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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Roller Derby

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When sports promoter Leo Seltzer got the idea to organize a roller skating marathon in 1935, he probably didn’t expect that his event would provide the basis for a fledgling sport known as roller derby. Those early contests had skaters circling a track for thousands of miles over a period of a month to test their endurance; the current incarnation is more of a contact sport that involves players protecting—or blocking—a player known as a "jammer" who is trying to skate past the opposing team for points.

A popular sport through the 1950s and 1960s, derby briefly lost some of its luster when a bit of the theatricality usually found in pro wrestling made its way to the tracks to bolster television ratings in the 1970s. While today's derby still maintains some of that showmanship—players often compete under pseudonyms like H.P. Shovecraft—you’d be wrong to characterize its players as anything less than serious and determined athletes. mental_floss asked several competitors about the game, the hazards of Velcro, and the etiquette of sending get-well cards to opponents with broken bones.

1. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THEY USE ALTER EGOS.

Derby players looking to erase the image of the scantily-clad events of the ‘70s sometimes bemoan the continued use of aliases, but there’s a practical reason for keeping that tradition going. According to Elektra-Q-Tion, a player in Raleigh, North Carolina, pseudonyms can help athletes remain safe from overzealous fans. “It’s kind of like being a C-level celebrity,” she says. “Some players can have stalkers. I have a couple of fans that can be a little aggressive. Using 'Elektra-Q-Tion' helps keep a separation there. If they know my real name, they can find out where I live or work.”

2. THEY CAN’T ALWAYS RECOGNIZE OTHER PLAYERS OFF THE TRACK.

For many players, derby is as much a social outlet as a physical one—but meetings outside of the track can sometimes be awkward. Because of the equipment and constant motion, it can be hard to register facial features for later reference. “You don’t really get the opportunity to see them move like a normal person,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “People can identify me because I’m really tall, but if someone comes up and says we’ve played, I have to do that thing where I hold my hand up over their head [to mimic their helmet] and go, ‘Oh, it’s you.’”

3. THEY SUFFER FROM “DERBY FACE.”

Extreme concentration, core engagement, and other aspects of the game often conspire to make players somewhat less than photogenic. “'Derby face' is common,” says Barbie O’Havoc, a player from the J-Town Roller Girls in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. “You’re pretty focused on trying not to fall over or get beat up.”

4. THEY CAN KISS THEIR FEET GOODBYE.

Hours of practice in skates usually precedes an unfortunate fate for feet. “Your feet become pretty gross,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “People sometimes say it’s because skates don’t fit right, but it can happen with custom skates. You get calluses, your toenails get worn and fall off, your bones shift, you get fallen arches. One time a doctor thought I had MRSA. He actually recoiled from my foot. I had a blister on my blister.”

5. THEY HAVE TO CONVINCE DOCTORS THEY’RE NOT BEING ABUSED.

Flying, crashing bodies skating at velocity will become heavily bruised, with players sporting black eyes and large-scale blemishes. If they need to seek medical attention when something is broken, those superficial marks often raise suspicion. “The first question people will ask is, ‘Are you okay?’” says Elektra-Q-Tion. “Once, my husband took me to the emergency room because I had broken my hand. The nurse asked him to leave the room and asked me, ‘Did he do this to you?’”

6. THEIR GEAR SMELLS PRETTY BAD.

“Derby stink is very much real,” says Barbie O’Havoc. “It comes down to body chemistry. Some players don’t have a problem. Others can wash their gear all the time and it still stinks. After I sold my car that I used to haul my gear in for years, my sister told me it smelled awful. The entire car.”

7. NO PLAYER WEARS A “1” JERSEY—AND FOR GOOD REASON.

Attend a derby bout and it’s unlikely you’ll see any player sporting a “1” on their jersey. “I've always heard you shouldn't use the number 1,” says Cyan Eyed, a player for Gem City Roller Derby in Ohio. “But not everyone is aware of the 1937 bus crash.” On March 24 of that year, a bus carrying 14 skaters and 9 support staff was driving from St. Louis to Cincinnati when it crashed, killing 21 passengers. Joe Kleats, a veteran player who was riding on the bus, wore the number; when he and the others died, the sport retired it in memory of the tragedy.

8. THEY HAVE SKATE MECHANICS.

The pounding endured by skates, wheels, and bearings often requires attention from someone versed in repair and maintenance work. Enter the skate mechanic, typically an official or significant other of a player who doubles as the team’s wheel-person. “Players are afraid of taking their expensive skates apart,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. But she'd prefer that skaters know how to care for their own wheels. “I don’t like the idea of someone not understanding how they work. What happens if the ref retires?”

9. VELCRO IS THEIR ENEMY.

Much of a derby player’s gear, such as knee and elbow pads, is held in place with Velcro, that useful-but-dangerous adhesion system. “The problem with Velcro is the close contact,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “If people don’t have it on correctly or part of it is peeling off, they’ll scrape you with it and you won’t realize it until you’re in the shower later and the water hits it, which is a miserable feeling.”

