One of the most positive things to come out of the Olympic coverage was how much everyone enjoyed the women’s events. After years of being marginalised, finally women’s sport was being taken seriously. Buzzed by seeing Jessica Ennis and co rack up the golds, acres of press was devoted to how we wanted to see more women’s sport on TV. So what happened? Fuck all. Back to the status quo – men’s football, men’s rugby, men’s darts.
Which is why it’s so brilliant to discover roller derby, a sport predominantly played – and certainly dominated — by women. It’s inspiring a whole wave of girls to get involved, not least in Brighton where we have one of the best teams in the country. Yeah, really.
The Brighton Rockers might have only been in existence for a couple of years but they’ve only lost one match out of 13, with an extremely respectable scoreline of 177-180 against the London Rollergirls, the team ranked third in Europe. To give you an idea of how impressive that is, the game was played behind closed doors with no audience as it wasn’t thought to be a fair match. Thanks to their performance our girls are now placed in the top ten teams in the continent.
To get this good this quickly is amazing because it’s so complicated.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s gone to their first game and hasn’t said, ‘It was amazing but I didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on,’” admits Hairy Fairy.
Basically it goes something like this. There’s a jammer on each team that has to lap the pack of blockers. It’s the pack’s job to help their own jammer while slowing down the opposing jammer, as for every opposing blocker the jammers pass they get a point. So far, so simple, but the packs can’t be split by more than ten feet, which makes roller derby extremely tactile. The two minute jams are rarely a race and players have to be very aware of what’s going on to not pick up penalties. There are 40 pages of rules to abide by.
“You learn to skate, you learn to skate together, you learn to fall, a lot, and then hit each other,” explains Rose Bleed. “And then finally when you put it all together then you have to learn how to play.”
And when it comes to practice the girls put the time in, three two hour sessions every week. Because if you play roller derby badly it’s pretty dangerous.
“Even if you do it well it’s dangerous,” says Mistress Von Uber Vixen sagely. “It happens.”
“We’ve had a few broken legs, four in fact, and many broken ribs, fingers and wrists,” says Rose Bleed counting on as yet un-shattered digits.
In full flow roller derby looks pretty reckless, but actually everything is built in to make it as safe as possible. There are seven referees for a start. And it’s a penalty offence to take off any of your protective gear on the track, and most of it needs to remain even while you’re on the bench. There are very strict rules about how and where you can hit people. Those 40 pages are there precisely to make it safe.
When we went to a training session we excitedly thought that we’d get a chance to play a game but as Mistress Von Uber Vixen patiently took us through some of the core skills – which mostly involved falling without knocking our teeth out – it became clear that not only would we get our arses kicked in seconds, we’d actually be a liability on the track. It was no surprise to find that you don’t get to play until you’ve nailed the basics.
What was a surprise –as we tottered like Bambi on ice onto the track – was to see someone on the bench with a broken arm. Surely that had put her off, we asked naively. Not at all, she assured us, she was desperate to get skating again. The fact she was at practice with a broken limb gives you some idea of how hard the team members have been bitten by roller derby.
For example Chariot Sophia, the girl at the front of our cover shot, broke her ankle and had to have pins in it. When the operation to have the pins removed clashed with match day she had the surgery delayed so she could play first.
“That’s the kind of dedication we ask for,” says Hairy Fairy as they all laugh at the memory. “Even after training you come away with aches and pains. But I don’t think you ever expect to get properly hurt. We wouldn’t play it if we did.”
As exciting as it is to find a women’s sport that’s getting so much attention what makes roller derby even more special is the wide range of women that make up the game, in age, background and body shape. The latter is especially beneficial to the team.
“In the line up I’m quite big and known for blocking,” says The Mighty Mighty Bash, the original coach who only left her team, the respected London Rockin’ Rollers, to skate with her protégés once she’d got them up to scratch. “But I can be a jammer too because I can take hits. People won’t be able to force me out of bounds. Whereas Rose is really nippy and can get through little gaps.”
“The good thing about the body size issue,” adds Hairy Fairy, “is when someone joins you don’t say, ‘Oh no, a fat girl.’ You go, ‘I want that one, she’s going to be amazing.’ I’ve heard people that are bigger say that Bash inspires them because they didn’t know they’d be able to do a sport that fast. When you see her she’s one of the fastest people on the team and she’s so nimble.”
With the Brighton Rockers having sold out their last three home bouts, and clearly heading for even great success, they’re only going to become more inspiring. The new gang in town could kick your arse, but probably won’t, until you step on the track.