Roller derby: the tough-as-nails sport where women rule
It’s a freezing Saturday afternoon in London’s Earls Court. Though temperatures outside are close to zero, inside one of the district’s exhibition halls things are hotting up. Banging house music echoes round this popular venue, the crowd stirs but it’s two teams of roller skating women, the Cardiff’s Tiger Bar Brawlers and London’s Ultraviolent Femmes, sporting helmets and pads rather than the venue’s more expected musical fare, that enter the arena.
But this isn’t some cutesy roller disco. It’s roller derby, a fast paced full contact sport, played predominantly by women, where players bash into each other, all the while looping round an oval concrete track on roller skates. Believe it or not, it’s one of the fastest-growing women’s sport in the world, with the number of amateur leagues worldwide increasing tenfold over the last five years.
Despite the game’s physicality, there is also a ‘brain over brawn’ element to it, as Team England roller derby player Stefanie Mainey explains.
“Three years ago it was all about big hits,” Mainey says. “It was about taking people out and throwing them into the crowd. But now RD is much about controlling the players, funneling the opposing players where you want them to be. It’s actually a very tactical game.”
Historically, roller derby has seen a number of contrasting guises. Starting out as an endurance race in 1920s America, then morphing into a rather pappy form of TV entertainment later in the century, its modern ‘girl power’ form, fused with elements of feminism, punk and skater culture, only emerged in the early 2000s. The sport was immortalized in Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut ‘Whip it’.
Amy Ruffell (aka “Raw Heidi”), like many of the London Rollergirls, is an evangelist for her sport. A self-confessed member of the ‘slacker generation’, Ruffell surprised herself by her conversion to the sport.
“Until I played roller derby four years ago, I certainly thought I was too cool for sports – especially for what I would controversially call ‘boring’ sports like netball and tennis,” she says.
Now her involvement in the sport as player, coach and publicist meant it taking over her life to such an extent that she laughingly refers to it as a kind of cult.
But as the sport spreads it seems to be moving beyond its early 2000s ‘girl power’ phase. Following on from roller derby’s first World Cup in Toronto last December, Ruffell believes this year will be the sport’s “tipping point”. The emergence of the first professional teams and a spot in the 2020 Olympics is even being mooted.
Ultimately, the sport’s future lies with the fans, Ruffell admits. “The answer we get from them is why don’t other people know about roller derby, why is it such a secret? They might like being in that secret club for a bit but really how much more fun are they gonna have in five years’ time when it’s twice as big and they can say I was there in the beginning. People love that!”
What does it take to be a good player?
"A lot of time and commitment! Aside from the fitness, one key aspect is pattern recognition. When I’m watching other games I’m looking out for patterns – how the packs are forming – and then I’m trying to construct in my head a theory of how I can have an advantage over other teams. I’m thinking how can I lay my blockers out on the track which will drive their jammer into a place that I want her to be."
Have you had any grueling injuries?
"I dislocated my shoulder once after colliding with a table but other that that I’ve been fortunate. Injuries are something you’re always aware of but you can’t let it make you scared. Because as soon as you’re scared, that’s the thing that kills your passion for the sport."
How often do you train?
"On skates, 3-4 times a week for 2-3 hours at a time. Off skates, I’m training for one hour a week with strength training and plyometrics for explosive power [ like jump training for fast twitch muscles ]."
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