It started as a fantasy crush. Just like my first dreams of the tanned and tight-shorted Andrew Ridgeley. It was 2009 and I was unaware of roller derby’s existence until I watched Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut ‘Whip It’. That’s when the crush started.
The women on screen were fearless, sassy and eye-linered to within an inch of their lives. They skated fast and hit hard to a backing track of indie classics: I was immediately hooked! After repeat viewings, I reluctantly accepted it was pure escapism and not the world for a cautious cardie-wearing primary school teacher.
Then six years later I chanced to read an article about the Leeds Roller Dolls, a team in my home city. And I started to I wonder if I could be involved with the sport in some way. Maybe to bring on the half-time oranges. Or wash the kit.
In my youth, I was never particularly sporty and I am not really a daring person. Plus, as a child, I broke my wrist roller-skating in my beautiful ‘Xanadu’-inspired white boots – complete with blue stars and red wheels.
However, in recent years I have become fitter and I do constantly seek out new ways to challenge myself. Having just climbed Ben Nevis…in the pitch black…I was up for my next mountain. So I bit the bullet and emailed the Leeds Roller Dolls recruitment.
When it came to my first night, I was petrified. The women were confidently dressed in big bright pants and many were covered in tattoos: I was jealous but impressed. They were whizzing round the track effortlessly, chatting and laughing. I felt like a complete imposter. But I didn’t turn round and flee. I walked towards the group, trying to look like I was meant to be there.
Skates on and padded up, I was casually told to join the warm up on track. They must have seen the beads of sweat dripping down my pale face, or the fact I had all the stability of Bambi on the ice, because they adjusted their tone to be a little warmer, to handle me with care.
Now, a couple of months on I am fully kitted out with boots, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards and mouthguard. ‘Bouts’, ‘hip whips’ and ‘jammers’ are part of my everyday vocabulary; and I have fallen, figuratively and literally, head over heels in love with this amazing sport.
Roller derby, according to many sources, is the fastest growing women’s sport in the UK, where there are approximately one hundred clubs. Bouts (games) attract many fans, who travel nationally and internationally to support their team. I couldn’t believe how many people were at the first one I attended: it was like an underground movement.
I am slowly getting to grips with the roller derby rules – which can be complex (see boxout) – and the strategies of the game. But there are always commentators to explain what is happening…over the loud music.
The game is intensely physical. The skaters train hard and have to pass minimum skills and rules tests in order to compete. I have already witnessed two serious injuries in my short time playing. However, it looks far more violent to spectators than it is. We spend hours learning how to give and receive hits and fall safely.
I play in the Wrecking Brawls recreational league, which trains at least twice a week, for five hours in total, and it is hard work. Recently I passed my safety skills which means I can now scrimmage (practise playing the game). On my first scrimmage as a blocker, I felt like the ‘Jaws’ music should be playing as the jammer got closer. My knees were knocking.
But I soon realised it is so fast and furious that you don’t have time to be scared. When the whistle went to call off the jam, I was ready to go again: it is so much fun! I cannot believe that you can be so scared and buzzing so much at the same time.
Passing my skills also meant I had to choose my number and name. Skaters have pseudonyms, which are often suggestive or mock aggressive puns, sometimes incorporating their own name. There is an international register, to ensure there is no repetition. The number can relate to your name and can incorporate letters, although this will soon change. Choosing my name was a real dilemma, as I will be stuck with it, and I really wanted it to represent me. I asked for suggestions on Facebook and settled on ‘Ecky Thump, to reflect my northern roots, and 212, which was my dialling code when I lived in New York.
I cannot say enough about this amazing sport (I have become a derby bore) and the brilliant people who compete. I was accepted from day one and made to feel totally welcome and part of the team. Every shape, colour and sexual persuasion is celebrated in derby and made to feel like they fit. As it becomes more professional, it is being taken more seriously and the less sporty members are getting fitter in order to keep up with the true athletes who compete in the higher-ranking teams. It is no longer seen as a show sport and is being considered for the 2020 Olympics.
If you want to get fit and are bored of the treadmill, or if you simply want to meet strong, supportive women and have fun at the same time, find your local team and join them, I cannot imagine life without it now.
- A bout (or game) is two thirty-minute halves
- Each half is split into jams, which can last up to two minutes
- In each jam, two teams of fourteen have five players on track at a time
- Four blockers attempt to stop the opposing jammer from skating past them and completing circuits of the track
- On the second lap, every opposing player a jammer passes earns them a point
- The blockers can use their bodies to block the jammer or knock them off the track – legally of course
Photo by Jason Ruffell, Roller Derby on Film