Turns out getting to the top is faster on wheels.
And for Chris Thomas, a special set of wheels has brought him to be selected as the head Team Canada coach for the upcoming Roller Derby World Cup.
“Participating on the world stage at the highest level of roller derby is a little bit like going to the Olympics,” he says. “It’s very exciting to represent our country and the people that play here at the highest level, to help them compete on this big stage.”
With the help of two assistant coaches, Thomas will be overseeing a team made up of Canada’s best players. Although the official date of the Roller Derby World Cup has yet to be scheduled, it’s expected to take place in the coming years as teams around the globe begin to gear up in anticipation.
Known on the track as “Skimo”, Thomas is the current head coach of Terrace’s North Coast Nightmare roller derby team and also has a name for himself as a professional speed skater. He submitted an application to Team Canada originally for the assistant coach position and was surprised when he was contacted to head coach the team instead.
“The first step of organizing this is choosing the staff, and then we as the coaches will have to decide on our training program, plus choose athletes to be on the team,” Thomas explains. “In the past, there have been tryouts across the country coaches go to and they select the team from the tryouts.”
In the last world cup in 2018, Team Canada came in 3rd place and Thomas’ goal is to move higher up on that podium.
Before getting involved with roller derby though, he says his love for skating was realized at the age of 12 when his mother caught him self-timing himself on wheels, trying to break his own records. She noticed he had a natural ability for the sport and immediately signed Thomas up for speed skating, cheering him on ever since.
“I really enjoyed those competitions, pushing myself to be faster and do better than the other people. Speed skating is very straightforward, it’s just a race,” Thomas says. “I loved the thrill, it got my adrenaline up every time… I did that for about 10 years and won the BC provincial championships twice consecutively when I decided I was done and wanted to move on to do something else.”
In 2012, he moved to Terrace with his family and thought his skating days were behind him but before any dust settled on his roller shoes, word caught on about his speedy title.
And just like that, Thomas found another balancing act. Targeting “fresh meat” beginners, he taught those wobbling and scared how to fall and repetitively get up again.
Given his snazzy skills on the track, he naturally became an expert in helping players learn how to glide on skates with ease. Throughout the years, his expertise and enthusiasm for the game had teams all across the province requesting him to hold training sessions and to step in as a coach whenever they needed one.
“That’s been fun, I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be invited to coach a number of teams in B.C. as players who I have coached have moved away or gone places, which they have invited me to coach their new teams,” Thomas says. “I’ve even coached at RollerCon, which is a big roller derby convention that happens in Las Vegas every year with 1,500 to 2,000 athletes playing from around the world.”
As roller derby is predominantly played by women, he says that as a male he learned a lot about different gender issues from his team and saw incredible transformations as they gained confidence on skates.
Given the intensity of the sport that requires a high level of athleticism and discipline, many inhibited those lessons into their everyday lives and managed to overcome many personal difficulties such as alcoholism, self-esteem issues or even just being able to build their own identity separate from their family role.
“There’s something particularly special about roller derby being primarily about female athletes and it’s an opportunity that most sports don’t allow… it’s a very neat pioneering sport that really promotes female to step forward and make it their own,” he says.
“I’ve seen a lot of athletes come into roller derby and gain confidence in themselves that they have taken outside of roller derby and continue with other opportunities they didn’t have previously in their life… it’s very important for any person to be able to learn about themselves and take those skills away.”
Thomas says he especially gained a lot of respect and appreciation for women. He saw how busy some were trying to support other people in their lives and how until they joined the team, they had never made time for themselves or had a social group to connect with.
For him, they reminded him of his own mother growing up and how she would always put other people first.
“My mom is a pretty good example for that, she’s the one that started me with the sport and spent a lot of time continuing to support me, she spent a lot of time in her life living for other people, primarily her family,” Thomas reflects.
“She finally started doing things for herself once we were all grown up… I think that it would have been really nice for her to have those opportunities before but I think she didn’t feel like she could and I think that’s fairly common for women.”
With the good news still sinking in, Thomas says he’s simply astonished with the journey that roller derby has provided him and how many inspiring people he’s met on the track. For decades, the sport has been gaining popularity and serves as a platform to unite all walks of life.
Although the process of roller derby being incorporated into the Olympics may take a while, Thomas laughs he would love to coach that team as well in the future.
“Roller derby been changing dramatically since the early 2000s, it’s been really been cool to watch those changes over the last few years as more people get into the sport,” he says.
“Hopefully I can continue to stay involved for a long time.”