10. THEY TRY TO BE POLITE EVEN AFTER SMASHING SOMEONE.

Injuries are expected in derby, but if you unwittingly broke someone’s nose, it’s considered polite track manners to check up on them later. “I remember seeing a nasty injury and our league sent her flowers and a card,” Barbie O’Havoc says.

11. THEY CAN WATCH OTHER TEAMS PRACTICE.

Good luck allowing members of an NFL team to drop in on an opposing team’s practice. Derby, which prides itself on a communal atmosphere, doesn’t mind opening its doors for visiting rivals. “If I go to, say, San Diego and ask to practice with the local team there, most of the time they would say yes,” Elektra-Q-Tion says.

12. A PENNY CAN SPELL DOOM.

It’s not often something as tiny as a coin can bring a sporting event to a complete halt, but that’s what happens when you’re dependent on skate mobility. Barbie O’Havoc says that although tracks are swept and cleaned before bouts, the odd foreign object can still pop up, causing wheels (and feet) to go flying. “There’s a washer on the toe stop that can fall off,” she says. “And I’ve seen people lose their wedding rings.” Pebbles and other tiny hazards will prompt a time-out until they're found and disposed of.

13. THEY DISLIKE HOLLYWOOD.

Whenever television crime dramas depict derby, it’s typically presented as a bunch of “bad girls” with sour attitudes and a thirst for blood on the track. “That seems to be very attractive to movie and television people,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “Usually someone gets murdered.” 2009’s Whip It, a comedy-drama starring Ellen Page and directed by Drew Barrymore, didn’t fare much better in terms of believability—but players will give that one a pass. “Whip It was great press for us. That’s when we had most of our new audience and skaters come in.”

All images courtesy of Getty.

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11 Secrets of Matchmakers
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In an age of dating apps and casual hookups, matchmakers may seem like a relic from another era. But although they've been bringing people together since long before we were swiping right, matchmaking as a profession is still alive and well. We spoke to several matchmakers to get a glimpse at how their job really works, from their sixth sense for making matches to how they deal with picky clients.

1. THEY’RE ALWAYS ON THE CLOCK.

Whether they’re shopping for groceries, waiting in a doctor’s office, or traveling on vacation, matchmakers always have their eyes peeled for ideal partners for their clients. “Being a matchmaker is not a 9 to 5 job,” matchmaker and dating coach Bonnie Winston tells Mental Floss. “24 hours, seven days a week is more like it. My employees go home, but I never close!”

Winston, who often works on weekends and evenings, also gives her clients dating advice before, during, and after dates. “It is not unusual that clients call me with inquiries about what they should wear before certain dates,” she says. “Or, I’ll get calls in whispered hush tones—secretly from bathrooms in dining establishments—to ask me questions on etiquette, or if they can hook up with their date because they have great chemistry,” Winston says.

2. THEY HAVE A SIXTH SENSE.

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Romance is mysterious—no one can predict whether two strangers will meet and fall in love. But successful matchmakers possess a high level of emotional intelligence and intuition that guides them in their work. Winston, who made her first successful match when she was 16 years old, says she just has a natural sense of which people would be good together. “Matchmaking isn’t something that can be bought or taught,” she says. “I will meet someone and just know when they are a good match for one of my clients.”

3. THEY’RE PART THERAPIST/LIFE COACH.

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Matchmakers meet with clients, interview potential matches, dispense dating advice, and attend networking events. But some also perform background checks, administer personality testing, and build psychological profiles of their clients. The best combine a therapist’s listening skills and objective perspective with a life coach’s ability to motivate. Matchmakers may also interview their clients to determine why past relationships have failed, and help them formulate a strategy to achieve their relationship goals.

4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT NETWORKING.

The most successful matchmakers love people. Meeting people, listening and talking to them, and ultimately pairing them together excites and inspires them. In a Reddit AMA, three matchmakers at Three Day Rule explained that successful matchmakers are extroverts, and highly confident when approaching new people. “You really have to be able to walk up to anyone. We go up to people on the street all the time and say ‘Hey, are you single?’ so you have to be ok embarrassing yourself a bit,” they write.

Besides speaking with people they encounter in daily life, matchmakers may also rely on their networks of family and friends. “My mother is one of eight siblings and I have literally dozens of cousins who are well aware that there is a ‘yenta’ in the family. I tap into those resources, too!” Winston says.

5. THEY WISH PEOPLE WOULD BE WARY OF PHONY MATCHMAKERS.

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Although some reputable organizations offer courses and certifications in matchmaking, matchmakers don’t need any formal training to do their job. “Some [of these organizations] are legit, but others are just about the revenue,” says Jamie Rose, the founder and CEO of Rose Matchmaking. Similarly, some matchmaking companies are more about maximizing profit than helping people find love. Scammers who start these matchmaking businesses take advantage of desperate, lonely people looking for love.

