Did you hate netball at school? Do you have fond memories of roller discos and more than a passing interest in glitter, face paint and leopard print? Then you might be about to discover your dream sport.
One of the fastest-growing sports in the world, roller derby is a high-speed, full-contact game played by teams of five on quad skates travelling around an oval track. It originated in the States, where it was initially known as much for its camp drama and theatrics as its athleticism.
Today, with proper rules in place, leagues are springing up around the globe – there’s even a call for it to be included in the 2020 Olympics.
So how does it work?
The aim of the game is for the jammer (identified by a star on her helmet) to get through a pack of blockers, picking up a point for every blocker from the opposing team she passes on her way round the track. It’s up to the blockers to stop the other team’s jammer getting by, through forming defensive walls and throwing hits (oh yes) with the hips and shoulders.
It’s a sport for women in love with adrenaline. Or who just want to try something different and exciting.
“You have to lose your fear – you have to be able to throw yourself on the floor and trust in your knee pads and elbow pads. But that’s one of the biggest attractions: it’s very liberating!”
If you suspect you’ve an inner rollergirl clamouring to get out, indulge her by going along to the next recruitment day – the ‘fresh meat ’n’ greet’, as it’s affectionately known by the team (check www.rollerbillies.com for dates). Cambridge’s team, the Rollerbillies, train at Kelsey Kerridge every Sunday and are one of the most well-established leagues in the East of England. They have skate names like Floozie Q and Betty Banshee, and at first glance look just a tiny bit intimidating – but I’m quick to discover that’s not the case at all.
Along with the other newbies, I’m handed a pair of skates (hello, 1993!), a helmet plus knee, elbow and wrist pads, then it’s time to learn the basics. I’ve just about found my balance, the voice in my head screaming ‘DON’T FALL OVER!’, when I’m instructed to hit the decks. Safely, onto my knees, that is (“think rock star power slide!” enthuses my teacher): still it doesn’t sound inviting, especially now I’m several inches higher and my wheels occasionally demonstrate a will of their own. And the floor looks very hard. Nonetheless, I drop and find that, as well as not hurting (duh, kneepads), it’s also quite fun.
Once we’re at one with falling over, we’re off; crouching low to the ground as we circle round the track like armoured cats on the prowl.
After the taster session, sweaty but thankfully bruiseless, I stay to watch the A and B teams practise. Lucy Welch, lacing up her red-and-gold boots beside me, has been skating for just over a year and points out the jammers, blockers and referees (you need more than one pair of eyes to keep watch on this rowdy bunch). A librarian by day, she turns into a demon on the track, going by the derby name ‘Diana Sprints’ – a play on Wonder Woman’s alter ego, Diana Prince.
“For me it’s a bit of a stress relief. I have a really busy life (she’s doing a Master’s too) so it’s nice coming here and letting rip by going really fast and having an awesome time. I’m a really competitive person. At school I liked sports, but girls weren’t encouraged to do the more aggressive sports: it was all netball when I wanted to do basketball. I went to this cricket open day once and I was literally the only girl there, so I never went back!”
It’s a very different story here. In roller derby, women don’t have to put up with playing second fiddle to the men’s team. “There is something called merby, which is the same sport but for men,” says Amy O’Leary, who’s been with the Rollerbillies for four years. “Not every club has a boys’ team though, and it’s nice in a way that this is a sport where the women are the principle team. It’s empowering, and it’s great to be part of an empowered team of women.
“Some people think we all wear fishnets and face paint and land on top of each other like WWF. There’s a bit of that,” she slyly admits, “but people are losing those preconceptions. It’s also really sociable, and I love that it’s a sport for all women, whether you’re big, small, short or tall.”
February Phillips joins us in a flourish of spinning wheels. One of the founding members of the Rollerbillies, she helped get the team together with a couple of friends in 2008 after watching the mighty London Rollergirls play. Starting out in a Cambridge warehouse (nicknamed The Spandex Palace), the league has been steadily growing – now totalling some eighty members.
Says Feb: “It looks aggressive but actually, generally, people out there are really calm. If you don’t control that aggression, you generally lose.” Over my shoulder, above the low rumble of wheels on wood, I hear a coach’s voice shout, “You can’t just skate around without knocking someone over!”. Hmm. I’m not convinced. Have any of them had any really nasty bangs?
“I’ve never broken anything, touch wood,” says Amy, “but I’ve twisted my ankle. I don’t think that’s any worse than any other sport. You have to lose your fear – you have to be able to throw yourself on the floor and trust in your knee pads and elbow pads. But that’s one of the biggest attractions: it’s very liberating! In what other sport do you get to do that?”