A bit of context: I started roller derby 2 years ago in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. I have since moved to Middlesbrough, just over a year ago, and broke my leg at a skate practice in January, have been “off-skates” ever since. If you want to know more about how the sport itself works, look here.
Roller derby is punk – it is counterculture. It is women of all shapes and sizes getting together and making something for themselves, and not subscribing to conventional ideas of what a “good” woman is. And that makes it radical. It is women being muscular, aggressive, and hitting each other. It is women being tactical, working together in a team and not being bothered about what their teammates look like but what they can do. Roller derby bouts are fun, noisy events. They have suicide seats (sitting on the floor close to the track, with a real risk of ending up with a roller girl in your lap), fast food, stalls for independent local businesses, half-time entertainments. They are (in Britain at least) a very different way of doing sport.
When I first started roller derby, it was at a kind of difficult time in my life. I’d been recently diagnosed with depression, and having a community and regular exercise to go to was pretty therapeutic for me. I loved the friendliness of my local team (Newcastle Roller Girls) and the league was growing pretty fast at the time so it was all very exciting.
Roller derby is a growing sport. It is a grassroots, bottom up movement that is made by the people who build the leagues, go to the practices, organise bouts themselves, etc. Each league needs a mix of people – not just the top athletes who want to be the best skaters in the world, but the people who have good coaching skills, who welcome new players, who can design posters/flyers, who know how to handle money, etc.
Some players wish that roller derby were taken more “seriously”. They want to get rid of “boutfits” and instead have uniforms. The don’t want to have punning bout names (Block to the Future, Crouching Blocker Hidden Jammer, Sweet Home Alajammer) and instead give the bouts numbers. This is not the roller derby I signed up for! I LOVE that roller derby is a radical, grassroots sport organised by women for women. I do not need roller derby to be “sanitised” so that the mainstream will “take it seriously”. Roller derby is the first ever sport that I’ve actually felt interested in playing/following, precisely BECAUSE it is a fun sport, because it isn’t snobby, because it welcomes with open arms women of all shapes, sizes and socio-economic backgrounds. Individuals get to express their skate persona through their name, number, makeup and outfit. I’m all for people being able to express themselves by not having a skate persona, not wearing makeup, not wearing fishnets or a tutu, etc, but some people in roller derby want to get rid of what, in my opinion, makes roller derby great.
I have read articles by people who did give everything to their league – spent all their time on it, thought about skating 24/7, and after a few years had a bit of a shock when they looked around and realised that they’d been neglecting everything else in their life. I don’t want roller derby to be a sport which makes people do that. I want it to be a sport which improves people, physically and mentally. And I think that in order to do so it has to be a sport which doesn’t eat people up and spit them out, but which nurtures. I’ve seen people stop skating altogether because they couldn’t come to every single practice, they couldn’t give as much as some of the other people in the league, due to things like having kids, or a job that goes in shifts. This is sad because, although they might not have the time to become the best skater in their league, they still had something to give and I think the league was worse off without them. There is a danger of having a culture in roller derby that makes people burn out, and that isn’t good for the people involved, for their leagues, for the sport in general.
Right now I have a lot of things going on in my life – trying to get through my training at work, working a shift pattern, looking after myself and my cats, trying to have a social life in Middlesbrough, and my mental health has not been great. My leg isn’t broken any more, but it isn’t anywhere near back to normal. I can’t give as much to my local league as I would like, and my local league is currently one of the ones trying to make roller derby ‘serious’. So for now, I’m hanging up my boots, and hoping for a time when I can give my best to a league which has the kind of community and values that first brought me to the sport.