So how to tell which businesses are legitimate? Watch for these red flags: matchmakers who won’t meet you in person, companies that have recently changed their name (perhaps to evade detection or create distance from angry former clients), sites that don’t have testimonials (or where the testimonials seem fake), and companies that have many negative user reviews.

6. OVERLY PICKY PEOPLE FRUSTRATE THEM.

Matchmakers get frustrated when clients have unrealistic expectations about love. “There is no such thing as a perfect match, and some people come in thinking that there may be,” Rose explains. Clients may also have emotional blocks that get in the way of finding love. “Some people say they want to get married but they don’t really want to,” Winston says. “They turn down every potential date for a ridiculous amount of petty and inconsequential reasons.”

Jennifer Hayes, the Director of Operations for South Carolina Matchmakers, adds that because bad relationships tend to harden people, matchmakers must encourage clients to keep their hearts and minds open to love. “One of the biggest hurdles we have as a matchmakers is encouraging clients to stay open to the possibilities of finding love,” she tells Mental Floss.

7. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BE BLUNT.

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When a date goes poorly, matchmakers must walk a fine line between being honest and being tactful. “My least favorite part would be telling one client that another client wasn’t interested in them,” Rose says. Although most people don’t enjoy getting rejected and hearing about their off-putting habits, it’s essential that matchmakers be blunt with their clients. By speaking the truth in a kind yet firm way, matchmakers can build a trusting, productive relationship with their clients.

8. DATING APPS CAN MAKE THEIR JOB HARDER …

Dating apps give people a huge number of potential matches at their fingertips, but most apps don't vet matches—and good results are not guaranteed. “[Dating apps] make things so impersonal,” Winston says. “[Users] are deleting really good people forever so easily in seconds with their fingertips. And scratching their heads [about] why they can’t meet anyone.”

In addition, many dating apps are free, while matchmakers charge for their services. Matchmakers say that free apps propagate the view that finding love shouldn't cost anything, and thus threaten matchmakers’ livelihood.

9. … BUT APPS CAN ALSO DRIVE CLIENTS TO THEM.

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While apps may be many people’s initial foray into the dating world, a disappointing experience can lead unsuccessful daters to a matchmaker. “Honestly I think [dating apps] impact [our industry] positively,” Rose says. “People who try those apps or sites see that they are about quantity not quality, and then they research better options and find me.” Winston adds that matchmakers slow down the online dating process. “People who come to me are sick of swiping, scrolling, sexting and texting, getting poked, and being ghosted. They are burnt out,” she says. “I bring back old-fashioned courtship and romance.”

Matchmakers also lend a human element that’s often lacking in online dating. "We know as matchmakers that setting people up requires knowing them to some extent, and knowing people requires time. Unlike online apps we get to know our clients and build relationships with them so we can effectively match them," Hayes says.

10. THEY MAKE CLIENTS LOOK THEIR BEST.

Visuals and first impressions play a huge role in dating, and good matchmakers help their clients improve their image. “You’d be surprised how many people come to me with terrible selfies to find love!” Winston exclaims. Because she owned a fashion photography agency, Winston stays connected to top photographers and hair and make-up artists, and she provides her clients with professional photo shoots. “I want my clients look their best while showing their authentic selves,” she says.

11. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE FIND TRUE LOVE.

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When matchmakers succeed in bringing two people together, they’re ecstatic. “I am joyful when my clients find joy in love. Especially when they immediately 'click'—I feel like I hit it out of the ballpark ... a homerun!” Winston says.

Rose adds that she enjoys changing people’s minds about each other. “I like when two people originally say no to one another, but you remind them of why they came to you. When that match works out you feel really good about it."

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12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers
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Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 4400 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. GETTING STRAPPED IN MIGHT BE THE MOST EXCITING PART OF THE RIDE.

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Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. THEY TEST COASTERS WITH WATER-FILLED DUMMIES.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly-trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. EVERY FOOT OF TRACK COSTS A LOT OF MONEY.

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There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON BROUGHT A LOT OF PEOPLE INTO THE BUSINESS.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. PAINT MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE IN SPEED.

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For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A COASTER’S SKYLINE IS KEY.

Brian Morrow, Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. SOME COASTERS ARRIVE AS GIANT MODEL KITS.

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Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. WOODEN COASTERS ARE WEATHER-SENSITIVE.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. THE TIME OF DAY CAN AFFECT THE RIDE EXPERIENCE.

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“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. DESIGNS CAN COME FROM UNUSUAL PLACES—LIKE JAY LENO’S CHIN.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. RIDERS ARE REALLY PERFORMERS.

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For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. THE FUTURE IS VERTICAL.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

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