Jennelle Thompson explains what really constitutes a tightly knit roller derby community
By day, Jennelle Thompson may appear to be just another hairstylist, but by night she turns into roller skating champion Jenni Gunns.
Thompson has been the lead jammer for the Calgary Roller Derby Association (CRDA) All-Stars since 2010.
“One of my clients, her sister does it, and she told me about it and I said, ‘That’s something I would want to try.’ So I looked it up and found a league in Calgary,” says Thompson, a stylist at Hair Benders in Airdrie.
There are three positions in roller derby: jammer, pivot and blocker.
The jammer’s job is to score points by skating around the blockers who are trying to prevent the jammer from getting through.
The pivot leads the herd and is in charge of directing teammates in which direction to go.
Thompson started as a jammer and has remained in that position since she discovered the sport six years ago.
She started by going to one of the “fresh meat” games to learn more about the sport, but it didn’t take much for her to fall in love with the game. She laced up and started playing.
The only thing left to do was pick out her derby name.
One of her co-workers suggested her derby name should be based off of a musician they watched at Broken City.
“We always, for like a year, would go to Broken City and there’s a guy named Tommy Gunns there who plays guitar and (my co-worker) kind of thought I should be Jenni Gunns,” says Thompson.
Five years later Thompson is still passionate about the sport, and she has become a force to bereckoned with.
Her teammate Zoey Duncan, also known as Front Page Bruise, says Thompson is one of the best skaters on the floor.
“Jenni Gunns is a really agile and smart jammer. She is really quick and knows where to go and how to communicate with her blockers. It’s really easy to play with her,” Duncan explains.
Thompson is also a great teacher. Duncan says she helps everyone be better which helps them all out in the end.
“Another great thing about her is when she’s out there with her teammates she gives them feedback,” says Duncan. “She’s really clear, whether she’s helping other jammers to be better at their positions, or if she’s helping other blockers understand where they need to be on the track. She makes the whole team better.”
Roller derby is more than just a sport or a hobby to these strong female athletes. It’s a lifestyle. Same goes for their fans, especially Cam Lamarue, who met his girlfriend through roller derby.
“I started watching derby about four years ago. Me and my brothers got to a couple of games, and just kept going over the summer, just for something fun to do. Then I met my girlfriend who plays here,” says Lamarue.
Because of players like Thompson, Lamarue was inspired to join a male league, called Reservoir Dogs, and adopt the derby name Optimus Prime Rib.
Roller derby gained popularity in 1935 when promoter Leo Seltzer wanted more sporting attractions to fill the Chicago Coliseum. However, back then it was not a mainstream sport, it was more of a show. Roller derby was broadcast on Canadian television in the 1970s but seemed to wane in popularity in the later decades.
In 2001, when it started up again in Texas, it still wasn’t a real sport, more of a side-show attraction. It wasn’t until the women of the league stood up for themselves and re-invented the game that it would be considered a sport.
Trish Walker, a senior skater and a representative of the Oil City Roller Derby in Edmonton, explains that it wasn’t just a step in the right direction for the sport, but it was also a step for women in general.
“It began kind of as a circus,” says Walker. “It really was women in fishnets and the penalties included spankings. It was very, very quick for the women doing in the sport to say, you know it really isn’t okay. We are risking ourselves physically to do something that we really love and it’s not being taken seriously.”
“So that I think was a huge highlight because it was a group of women who said, ‘No, we can do it ourselves.’ That day the sport changed and it was a big step for women in athletics.”
The current version of roller derby came to Calgary in 2006 when Profanity Annie, Scarla Maim, Rollover Jean and Roxy Acetylene formed the Sandstone City Roller Girls, building the foundation for the city’s first R league.
The CRDA features five female teams that train together at the West Hillhurst Community Centre. They have games coming up in April and continue throughout the summer, with a special game planned for the May long weekend to celebrate their 10th anniversary.
Thompson believes the sport is gaining popularity in 2016 due to the welcoming atmosphere among the teams.
“I would say anyone could do this. Even if you don’t know how to skate. We start you on some skates, doesn’t matter your body size, nothing, your personality. There are so many personalities here but we all get along.”
Because the sport is getting more recognition around the globe, roller derby is being considered to become an official sport in the Olympics.
“I just love it and it’s more about competing, not so much getting better than anyone else, but just getting better for myself.” - Jennelle Thompson
When asked about possibly playing in the Olympics, Thompson smiled and suddenly became energized.
“Oh, I would love to! I don’t know if I’m at that level yet but I would love to! Yeah!” says Thompson.
Thompson loves the sport mainly because it keeps her on her feet, and the constant pressure of the game is what makes it interesting and entertaining for her.
“It’s so up and down. Like you think you’re doing great and then next jam you do terrible. So you’re always wanting more.”
Thompson has had her ups and downs. She suffered a serious leg injury, something that she shakes off as if it was nothing.
“I broke my leg about three years ago, but I recovered and yeah...,” she says with a shrug.
Many athletes would have quit after a serious leg injury, but Thompson could never quit being Jenni Gunns. For her roller derby is more than a sport, it’s a part of who she is. There is no Jennelle Thompson without Jenni Gunns.
Thumbnail by Mackenzie Jaquish
- By Mackenzie Jaquish