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Saturday 25 January 2020

Watch: Roller derby - the fastest growing women's sport in the world - hits Ireland hard

Behind the scenes: It looks brutal, but just what is it?

Action from the Dublin Roller Derby
Action from the Dublin Roller Derby
Action from the Dublin Roller Derby

Cillian Sherlock

VALDEMORT. Argie Bargie. Stabba. Bloody Harry. Ellie Beating. Destroy McClure. Maria Von Slapp. Lana Pain.

These are some of the surprising names of Ireland’s top roller derby athletes heading to the world play-offs for the first time this September.

Roller derby is the full contact, all action, fast paced and hard-hitting sport you may never have heard of – but it’s the fastest growing women’s sport in the world.

Two teams of five women on roller-skates battle it out with bruising hits at high speed in an effort to outscore their opponents. went to an unassuming community sports centre in Inchicore to learn more about the intense sport from Ireland’s first roller derby league, Dublin Roller Derby.

Squeaking rubber skate wheels and clattering knee and elbow pads against bodies and wooden floors echoed around the basketball court. It might have looked brutal if it wasn’t followed by laughter, cheers, applause and friendly embraces.

Action from the Dublin Roller Derby
Action from the Dublin Roller Derby

It’s a vigorous day of training ahead of the upcoming playoffs in Pittsburgh next weekend. The athletes are practicing short ‘jams’ at an intense rate which showcases the skill and strategy involved in the sport. caught up with some of the team during brief water and rest breaks to find out more.

“We work really hard. We train for what feels like a gazillion hours,” said Valentina ‘Valdemort’ Nicosia.

“Roller derby is awesome. It’s a full contact sport on skates. There’s no ball which seems to baffle many people and points are scored by lapping opposing players,” she added.

“I think roller derby tends to attract people who feel they're not mainstream, so to speak. Although, what is mainstream these days?” she said.

“On one hand, it has evolved to become a sport but on the other hand it has kept its culture of inclusiveness where people fit in. There's every walk of life here and everyone is welcome,” Val added.

“The best thing is the community: the competitiveness, the sisterhood - or brotherhood, the peoplehood! You find people here that are going to be your best friends forever, which is lovely. It’s a really nice environment,” she said.

Each roller derby team has five players on the track at one time consisting of one jammer and four blockers. Points are scored if the jammer successfully makes it around the track and laps the opposing team. Blockers attempt to stop the opposing jammer from lapping their team, while clearing a path for their own jammer.

Safety is paramount and the women are decked out in helmets, mouth guards, elbow, knee and wrist protection but accidents still happen and Val has previously broken her wrist.

“I broke my wrist, it was a freak accident. I just fell badly. It happens. Sometimes you lose your balance. It is a contact sport and we are on skates so safety is paramount. But it's like rugby and sometimes this happens,” Val said.

“I've come back, it was a bit of a struggle mentally because you're a little bit afraid but everyone here is super supportive and if you want it: you get back on skates.”

Roller derby can trace its routes back to 1930s America as a theatrical show sport. Although there are male and unisex teams, the modern revival of the sport is dominated by all-female amateur teams which play and practice all over the world.

The sport, associated with third wave feminism and LGBTQ culture, has empowered women of all walks of life, social backgrounds, sexual and gender identities to take part.

Along with this, the sport has been known for a punk, counter-culture or camp aesthetic involving garish colour schemes, tutus and fishnets, dyed hair and novelty makeup - but this is not necessarily the case in the modern game.

“There are little pockets of that but its slowly changing,” says Ashley Lowcock, “That's definitely how the sport started and how it got really popular but the more competitive people got the more it developed into a traditional sport. People started recognising it as something more than just being counter-culture.”

One noteworthy holdover, however, are the aforementioned derby names like Maria Von Slapp or Dirty Kneesloueez.

“Brewdoll E. Lowock is my terrible, terrible derby name," Ashley laughs. "Once you go through fresh meat and pick a name you're kind of stuck with it. It seemed like a good idea, a mix of three things that no one would understand and, yeah, that proved to be accurate."

