzaniti

How the Akron Roller Derby has coped with COVID-19

By Derek Kreider

When Akron ground to a halt last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so too did the Akron Roller Derby. The international governing body of women’s roller derby shut down play in early 2020 after only two games.

Roller derby is an inherently physical sport. During bouts and practices, participants (players and fans both) are within breathing distance of each other constantly — a feature at odds with even the most lenient pandemic restrictions. 

But the closeness isn’t relegated to physical proximity. The Akron Roller Derby (AKRD) has a deep camaraderie running through it like a gold vein in granite. The feelings of separation and isolation everyone experienced in the past year are felt by the women of Akron Roller Derby as well.

“When you’re together with your team three times a week, sometimes four, there’s just this family bond, and since the pandemic a lot of us have lost touch,” says team member Jamie Suvak, aka Darby Crash. “People aren’t on Facebook anymore; they’re leaving Facebook because of how awful and harmful social media has been for mental health, so you kind of lose the closeness that you once had with your team, or your family.”

“I feel like I’ve met different people while on the juniors and the adults [team] that has made me a better person,” says N’Cole Allison, aka Nickel Nastee, player and coach of the junior team. 

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Still, the women of Akron Roller Derby found some opportunities during last year’s warmer months to keep their skills sharp.

“We did group trail skates where we all wore masks and we were able to distance using bike trails and things like that,” says Victoria Diegelbach, aka Notorious VIC, team member and president of the board for AKRDs. “Some of our skaters have been known to just skate through downtown Akron.” 
Now that the weather has turned ugly, they’re attempting to make the most of their practice space at Canal Place while still remaining safe.

“We can sign out our practice space to skate with people in your immediate circle. So we can go be on our skates at our facility, but that’s all we’ve really been able to do,” says team member Valerie Elfrink, aka Valkillree.

Derby names, the nicknames each player picks for themselves and displays on their jersey, are a big part of the games’ culture. In some ways, derby names are similar to a professional wrestler’s adopted persona. Dwane Johnson becomes The Rock and Victoria Diegelbach becomes Notorious VIC. (There’s a pay disparity between the two, though.)  

Having access to their own practice space has been both boon and bane to the team. While it’s given them the opportunity to keep their skills sharp, there’s still rent to be paid. “On a regular year, in our off-season, we would still pay dues because we still have rent to pay. With us being down, those of us that can are still paying our monthly dues,” Valerie says. “I won’t lie, it’s pretty tight right now, but we are trying to have something to come back to.”

During a normal season, skaters get sponsorship help, often from their employers but also from friends. These funds are used by skaters to pay for dues, skate gear, training, as well as other related expenses, and 10% of sponsorship support goes to the league. No new sponsorships were made available in 2020, meaning that the team had to make do with what they already had.

Fundraising is playing a large part in Akron Roller Derby’s fight to stay afloat. On Jan. 20, they joined forces with the Chipotle on Exchange Street. If customers told the cashier they were supporting the event, 33% of the cost of their order was donated to the team. The team is mulling doing this again in the future.

In early February, the team launched a GoFundMe. After a week, they were more than 20% of the way to their goal.

Selling beer at the Summit County Fair is another avenue of revenue generation for the team during normal seasons. Luckily, the fair was held in 2020, albeit in a reduced capacity, and they made a little money that way as well.

Akron Roller Derby’s classification as a non-profit helps. Amazon shoppers can support the team through the Amazon Smile program where Amazon donates 0.5% of purchases to charitable organizations of the user’s choosing.

There are a couple of fundraisers coming up as well, including an auction of decorated plaster casts of the players’ busts that will be held on Facebook during the first week of March.

Despite the difficulties, Jamie’s trust in the bonds between her and her teammates rings out in hopeful optimism about the future despite the forced break they’ve endured. “There’s no personal bubble in derby,” she says. “So I feel once you’re back into it, I think that it will definitely grow back into what it was.”

Photos: Ilenia Pezzaniti

Derek Kreider is the distribution manager at The Devil Strip. Reach him at derek@thedevilstrip.com.

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