Derby days

Lianne Steinberg goes behind the scenes at roller derby to see why it’s becoming one of the most popular sports for women in the UK

If you’ve not seen or heard of roller derby in the past year then you mustn’t have been reading the papers, watching television or glanced upon the swanky Nike TV adverts. Even Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby have been introduced to the delights of the sport on This Morning. It’s possibly the most unlikely team game to hit the UK in a mainstream dominated by male sporting heroes and villains. But after watching a bout it’s easy to realise why the game is so addictive and entertaining.

More and more women have been taking up this adrenaline-fuelled contact sport

In the US, roller derby has been established since the 1920s but fell out of fashion until the early part of this century. And in the past five years, more and more women in the UK and Europe have been taking up this adrenaline-fuelled contact sport.

Forget the newfangled in-line skates – roller derby requires four-wheeled roller skates to allow players to propel themselves around a flat track in teams, while their jammer attempts to break through the opposing team’s pack and score points.

“It’s strange trying to get media interest in the team,” says Biertrix, one of the founding members of Manchester’s longest established roller derby team, Rainy City Roller Girls.

There’s plenty more to the sport than a punk aesthetic and an intimidating name

“If you email somebody and say we’d like someone to come down and do a feature on us, it’s actually a really difficult sport to explain and we always default to, well, it’s girls, skating, hitting each other while wearing fishnets and stripey socks. And then they’re interested.”

There’s plenty more to the sport than a punk aesthetic and choosing a cool but intimidating skater name for the back of your team shirt. Rainy City and their new second team Tender Hooligans train twice a week with the help of dedicated volunteer coaches. They organise bouts with teams from as far and wide as Ireland and Germany and even stage bootcamps with guest tuition from well-respected American skaters. Any newbie who has dreams of skating at a bout must become well acquainted with the extensive rule book and pass a skills test before they’re eligible for selection.

With many sports halls and councils holding open skating sessions for families on Saturday afternoons, roller-skating has always been a fun pastime but Biertrix’s experience highlights the progression of the sport.

“I started skating in the sports hall where we now hold our bouts in Bury on a Saturday afternoon with my son. But eventually I got bored of going round and round in circles and I wanted to do something more exciting. I have no rhythm so dance skating wasn’t on the cards for me. And then I saw some roller derby on TV one night,” she says, beaming.

“It was showing the roller derby nationals from 2008 in America and my immediate reaction was:
I want to know what that is; whether it’s in the UK; and how I can get involved. And so I did a lot of Googling and there was nothing for Manchester at all.

“There are many leagues around the country now but in 2008 the nearest one was Leeds Roller Girls and they were holding a bootcamp so I decided to go and learn and then set up my own league. I went on 1 August to the bootcamp and by 20 September I had 30 girls in a hall and we started our league. It was pretty intense!”

“It really appeals to girls who maybe weren’t so sporty at school.”

One of the catalysts for propelling roller derby into the lives of many women who wouldn’t normally consider themselves sporty or competitive was the 2009 Drew Barrymore film Whip It. Based on the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, it starred Ellen Page as a misfit teenager in a small town in Texas who came of age when she discovered the thrilling world of roller derby. Not only did it show how exciting and skilful (as well as a little bit violent) the sport is but it illustrated the camaraderie and self-confidence that being a roller girl offers.

“Women can’t start playing until they’re over 18 but if you’re in good health and have reasonable fitness levels you can get into it. It really appeals to girls who maybe weren’t so sporty at school and this offers an amazing time,” says Biertrix.

In February, the UK Roller Derby Association was officially recognised by the British Roller Sports Federation, highlighting just how far things have come in the past few years for the sport.

“It means we can access more funding and get more information out to other skaters in other disciplines,” says Biertrix. “At the moment, a lot of our marketing is viral and word of mouth. But it also gives us more credibility. We’d like to apply for community grants that recognise the amount of skill, ability, tactics and training that goes into it.”

With the growing interest and new links being forged amongst teams across the UK, Europe and America, Biertrix believes the future looks bright for the sport.

“One of the great things about Rainy City Roller Girls is that we aim high and we generally hit our target. There are about 52 teams in the UK and Rainy City are ranked in the top 10 – the last time I checked we were ranked fourth, so we’re doing all right,” she says proudly.

Rainy City Roller Girls and Tender Hooligans play London Rockin’ Rollers, 14 May, Castle Leisure Centre, Bury.

Photo: roller derby in Liverpool

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