Dublin Roller Derby has players from all over the world. Brewdoll, or Brew, started playing roller derby five years ago in Vancouver, Canada with the Terminal City Roller girls. She moved to Ireland three years ago. 

“I've always liked to play very fast sports. I played hockey in Canada - shocker. I had heard about roller derby through a friend and I just had that craving for team sport, competition, getting active, and doing something different,” she said.

The team has taken approximately 88 fights since 2011 to compete in international games. Some of the squad play for the Irish national team while Val plays for Italy and KT Rex plays for Poland.

The group have three travel teams and three home teams. The names of the home teams allude to popular Father Ted references: Eoin McShoves, Fuppin Baxtards and Whack Hacketts.

Dublin Roller Derby has over 90 members including referees, officials and volunteers. Their officials have officiated over 1000 roller derby matches.

Roller derby as an amateur sport has a very close-knit community and DIY feel.

“Everybody kind of depends on one and another because the organisation isn’t just like set up already. You have to actively be part of running it and making it run. You kind of depend on it a lot and it depends on you,” Brew added.

“I'm really excited for playoffs. Coming from a small island with not a lot of teams, we get a chance to go there and show the world what we can do,” she said.

Violent Bob or VB is the coach of the A-team and said the sport has seen a surge in popularity in recent years.

“Roller derby is the fastest growing women’s sport in the world right now. Its full contact, fast paced women on roller skates. It has all the contact you’d expect in rugby and ice-hockey but with this beautiful strategic twist to it where you're playing offence and defence at the same time.

“It’s often misunderstood but an absolutely incredible sport - there's nothing quite like it,” he said.

VB, real name Christopher Goggins, said Dublin Roller Derby was set up in October 2009 but since then there have been teams popping up in Cork, Belfast, Limerick and Greystones.

“In Ireland, it's been steadily growing. Off the top of my head there are maybe 9 leagues in Ireland,” he added.

Every year the top 52 roller derby teams in the world are invited to compete in international playoffs and Dublin Roller Derby is the first Irish team to qualify.

“It’s a testament to not only to our A-team but the whole league from top to bottom. It’s a huge step for Irish roller derby as well. To be the first and hopefully not the last is a massive step for us,” he said.

VB said the sport has turned a corner and is much more athletically based.

“I think back when we originally started I was quoted once as saying it was the sport for people who were picked last in PE. it very much did have that alternative, underground punk vibe to it,” he said.

“But as you see the sport turn a corner now and become a lot more athletically based we're starting to get recruits from all walks of life now - it's not just the people who were picked last in PE anymore,” headed.

He said they now have women on their team who’ve swam internationally for Ireland or played soccer and Gaelic sports.

Thea O’Riordan, from Dungarvan, said when she moved to Dublin she was looking to find the same sense of community she had at her home local GAA club.

“It’s not traditional. I’m from the country and I have a staunch GAA background. I first saw roller derby in Canada and when I moved back to Dublin I saw it advertised in Tallaght and I said ‘yes, I’ll have a go at that’,” she said.

“Coming from a GAA background it was always about the local club. I’m from Dungarvan which is a big club and I couldn’t leave that. I couldn’t find another club in Dublin so I said it was time for something new. Dublin Roller Derby is my new club, my new family,” she said.

Thea is the newest member of the A-team and the playoffs will be her first official match with the team.

"I’m a jammer. A jammer is the person who gathers the points that the team helps her score. It's a team effort but they're the ones who collect the points as such,” she added.

“I'm excited, I’m nervous, I’m all of the above. It's going to be great. It's an honour like,” she said.

Dublin Roller Derby recruits ‘fresh meat’ twice a year and are always encouraging new people to join in with the fun and community.

“Just give it a go. It's fun. It's a bit of craic,” Thea added. “You can take it as serious or not as serious as you want. If you're looking for something different to do in Dublin that has a bit of a social life as well. Definitely try it.”

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