As the Cincinnati Junior Rollergirls clatter around Colerain’s The Skatin’ Place track, Mark “Tink” Weber sits relaxed with his arms spread across the back of a bench seat. He’s wearing his Team USA Roller Derby hoodie and an excited grin — still riding the wave of Team USA’s Roller Derby World Cup victory the week before in Birmingham, England.
While watching the fledgling derby players, Weber wanders through skating stories as if he were a weathered war veteran.
“Once you play roller derby, it’s addictive,” he says. “I know guys who played back in the ’70s and they are still playing today. Once you start, it’s in your blood.”
Skating in general has been in Weber’s blood since he was 6 years old, when he laced up a pair of quads at The Skatin’ Place for the first time. And he’s spent the years since on eight wheels in some fashion. It was nothing but open skating sessions, the “perfect baby sitter” for him and his sister, until he found his way into speed skating at age 12.
“From that point on it was fate; I just never could take them off,” he says.
Through the 30 years he’s worn skates, Weber has built a hefty resume. He has raced in speed skating, played roller hockey for a while, been on the short-lived television show RollerJam (a mix of banked track derby and professional wrestling) and now he is trying to conquer flat track derby as a member of the Cincinnati Battering Rams men’s roller derby team, founded in 2011.
But even with all of his accolades, Weber is involved with the part of roller derby still looking to break out on its own. Right now, women’s derby is the more prominent and popular side of the sport, and it has been for more than a decade.
Roller derby has come a long way from its 2001 revival in Austin, Texas: What began as a recreational activity has now become a respectable sport, entering into mainstream pop culture, with media attention from television shows to comic books. It’s picking up respect with every tournament and championship, and there are still those aspects of showmanship to the sport left over from the early days in the 1950s. Wild personalities, sex appeal and the always crowd-pleasing big hits remain, but this isn’t your grandmother’s game anymore. This derby is rife with world-class skaters and there isn’t any sign of the sport fading into memory as it did decades ago.
“They’ve moved from a glam show piece to a world-class sport,” says Andy Frye, member of the Chicago Bruise Brothers men’s roller derby team. “And with world cups for both men and women, the sport is starting to turn heads.”
There are even governing bodies for both the men and women: the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA).
According to Frye — who also writes about the sport — roughly 30,000-40,000 women are skating globally. They account for about 98 percent of skaters in the sport, with men representing the other two percent. It’s an interesting place for male skaters right now.
“A lot of people wrote men’s derby off and didn’t take it seriously,” says former Cincinnati Rollergirl Lauren “Miss Print” Bishop. “Nationally there were worries, but WFTDA made a partnership with MRDA. It really helps spread the sport.”
The foundation of what the sport is today was built in Austin, Texas. The track, the rules, the beloved practice of skaters running everything, even down to the infectious love for anything derby came from the fringe girls who saw something special in the almost-forgotten sport.
Even going back to the ’50s and ’60s, skaters like Joanie Weston and Ann Calvello dominated the scene. In the early 2000s, one thing was for sure: Men wanted in. Watching the women’s athleticism and dedication sparked the idea of men’s derby, but that idea didn’t have wheels yet.
“At first people were weary of men playing, but roller derby as a sport has always been coed,” says Cincinnati Battering Rams founding member Steve “Quad Almighty” Haldeman. “It’s not like other sports dominated by men with a few women here and there. It’s always been a coed endeavor.”
It was a bit of a wait before men’s teams began to sprout up around 2007, but even then the guys were on the ground floor looking up.
When men started to form teams and leagues, there were worries they were going to take the sport over, but due to the nature of derby, it isn’t surprising to see that men didn’t take over upon entry.
“If anything, it was a concern about losing our support staff,” Bishop says. “Guys started as refs and coaches, but they wanted to play. No one knew what to make of an early exhibition, it seemed more chaotic than anything. [At the time] no one really thought it would get to the point it is at.”
Men’s derby may not be for everyone, though, according to Bishop.
The rules for men and women are the same, but the game play looks very different. Roller girls are a bit more calculating while the men lay harder-looking hits and take up more room on the track.
“The hardest hit I’ve taken was from a woman, though,” says Haldeman. “So it is hard to tell people the difference. I would hesitate to say it is on equal footing, but the women are definitely more popular.”
A lack of talented male skaters isn’t the problem — Team USA won the inaugural Men’s Roller Derby World Cup in March — crowds just haven’t warmed up to the idea of men’s derby yet.
“Most people who see men’s derby say they like it more than women’s, because it’s faster, the hitting is harder. Basically it’s just more violent,” says Brian Liette, owner of The Skatin' Place and Weber’s coach. “I think if people get the chance to watch it will catch on, it can gain the same popularity as the women.”
In Liette’s eyes, fans of women’s derby will enjoy men’s just as much, despite it being a little different.
“Women’s derby is phenomenal, but we’re more physical and the game is faster,” Weber says. “Some people want to see that, they like the big hits. It’s going to draw a crowd for sure but it is still relatively new.”
The World Cup helped bring men’s derby into the minds of those who didn’t know it even existed.
“It was the moment where it made this a serious international endeavor. We aren’t part of the fringe anymore,” Haldeman says.
Making Team USA and then the world travel team is Weber’s favorite accomplishment — which to him was bigger than being paid to skate for the show RollerJam, or his entire career for that matter.
Making the team proved to Weber all of the years spent skating were worth it. That he belonged and this is why he puts skates on nearly every day of the week.
“Nothing is cooler or bigger than skating for your country,” he says. “Winning the World Cup was great too, but being on Team USA was huge for me.”
Weber skates in some fashion five days a week, though he says he would skate all seven if possible. It’s how he trains himself. “Where I’m at now is because I’ve been on wheels as long as I have, and I still look for things to improve on.
“I’ve skated my entire life,” Weber continues, “and a lot of my success comes from Brian, who has been coaching me since I’ve been young and before I went to the world team tryouts. Without him I wouldn’t have made the team.”
Through the years, Weber has been going back to Liette whenever a problem arises.
“Mark was always coachable,” Liette says. “He’s always kept coming back for something else. I’ve had a lot of good skaters through the years but he was the first to make a world team, I was happy for him but it also made me feel good.”
For Weber, there is always something to improve on. He can’t relax, mainly because other teams target the 36-year-old, which opens up opportunities for his jammers Creeper and Spyder.
In his words, there is “a lot of pressure” to become better, but he isn’t any different from other skaters out on the floor. Weber is just another skater “who can get beat like everyone else.”
And even though his feet have been crammed into skates for the majority of his life, there are no plans to stop — at least not any time soon.
“I won’t stop until I physically cannot do it,” Weber says, “and then I guess I will walk away depending on how bad it hurts. I don’t like walking away from stuff I haven’t conquered.”
That mentality is what keeps not only Weber — but nearly all skaters — coming back for more, and further proving the longevity and evolution of derby.
The CINCINNATI BATTERING RAMS travel to Indianapolis Saturday to go up against Race City, but the Rams will be back home June 14 at the Cincinnati Gardens. Full schedule and tickets: cincinnatibatteringrams.com.