Skip to body

Central Washington University

Professor Pain and the Science of Roller Derby

What do CWU professors do during their off-hours? For Professor Pain, she knocks other people off their feet—literally. By day, Pain, also known as Andrea Eklund, is the mild-mannered program coordinator and professor of the Apparel, Textiles and Merchandising program in Family and Consumer Sciences. By night, she is an assistant coach of the Rodeo City Rollergirls, one of an estimated 1,200 roller derby teams now skating worldwide.

In 2007, Eklund came to Central with her husband. But she did not become involved in roller derby until 2010 when she attended a Rat City Rollergirls boot camp in Seattle. The first day she showed up wearing her husband’s dirt bike kneepads, a bike helmet, roller blade elbow pads and wrist guards, and a 23-year-old pair of skates that she had worn in the sixth grade, which came under some good-natured scrutiny.

“I had lugged those white skates with the hot pink wheels and toe stops around for so long,” Eklund says. “Each time we would move, my husband would ask ‘Do we really have to keep these?’ Each time I said ‘Heck ya!’”

She must have somehow realized that they would again have a use, someday. They did when she showed up for the first day of Rodeo City Rollergirls orientation. She recalls, “I instantly got ‘the derbs’ and I’ve been with the league ever since.”  

Roller derby, which dates back into the 1930s, is in the midst of a remarkable resurgence that started more than a decade ago. It’s now considered the world’s fastest-growing women’s sport. Eighty years ago, it was played on a banked track, but most leagues today play on a flat track instead.

Founded in 2010, the Rodeo City Rollergirls, based in Ellensburg, now have more than 40 skaters, referees, and other volunteers, who travel across the Pacific Northwest for competition. A number of other CWU faculty members, students, and staff are involved, as well as local lawyers, and other professionals.

In a “bout,” roller derby parlance for a game, two teams of five members simultaneously skate counterclockwise around the track. Each team designates a scoring player, known as the jammer, along with four blockers. After the initial pass through the pack, each time the jammer laps an opposing player, her team scores a point. Those on the other team try to ensure that doesn’t happen using hip checks, shoulder checks, and other techniques. Contact with the hands, elbows, head and feet are prohibited, as is contact below mid-thigh or above the shoulders.

It’s physically demanding, and somewhat dangerous, as Eklund can attest. She suffered serious pain when she broke her fibula, had a 50-percent foot dislocation, and tore all her ligaments in her ankle during a practice.

“A pack of 10 players fell on me,” she recalls, “and my rear wheels went back and touched my calf.”

The ankle needed a plate, screws and pins to be put back together. Her first question to the doctor was, “When can I get back on skates?” After seven months of physical therapy, she was able to skate again. While she chooses now to coach, along with serving as the team’s merchandise manager, her players can attest that Professor Pain can still knock a girl down, and good. 

It’s a far cry from her day job teaching her students to recognize industry trends, analyze market and consumer behavior, and teaching apparel construction in the diverse, fast-paced, and ever changing fashion industry. Eklund juggles teaching 12 classes a year, supervising up to 20 interns, advising 70 students, mentors and advises the Student Fashion Association, and directs the annual fashion show, which involves than 100 students. Since taking over the program it has grown more than165 percent. Andrea

In 2012, Eklund also won the Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Business Award for Sustainable Design—Professional Level at the International Textile and Apparel Association conference. The competition was a rigorous, double-blind, juried exhibition. Only 139 designs were accepted into the competition out of 374 submitted.

Eklund has also found an academic element to her work in roller derby.

“I conducted research with Dr. Barbara Masberg [CWU Recreation and Tourism professor] on women’s involvement in roller derby and how it affects their body image,” says Eklund, which was featured in the summer 2013 issue of fiveonfive magazine, a publication centered on the sport. It will also be published in Clothing and Textile Research Journal.

Through the use of a questionnaire, data was collected from an online survey in March 2012.  There were four sections in the survey: demographics, roller derby participation, body image, and impact on body image. 

“Close-ended questions were developed to gather data regarding demographics and roller derby participation,” Eklund explains.  A total of 2,417 completed surveys were received and “97 percent indicated roller derby had a positive effect on their body image,” she says.

Eklund points out three main themes emerged from her research: The athletic body was a topic that came out with the idea that the body could be a tool. Body acceptance was typified by “acceptance of my body—(and) not afraid to show it.” Seeing other women of various sizes and shapes involved in the sports was cited in improving acceptance of their own bodies.

Participation in roller derby also affected respondents’ clothing choices, which reflected a more form fitting dress during derby practice and bouts and in their daily lives. Dress used during bouts, “derbying up,” includes tights, short skirts, bicycle style shorts under basketball style shorts, and athletic clothing. Individuals noted that wearing revealing clothing during practice and bouts gave them increased confidence.

Eklund’s roller derby research will be used in her class on socio-cultural aspects of apparel, where students examine how and why people adorn their bodies. Her findings will be a focal point in a segment of the course discussing body image, the cultural ideal, and not conforming to that ideal, niche markets, and personas.

Speaking of personas, Fiona Gardner is among the members of the Rollergirls’ top team, the Posse. On the track, she’s Hang ‘Em Heidi and wears No. 1851. A CWU alumna and graduate of the William O. Douglas Honors College, with a Central master’s degree in English, she selected the name as a takeoff from Clint Eastwood’s 1968 film Hang ‘Em High. The number? It’s the year of Eastwood’s gun from the film.

“Your derby name is a fun way to create an alter-ego for yourself and separate that from your day-to-day life,” notes Gardner.

A few of the more evocative roller derby names, which generally are suppose to be humorously threatening, include Daisy Nuke, Helena Handbasket, and Dawn Corleone. Just picking an official Roller Derby moniker can be a challenge in itself as they must be unique and then listed with an international registry, of which more than 20,000 have already been recorded.

“In most leagues, you must complete a trial period before you can even submit your name to the registry,” Gardner added. “It’s kind of a badge of honor, a sign that you’re really committed to this.”

Admitting to a competitive nature, she had played some soccer while growing up, but says she “never found anything that was a great fit for me until roller derby. I’ve been with the league since the very first meeting, and it was immediately appealing to me—a rough, competitive sport with a great sense of community. It’s become such an important part of my life.”

Like Gardner, CWU alumnae, with similarly colorful names, are also found on the roller derby rosters of teams across Washington. There are currently more than two-dozen leagues in the state alone and 50 in the Pacific Northwest, with new ones forming all the time.

Ultimately, Professor Pain and the Rollergirls have their sites set on the annual Women’s Flat Track Derby Association National Tournament and the next Roller Derby World Cup in 2014.

Eklund already has extensive national and international experience. She has practiced with teams in Hawaii, Nevada, and Oregon, and was a guest coach this past January in Milan, Italy. She also plans to install a regulation size track on her property next spring so she and her friends can skate anytime.

Despite the inherent risks, players are passionate about their sport and their teammates. It becomes a tight-knit community and, for many, a family. For instance, Eklund’s husband Heath, who adopted the derby moniker “SinForcer,” now serves as head referee.

“It’s truly become a family sport,” Eklund offers. “The friends I have made and the skills I have learned are priceless. Derby changed my life and I am so happy to have found it.”