Get your skates on
Newbies may start out like bambi, but they're soon up to speed with a punk-girl persona to match. Tanya Sweeney finds out why roller derby is the perfect team sport for women
As sports go, few can surpass roller derby for pure 'riot girl' factor. In equal parts it is riotous, athletic and strategic, it's a contact sport that's as sisterly as it can be physically demanding.
And, at a time where British minister for sport Helen Grant has encouraged women to take up 'feminine' sports like roller-skating and cheerleading, roller derby is a refreshing palate cleanser for women on the lookout for a team sport.
Few sports encourage participants to actively take on a punk-girl persona, but choosing a kick-ass alias is all part of the fun in roller derby. The Team Ireland training roster is made up of players with names like Bloody Harry, Belle For Leather, Katniss Evermean, Malibruise Stacey and Dashing Trudy Snow.
"As you can probably tell, we really love talking about it," says Ellie Beating of the Dublin Roller Derby team. "My name is a take on my grandmother's name, Ellie Keating.
"It's a total sisterhood thing, but there's something quite sexy about the sport too," she adds. "It brings out the energy and power from people, and the happiest people I know are the ones that are confident in themselves."
Despite the menacing-sounding alter egos, roller derby is certainly one of the most inclusive sports out there. Though the Irish teams are tight-knit, there is always room for what is termed 'fresh meat'. Many have been inspired to take action by Hollywood movies such as Whip It, while others have heard great things about the sport through girlfriends.
"Girls turn up on their first day and they're a bit like Bambi, unable to even stand on the skates," says Ellie. "Most of them have never skated before, but within a few weeks they've come out of their shells, and after five or six weeks they're really hitting their stride."
In terms of age, body shape and fitness levels, the mix of curious newcomers runs the proverbial gamut, too. "The youngest girl is 18, but we also have a family of two daughters and their mum involved. At 27, I'm one of the youngest skaters. Most people come into roller derby a little later on, in their thirties." Though most roller derby participants have never done a sport before, Ellie had swam competitively with the Terenure College until she was 20. Like many lapsed sportspeople, she stopped being active (while still eating an athlete's diet), and gained weight.
"I really lost the run of myself, and I really struggled with my mental health and weight," she recalls. "It was a couple of years before my portions dropped down to normal, but I put on eight stone when I stopped swimming.
"The problem was that I didn't have an auxiliary interest in sport. All the lads I swam with had a hard time after they stopped swimming, too, but they filtered into other social/sport avenues. I didn't have that."
Miserable and bored with the gym, Ellie decided that a team sport might be the answer. At the behest of friends, she gave roller derby a try. "I was really unfit when I started but it wasn't long before I caught the bug. Three years later, I'd lost five of the eight stone I gained. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I don't take it seriously as I had done with the swimming, but the physical benefits are still huge – core strength, stability and balance."
Essentially, the sport is played by two teams of five members skating in the same direction around a track. Game play consists of a series of short matchups (jams) in which both teams designate a scoring player (the jammer) who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to assist their own jammer while hindering the opposing jammer – in effect, playing both offence and defence simultaneously. And, according to Ellie, it takes quite a while for most players to get the hang of the game's many rules.
'It can get quite heavy on the back as we skate in the 'derby stance', which is like a hover-y squat," explains Ellie. "You do end up developing a lot of flexibility. Most people who try it are really surprised at how physically demanding it is. When I started, I never sweated so much."
It being a highly kinetic contact sport, roller derby women run the risk of coming a cropper on the track. "We get a lot of broken ankles and accidental falling, but we're big into trying to prevent injuries.
"With the fresh meat, we leave some of the skills out until they're more confident or have built up their ankle strength. People always say, 'God, you'll break every bone in your body doing that' but, to be honest, I've hurt myself more walking around my own house."
As it stands, the Irish roller derby league is made up of teams in Dublin, Belfast, Limerick, Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, Wicklow and Galway. The Irish Roller Derby Association is responsible for Team Ireland Roller Derby, and teams regularly end up in bouts across the world. "We're off to Stuttgart in May and Paris in October, and then we have the Paris Roller Girls over soon.
"Team Ireland are also heading to Dallas for the Roller Derby World Cup later in the year. . . we're insanely excited about that.
"The sport is now in its infancy, especially here in Ireland, and for now our motto is that it's run by the skaters, for the skaters. Whatever happens to the sport in the future, you can be sure we'll be involved and we'll be doing our best."
For more information, see www.dublinroller derby.com, or for teams nationwide, see www.facebook.com/irishrollerderby