Sports Lifestyle Article: Roller Derby

Skate fast, turn left, go places

You get to be a bit of an expert on how to pack your gear into one back pack. You take your roller skates carry on, or you have a ‘strenuous disagreement’ with the lady who scanned your bag and tells you that you cant possibly take that kind of thing on board. If they get checked in you spend the whole flight stressing out. When you stumble off the plane a bit bleary eyed trying to spot the Roller Derby skater who is picking you up that you have never met but have no trouble recognising, you find yourself adjusting the weight on your back but never begrudging it. They’re your babies, your entry point into a parallel universe, and while you call them ‘skates’, you know they are more like an extension of your physical being.

Roller Derby has appeared in a variety of guises since it’s invention in the late 1930s. Originally construed as a race consisting of laps around a banked track covering the distance from the East to West coast of the United States, Leo Seltzer’s Transcontinental Roller Derby opened to a packed house of thousands at the Chicago Coliseum. Entrepreneurial Seltzer’s controversial multi racial team of male and female skaters went on to tour the country, but interest in the athletic spectacle began to wane. Sports writer Damon Runyon watched a race in Miami, and suggested Seltzer include more of the crowd pleasing collisions and team work. At first Seltzer resisted, but eventually by the start of the ’50s, Roller Derby as a full contact, point scoring game, rather than a race, was born. In its current incarnation Roller Derby is played mostly in skating rinks and sports centres with participants skating around an oval shaped race track known as a ‘flat track’. While there are a very small number of leagues utilising traditional banked tracks and some leagues with male skaters, in 2010 the vast majority of participants are women.

The sport has experienced surges in popularity, was widely televised through the ’50s and ’70s, spawned movies and books and went through various guises before it disappeared from television in the 1980s. Groups of veteran skaters kept the idea alive but never quite managed to recapture popular imagination. In 2001 a modern redux came out of the Texas, Arizona and California punk rock scene. Costumes, stage names and cat fights served up by punk rockers on roller skates made a package irresistible to fans and it wasn’t long before this new take on an old game developed a cult following. Somehow, out of that sweaty morass of bravado and insanity, a sport emerged. Roller Derby skaters started saying words like ‘plyometrics’ and investigating sports science. More time was spent on coaching and strategy. Skaters started travelling to compare notes, watch each other play, and spread the word. Leagues started springing up all over the United States. Rule sets were drawn up, procedures were created, tested and revised. In 2004 a group called the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), comprised of representatives from over thirty of the most experienced leagues, established an advisory governing body.

Under current WFTDA rules, Flat Track Roller Derby is played as follows: Two teams consisting of a maximum of fourteen players engage in two thirty minute periods of game play known as a ’bout’. Periods are further subdivided into a series two minute jams. For each jam, both teams send out a line up of five skaters consisting of a Jammer (the point scorer, signified with a star on her helmet), a Pivot (with a stripe on her helmet) who is a special class of Blocker, and three Blockers with unmarked helmets. Pivots and Blockers of both teams line up together and form The Pack. Jammers start thirty feet behind and must race to catch up and lap The Pack as many times as possible in the two minute jam, scoring a point for each opposing skater they manage to pass. The Blockers, under the direction of the Pivot, will use full contact ‘blocking’ and strategy to prevent the opposing Jammer from scoring, and to assist their own Jammer. Blocking can involve a variety of heavy hits delivered mostly with shoulders and hips, designed to knock down or send an opposing skater flying through the air into the crowd. Broken bones, fractures and soft tissue damage are considered likely outcomes. Roller Derby is simultaneously offensive and defensive, an aggressive game with complex strategy that includes a race, and for the uninitiated, it looks like 2 minutes in a human meat grinder.

Almost ten years on from that original group of women skating in Austin, Texas, there are now estimates of over 500 leagues. While mostly centred in the U.S., there are also leagues in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and recently, the United Arab Emirates. Leagues like the Rat City Rollergirls in Seattle sell out the 7000 seat Key Arena, a stadium that has also hosted Pearl Jam and Nirvana. The roller derby community is relatively small, with somewhere around 20,000 names on the database known as the ‘International Roster of Roller Derby Skaters’, but what makes it powerful is its networking capabilities and media savvy. Born into the internet era, Roller Derby is as much virtual as it is physical, and the networking allows a rapid transfer of information and develops a cohesiveness that transcends physical distances. The desire to learn and share information is a powerful motivator off line as well. Derby skaters travel vast distances to visit other leagues and attend tournaments and training camps. Picking up complete strangers from airports and bus stops and having them sleep on your couch is common place, and simply known as the ‘Derby Way’.

In the little over three years I’ve been skating I’ve slept on couches and spare beds in Melbourne, Adelaide, Geelong, Hobart, Canberra, Brisbane, Launceston, Ballarat, Perth, Townsville, London, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange County, Tucson, Seattle and San Diego. I long ago lost count of how many skaters have passed through the houses I’ve lived in. When I started training in 2007 I was in no way prepared for how the sport would completely change my life. My story is not incongruous with that of many other skaters. Some days it seems as though my life before Derby is a hazy blur, which may or may not have anything to do with a high speed collision, jaw first, into a wall a couple of years ago.

