RED WING, Minn. -- As a young girl in Red Wing, Rachel McNamara was active in diving and gymnastics. She never could have guessed that those sports would help her develop the body control, strength and determination to take her to the 2018 World Cup … in roller derby.
Soon after McNamara finished her doctoral degree through a joint program with San Diego State University and the University of California in San Diego, she wanted a different challenge. She saw a Facebook posting from a friend discussing roller derby and Googled it. She discovered a roller derby league in San Diego, the San Diego Derby Dolls.
“It looked like so much fun,” McNamara said. “I found out they were ranked in the U.S., and I thought that's what I want to do, so I signed up. I went to the orientation, bought skates the next day, and I've never stopped.”
It wasn’t easy. In a sport that emphasizes power and body contact, her size was an immediate concern.
“Many people in roller derby are much, much larger than me,” she said. “I think with my skates on, I'm 5 feet tall. When I started roller derby, I only weighed 107 at the most. I started working out regularly, lifting weights, and that really helped me be more solid.”
Because she is smaller, she is often quicker than other skaters on the track. She and her team also learned that having different size players in the pack could make it more difficult for opponents to pass them and score.
“I can lock down someone's legs, and then have a blocking partner who is much taller than me, lock down their upper body, so the jammer doesn't have the opportunity to get anywhere. It's been a learning curve for me on every team I've played with, but you figure it out.”
Many people have a vision of roller derby being similar to WWE wrestling with scripted fights and elbow smashes to the face. That version of roller derby is gone, McNamara said.
“In modern roller derby, none of it is scripted. None of it is fake. It's actually become very athletic. All the hits are real. Every bruise is real. The broken bones, that's all real,” she said, and she has had a broken leg of her own as proof.
As she learned more about the sport, she became a coach of her San Diego team. While she enjoyed coaching, she realized that she was not improving as a player herself. She wanted more of a challenge, so she joined Angel City Derby in Los Angeles, a league ranked in the top 10 in the world. She makes the two-hour commute to LA three or four times per week for practice and games.
Through that competition, she became interested in participating in the 2018 World Cup in Manchester, England.
McNamara had been adopted from Korea at a very young age by Rick and JoAnne McNamara and raised in Red Wing. In Los Angeles, she met other skaters with similar backgrounds, and they soon found enough skaters to form Team Korea and “represent our heritage. Over half of us were adopted. It was a really cool learning experience, bringing all of us together and learning more about our culture. Skating in the World Cup was a dream come true.”
McNamara has taken one local product with her on the roller derby circuit: Riedell skates, manufactured in Red Wing. “(They are) the leading skate brand out there,” she said. “I've been a loyal customer to Riedell skates since I joined roller derby. I recently got to skate in a bout representing Riedell skates versus another skate company.”
McNamara has a doctorate in audiology and works in a San Diego hospital where she monitors patients’ nerves during spine and brain surgeries. She said she is thankful that both her job and her husband John have supported her taking time to pursue her passion for roller derby.
That passion comes partly from the physical and mental challenges of participating in the sport, but there are other aspects that are just as important to her.
“The derby community, more than most most places, is centered on women's empowerment and building up confidence,” McNamara said. “Women in the modern-day have often been taught that other women are a threat and that you don't necessarily want to be friends with them. In derby, we really strive to make that not a thing, and we try to understand that building one another up is a bigger thing and better. We all do better in life if we do that instead of tearing each other down.”
At age 34, McNamara is unsure how long she will continue roller derby. She said many skaters still play at a high level into their 40s, with some playing well beyond that.
For now, she is pleased with her development in the game and what she has accomplished. She has attended RollerCon, a five-day annual convention in Las Vegas dedicated to roller derby. She has been filmed in Los Angeles for TV shows featuring roller derby scenes, and had her story told in the book “Derby Life” by Margot Atwell. She has traveled to England, Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere for competitions.
According to McNamara, her love of roller derby “has opened up a lot of opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.”