Roller Derby, Born In Chicago, Turns 82 | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Roller Derby, Born In Chicago, Turns 82

Sunday will mark the 82nd anniversary of the first roller derby, a sport invented in Chicago by Leo Seltzer in 1935.

Seltzer, a walkathon promoter who once held the lease to Chicago Coliseum event center, had been looking for a new sport when he was inspired by an article that said more than 90 percent of Americans had tried roller skating, his son Jerry Seltzer told Morning Shift host Jenn White on Friday.

The elder Seltzer presented the game at the Chicago Coliseum on Aug. 13, 1935.  

Beginning Sunday, World Roller Derby Week will celebrate the sport’s birthday with a series of events in the city where it all began.  

Jerry Seltzer and roller derby athlete Elizabeth “Cuban Miss Elle” Perez joined Morning Shift to talk derby.

How Leo Seltzer turned walkathons into roller derby

Jerry Seltzer: Basically what he did is take the concept of the walkathon, which was kind of a marathon, and put the competitors on roller skates. A team was one man and one woman — and the object was to skate [the equivalent of the distance] across the United States from New York to Los Angeles. There was a huge map on the wall and the first event went on for about 45 days.

Eventually, the game was kind of modified to become a competition where there are five players on each side. The object was simple: to break away from the pack, have a timed what-was-called “jam,” and come up from the rear and for each member of the opposing team they pass they got one point.

It was played on a bank track. Today, it’s primarily flat track with almost 2,000 leagues around the world in 65 countries. It was professional. Today, it’s all amateur. It’s amazing how many are still playing in the Chicago area and so many people don’t even know it still exists.

On the experience from the players’ perspective

Elizabeth Perez: When you’re out there and there’s a crowd — as soon as the whistle blows, as soon as the jam starts — I feel like the crowd just blurs out, disappears, and I’m just able to focus on the track. Sometimes, it’s to my detriment. Sometimes I get a bit of tunnel vision, but it’s fun.

On how she got into the sport

Perez: I got into the sport when I moved to Chicago about five years ago for a job. I moved here alone — no friends, no family — and I started to get into different hobbies. Eventually I found out about a local roller skating group called Derby Lite. Through there, I learned how to roller skate — because I didn’t know before. Three months later I tried out for a local league. It was probably one of the toughest things I ever had to do, and yeah — four years later, now it’s a big part of my life.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire segment, which was produced by Jason Marck. The web story was written by Justin Bull.

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