I was one of the founding five of the Victorian Roller Derby League. Awkward, uncoordinated and out of shape, I’d connected with Hidden Magenta, Toxic Judy and Cherry Rockette on myspace. Denim Destructor was a rink rat we’d met at the general sessions under the glittering mirror ball at Caribbean Rollerama. I couldn’t skate to save my life, now that I think about it. It certainly didn’t seem like that much of an issue then. We just somehow knew we could make a league and play a sport we’d only ever seen in blurry youtube clips, with a bunch of women we’d met on the internet five minutes ago. We had neither experience nor expertise, but somehow that didn’t matter then either. It would be a year later until we were actually playing the game. A year of working it out for ourselves or learning from skaters half a world away, a year of elation, frustration, broken bones and tears. Our first bout was titled ‘Love Hurts’. It didn’t matter which team won, we were in it as a league and everyone won when we finally pulled off this thing that we had worked towards for so long. Around 200 people saw us skate that day. Two years on and the Victorian Roller Derby League sells out its 1600 seat capacity venue in two hours.

In a short span of time we all learned to juggle our day jobs with our derby jobs. We became adept and efficient and worked out how to conceal the torrent of emails and the multitude of webpages open on our screens. All day we’d email back and forth devising and revising and agreeing and disagreeing, agreeing to disagree and starting all over again. I learned to negotiate, to make my opinion heard, to listen to the opinions of others. Before derby I thought I knew what that meant, but I had been wrong. I’d given in too easily, put my self second so many times, and thought it was somehow shameful to make any kind of fuss. Pretty soon it flowed out of derby and into my personal life. I started standing up for myself. Eventually I stood up and walked away from a relationship that was wrong for me. That summer was hard, but I ended up in Malice’s spare room, as did Nicotina and later Magenta and Berzerker, all of us casualties of relationships that had folded as we’d grown stronger together. The bonds we form as skaters; our Derby Love, has since been a saving grace in my life.

Physically, Roller Derby changes you quickly. It had been a while since I had played a sport, but it didn’t take long for all the exercise to have an effect. It wasn’t long before it seemed common place to wear tiny shorts and be more concerned with how much your hands stank after you took your wrist guards off then if you were dressed in anything remotely fashionable. I took to doing situps and pushups at work whenever possible, squats when using the printer and copiers, worrying about hydration and adequate carbohydrates. We pushed ourselves hard, but there seemed no alternative, everyone wanted to be skating all the time, everything else seemed like a cruel and unusual punishment. I stopped taking dance classes. I stopped painting and reading anything that wasn’t a Roller Derby rule book, Roller Derby message board or Roller Derby blog. I’d wear those tiny shorts and t-shirts we’d hand printed anytime I damn well felt like it. If anyone even looked twice I took it as an opportunity to start talking to them about Roller Derby. I was an evangelist, a PR machine, a walking derby encyclopaedia, I was a complete alien to anyone who had befriended me before I’d turned into a Fresh Meat derby girl.

Learning the blocking aspect was a transformation in itself. As a group we were initially wary of it, it was definitely outside of the realm of experience for the majority of us brought up to be polite and non confrontational. We started off skates in a circus training space in Fitzroy, Melbourne, shoulder to shoulder on the blue gym mats, tentatively bumping into each other, often reflexively saying ‘I’m sorry!’. These days I can stand back and watch a Fresh Meat blocking class, and you can almost pick the moment that the change occurs, and you watch someone understand in that moment that you’re supposed to do this. That you’re not sorry. That you want to knock that person down. That you’re doing it to protect your own Jammer, to assist her through the pack, or for the sheer enjoyment of that bone crunching thump and for the thumbs up and big smile you often get from the skater you’ve just bulldozed. All those bruises we give each other are signs of our Derby Love. We show respect to each other by hitting without holding back, signalling we know the other is strong enough to handle it and that we hope it will be returned. It’s not intended to be malicious or violent, it’s simply part of the game. A part we not so secretly cherish.

It’s highly addictive. If you have to ask why, it’s possibly not for you. There are a certain few, even if they’ve never encountered a contact sport before, even if they’re mild mannered library types, who will look at the seemingly chaotic maelstrom of limbs and skates in the pack and see the heroism of jamming and the sacrifice of being a blocker, and just know. Know that they somehow have to be a part of it. Know that it’s going to be hard, and that they’re going to get hurt, but still want it enough to put in the hours of gruelling training and endure the emotional roller coaster of being part of a league of headstrong, determined and spirited people. These women can see how long the journey is, and with the same mix of bravado and open mindedness, take off on the first whistle blast on the same long trajectory we went on. They’re the ones who’ll have their lives transformed and wake up one morning on a couch in a foreign city surrounded by strangers who she knows that she shares a special, immutable bond with. They’re the kinds of women who become roller derby girls.

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