The Chilliwack teen taking on the world of derby

Cleo Granneman-Mason was selected to represent Team Canada at the Junior Roller Derby World Championships in France. For Cleo, who has been playing the unusual sport since she was six, derby is an opportunity to learn, lead, and push herself.

By Grace Giesbrecht | January 13, 2023 |5:00 am

Cleopatra Granneman-Mason—CleoPassya to teammates—felt her phone buzz in the middle of her second-period textiles class.

The rosters for the national roller derby junior team had been announced that November morning and her teammates were chattering nervously in the team’s group text. Several of them had attended the gruelling tryouts alongside Cleo a month before.

“Who made the team?” They were asking. “Who’s going to the World Cup?”

16-year-old Cleo knew the email with the roster went to her mom’s address, and frantically found her at work. The email was waiting in her mom’s inbox. CleoPassya had made Team Canada. She was going to France.

Story continues below.

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Starting out

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

FVC: Do you prefer Cleo or Cleopatra?

CG: Either or, people usually call me Cleo.

FVC: And you have a roller derby name as well, right?

CG: It’s CleoPassya, yes. It’s a reference to me being fast and passing everybody.

Though plenty of athletes in various sports are nicknamed by their teammates, roller derby teams use derby names as a stand-in for a player’s legal name in many, if not all, official capacities. The Team Canada rosters were announced using derby names.

Roller derby names are a long tradition in the sport, and used in many official capacities. 📷 Team Canada Junior Roller Derby // Facebook
Funny, punny, and occasionally violent roller derby names are a long tradition in the sport, and used in many official capacities. 📷 Team Canada Junior Roller Derby // Facebook

FVC: When did you start playing roller derby? What did it feel like to learn?

CG: I started playing derby when I was six years old. That was 2012. I remember it was hard at first, especially because I was really small when I started. So my skates weighed a whole bunch compared to me. I used to skate up and down the alleyway where we used to live in Vancouver.

FVC: What was the first derby team that you joined? And who do you play with now?

CG: I originally joined Vancouver Junior Roller Derby. When I first started, I was there for the first ever practice of Vancouver Junior Roller Derby. I currently play with the Fraser Valley Fury, or the team that plays out of Chilliwack.

The Game

FVC: What’s your favourite position to play?

CG: Currently, my favourite position is the pivot. They’re usually observing and helping people figure out where they need to be on the track. It’s a form of blocker.

A blocker, she explains, blocks the jammer. The jammer is the skater who tears around the track, trying to score points by passing the members of the opposing team. A pivot, then, helps keep her team’s blockers in their most effective positions—similar to the way a setter in volleyball positions their team members for big hits. But instead of hitting balls, Granneman-Mason and her teammates are hitting other players. 

FVC: It’s also a pretty rough and tumble sport, right? Was that a draw for you when you started playing?

CG: Yeah, I found that really cool! Because part of derby is that you can be any shape and any size. And no matter what, you’ll usually find a way to be able to play the sport really well.

FVC: Why did you get into derby originally? And is that still the same reason you play today?

CG: I originally started playing because a family friend introduced me to it. She gave us a movie called Whip It. And that was the movie that got me to be, like, “this is a really cool sport.”

Currently, one of the main things is that I just want to see how far I can go with derby because I’ve been doing it for so long.

Crashing and learning

Many skaters start in New Skaters, is a program for players new to roller derby that helps skaters get steady on their wheels before playing the sport itself.

FVC: If you had any advice you could give to a six-year-old (or any age of person, really) that wanted to learn roller derby, what would you say?

CG: One of the things that I tell people most often is you, you can’t give up. Some skills may seem impossible when you get started for the first few times. And it’s really funny because I can completely relate to that. I was stuck in New Skaters, I wasn’t able to play—for a good two or three years when I first started, which is longer than most people spend in the New Skaters program.

One of the funniest parts of it to me, though, is the one skill that seemed impossible to me is a skill that I use the most today.

FVC: What skill is that?

CG: Transitions— going from forwards to backwards and back while rolling. Currently my main form of blocking is being backwards, facing the opposite team members. So I’m using my transitions a lot lately.

FVC: Have you ever had any bad crashes?

CG: Yeah, I’ve had a few bad ones! I’ve had concussions and I’ve sprained my ankle before. My most recent crash I hit pretty hard and got pretty bad whiplash. I also had a wrist injury that kept me off my skates for what? Two months?

FVC: Is there something that you take away from the injuries that come along with roller derby like this?

CG: Most of the time it’s just me trying to figure out what I did, and how to avoid it next time. How to improve my strength in that specific area.

Cleo has been playing roller derby since she was six years old. 📷 Submitted.
Cleo has been playing roller derby since she was six years old. 📷 Submitted.

A girl’s sport?

Concern for women’s participation compared to men’s is a theme in almost every other sport. Often, space must be actively carved (on fields and in budgets) for girls to play. Not in derby, Cleo said. Women still outnumber men in the sport, and teams reflect that. Canada is sending two teams to the Junior World Cup in France: one women’s team and one co-ed team. 

FVC: Derby also has a reputation as a women’s sport, or at least a very physical game where the rules don’t change depending on the gender of the players. Is that something that draws you to the sport?

CG: It was. It was definitely a draw when I was first joining. But currently on the national team, I’m on the co-ed team Canada.

FVC: It’s a sport that seems to have rules and gameplay unlike anything else out there. As someone who grew up playing it, what is knowing the system so well like? Is it hard to explain?

CG: It’s interesting, because currently I believe there’s been some changes in the rules, too. So I need to go and look at several changes throughout the game. I find that the rules and the roles are just different from other sports, and there isn’t anything that’s too close to it.

Teamwork

FVC: How important is teamwork to roller derby? And what was one of your team’s best moments?

CG: It’s 100% important. It’s almost impossible to properly play derby by yourself. You have to be working as a team for it to work as a sport.

I’d have to say it was three or four years ago, we were playing against Seattle Derby Brats They’re a really strong team and they had always beaten us. And that one game, we ended up beating them. And it was the best feeling ever. And I felt like we worked so well together as a team for us to win against the team that we had been like losing to for years.

FVC: How does it feel to head off to the world juniors without [your teammates]? Is anyone else from your team going?

It’s just me, currently. Some of my teammates are on the reserve team, but we’re not sure if they will be coming. It’s an even more amazing feeling to see that I got picked out of the entirety of BC. I was one of the three people from the entirety of British Columbia who got onto the team.

To get to France, and to team practices in Calgary and Toronto, Cleo and her family have set up a GoFundme to help pay for travel. 

Cleo is also selling t-shirts that she screen prints herself. Email tanya.granneman@gmail.com for more information.

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Grace Giesbrecht

Grace Giesbrecht is a reporter with the Fraser Valley Current

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