You never know how an American sport will find its way to another country. Take Colombia. Baseball was introduced to the South American nation by migrant sugar cane cutters. Basketball arrived with Colombian students who had learned to play in the US.
María Paola Hernandez is founder and captain of the Bogota Rock and Roller Queens, Colombia’s first-ever roller derby team. She’s a graphic designer who roller skated in her spare time. She’d never heard of roller derby, though, until she saw “Whip It,” Drew Barrymore’s 2009 film about a Texas misfit who joins a Bad News Bears-like roller derby squad. (Watch the trailer here.)
The movie was a box-office flop. But Hernández was fascinated by the women hip-checking their way around the rink in wild costumes and old-fashioned four-wheel skates.
“I learned about roller derby from the movie,” Hernández said. “I had no idea what it was so my friends and I began to investigate.”
After downloading the rules from the Internet and watching roller derby online, Hernández began recruiting skaters via Facebook and teaching the sport.
Since then, nearly a dozen roller derby teams have sprung up here, with names like Bone Breakers and the Pain Dealers. Hernández’s husband, Diego Reyes, who coaches the Rock and Roller Queens, said most of the players like the action.
“Without fight, you know. I think that’s the principle attractive of the sport. The action,” Reyes said.
Roller derby is enjoying a renaissance in the US, where hundreds of teams have formed. It’s played with two five-member squads skating around a track. Players score by lapping members of the opposing team, checking and bumping to prevent enemy skaters from passing them.
It’s largely a women’s sport, and many find it liberating, especially in Colombia where there’s still the macho notion that they should stick to more ladylike endeavors, such as beauty pageants.
Francisca Perdomo, who skates for the Rock and Roller Queens, likes the combination of the aggressive play with the risqué spandex outfits and heavy makeup that the players wear.
“I think a girl could be tough and strong, but you can also be feminine and girly,” Perdomo said.
Still, Perdomo has paid a price. She hurt her knee and her foot, but that hasn’t stopped her.
“I came back because I love it. I really do.”
In some ways, it makes sense that roller derby caught on in Colombia. The country is a mecca for roller skaters. The national team has won the World Roller Speed Skating Championships 9 times in the past 12 years.
But national team coach Elías Del Valle said roller derby often seems more like a violent spectacle than a sport.
“It’s for athletes who are a little more aggressive and who may not be suited for speed skating, hockey or artistic skating,” Del Valle said.
Indeed, roller derby is still so strange and new to Colombians that players are constantly trying to convince people that they’re not just making it up.
Still, they did persuade the Colombian government to take them seriously. Last month, roller derby received official recognition from the Colombian Sports Federation, which could lead to more money to build rinks and train teams.