Vintage roller derby dame reminisces about her life on the banked track 

Story Image

Photo courtesy of Madelyn DeVincent

On March 31, 90-year-old Chicagoan Madelyn DeVincent was reacquainted with her old love.

This retired nurse didn't reencounter an old high school crush or dote on out-of-town grandkids. Rather, DeVincent, a former skater, came to the UIC Pavilion to enjoy a night of her old pastime: roller derby.

"I had eight brothers, and I was a bit of a tomboy when I was young," DeVincent said, who joined a Chicago roller derby league in her early 20s while finishing nursing school. She said she picked up skating for fun as a teenager. She spent hours on end in four-wheel quad skates exploring the streets of Chicago.

By 1946, at age 24, DeVincent was a full-fledged member of the Chicago Westerns and Thunderbirds. The league held monthly games, or bouts, at the old Chicago Coliseum down on Roosevelt Road.

The Coliseum, which first opened in 1866, hosted the five consecutive Republican National Conventions from 1904 to 1920. The venue was known more as an edgy sports arena that hosted circus acts, boxing matches and prize fights to mostly male crowds.

"The people who came to see us skate were different and all kinds," she said. "There were men and women and families watching the bouts, too."

The game of roller derby was very different back the 1940s. DeVincent skated on a banked track that, she described, went "up and down like a roller coaster." Side rails surrounded the edge.

Today's roller derby is primarily on a flat track. Pushing, checking or unnecessary roughness is not allowed. Simple things such as making contact with player's head or even a mistimed forearm push can get you booked by the officials, followed by time in the penalty box or ejection.

Regardless of how much the game has changed, one thing that DeVincent and other skaters always talk about is how much they love roller derby. A certain passion crops up — not only for the skaters but also for fans.

Robin Bond, co-director of the new documentary "Derby, Baby!," can speak to this.

"My kids and I saw "Whip It" around the same time the roller derby phenom started," Bond said. "Our family became obsessed once we saw our first bout."

"Derby, Baby!" which is narrated by Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis, opened at the Sonoma Film Festival in California.

Roller derby has built its own traditions, such as the alias. The roller derby name, which started in the 1930s, has grown since the game's re-emergence in 2001. Some skaters go by clever compound monikers while others reference celebrities in American pop culture.

"Well, they wanted to call me Big Nose, but I didn't like that, and so I didn't take a skater name. I went by Madelyn. And actually, many of the other girls didn't take skater names, either," DeVincent said.

She also talked about the rough and tumble of the sport and how women, who would spar on the derby track, would get together afterward to enjoy food, a cold beer and plenty of camaraderie.

"There's so much about the sport that I loved - even the bumps and bruises - and seeing the derby girls of today reminded me of myself back then. It made me feel young again," DeVincent said.