Throwback: That Time I Tried Out For Roller Derby

Long read: A personal account of my attempts to become a roller derby gal, written for and first published in The Advertiser’s SA Weekend magazine.


Bruises are expected and broken bones common, but behind the push and shove, stripy socks and ingenious stage names, roller derby is not what you might expect.

Photo: Greg Higgs for SA Weekend magazine.

The first fall is the hardest. That’s what they tell us, these fierce-looking girls on skates. They yell instructions that we – 115 wannabe roller derby girls – have to obey as we wheel around the room. “Learn to love the floor,” they bark at us. “The floor is your friend.”

It’s October 2009, and I’m at The Parks Community Centre for the first round of training with Adelaide Roller Derby. We’re racing around the track, seeing how many laps we can do in one minute. I’ve got this far without falling over, but then a girl next to me goes down, pulling me with her. I land on my side, the wind shoved out of me.

For a moment, everything stops. I feel like I’m 10 years old again, in the playground, about to scream at the lack of air in my lungs. Tears prick the corners of my eyes. Then a single thought comes into my head: Get back on your skates, you big wuss. I get up, keep skating, and there are cheers, my name being called. Me? Being cheered? In sport? Forget 10 years old; I feel 10-feet tall.

If you haven’t heard, roller derby is the hottest sport in town. It involves girls in fishnets and stripy socks battling it out as they skate around the track. It’s a full-contact sport, a bit like rugby on skates. Roller girls have scary names like D’Juana Fightme, Violent Crumble, Bride of Skatan and Ivana Shoverova. They fall down a lot but they don’t cry, complain or say sorry. However, they will show off their bruises (there are blogs devoted to them) and give you a running tally of their injuries. When they’re not on skates, they are mothers, students, lawyers, secretaries, business people. What unites them is their passion for this crazy game, and they want you to share it, too. Because more than the skating, more than the cute outfits, and even more than the competition, derby is about community.

“It doesn’t matter what we look like, who we are, what age we are, we can all be a part of this,” says the founder of the Adelaide Roller Derby League, Barrelhouse Bessy, 31, also known as Sarah Stronglaw. “Of course, you must like roller derby, you must want to learn how to skate, you must want to contribute in some way. But if you meet all those criteria, come on in.”

By day, Bessy who’s known affectionately in roller derby circles as Mama B, works at a radio station as an administrator. There’s no sign of her derby persona, though her Texas twang gives her away to the occasional fan. “There’s this image that all roller girls are tattooed and wear fishnets and have crazy hair. I’m the furthest from that reality; most of the time I’m a goofy little girl with glasses.”

Bessy moved to Adelaide from Austin, Texas, in 2006. Roller derby was reborn in her home town in 2001 by a group of women with a punk DIY ethos who set it up as a skater-run, all-girl sport and added a dash of retro pin-up glamour. It’s a far cry from the original roller derby, which began as an endurance test in Chicago in 1935, with two-person, co-ed teams skating 57,000 laps. Later that decade, it morphed into a team sport with body contact and scoring, grew in popularity in the 1950s when it was televised, and died out in the 1980s when it became overly stage-managed and lost its appeal.

With the help of a wannabe roller girl, Crazy Monkey, Bessy set about starting a flat-track league here (some overseas leagues play on a banked, or slanted, track), Bessy had definite ideas about what she wanted to create. “I wanted to set up the league as a community first, and that was something everyone really latched onto. I think Adelaide had been craving something like this; once people got to know it, they came out of the woodwork to support us.”

It was a slow start, as few Australians had heard of the sport. “I held an info night and 35 people showed up. I had my presentation ready, had booked trainers and a skating venue . . . then about 10 minutes into my talk, one girl put her hand up and asked: ‘What’s roller derby?’.”

It’s a Sunday afternoon in July at Wayville Showgrounds. Dreamy brides-to-be filter in and out of the Bridal Expo in the main hall, gazing curiously at the 2000-strong queue outside Jubilee Pavilion. The people are lining up to watch roller derby, with favourites the Road Train Rollers taking on the Salty Dolls for the right to play the Wild Hearses in the grand final. The league’s other team, the Mile Die Club, lost against the Wild Hearses at the previous bout. (The league also includes referee Team Zebra and the combined state team, The Adeladies.) As you’d expect, there’s lots of fishnets and short skirts, tattoos, and arm warmers. But many of the tatts aren’t real – they’re on little girls, who are dressed in team colours and holding sparkly banners sporting their favourite roller girl’s name.

Inside the hall, a rockabilly/blues band plays as people stake out their spots with blankets and chairs. The outer ring of the track may be known as the “suicide zone” but the kids head straight for it, hoping for a high five from a roller girl. Behind the crowd is a hot rod display; roller girls glide between fans, hawking merchandise.

There’s an undercurrent of excitement as everyone waits for the bout to begin. When it does, the crowd erupts in cheers, waving banners and flags. Not bad for a league that, a couple of years ago, could only scrape together 15 skaters to play against Victoria. As the teams come out onto the track, each player takes their turn to show off and ramp up the crowd. Bessy is on announcing duties with regular commentator Mr W.

The game begins: the pack, made up of five skaters from each team, lines up. Behind it is each team’s jammer. The whistle blows and the pack takes off, another whistle sees the jammers go after them. Their goal is to become lead jammer by beating each other through the pack, after which they earn points every time they pass a girl on the opposing team. The jam goes for 90 seconds, with the game played in two 30-minute halves. “Jammers are the superstars, they’re like quarterbacks,” says Road Train Rollers’ Blow-Up Betty, 26, a public servant sometimes known as Kim Dowling. She got into the sport while studying in England. “But for me, all the action is in the pack; for that minute and a half it’s intense, full on and fabulous.”

The teams are fierce rivals during the game but off-skates, they’re best of friends. “My team has become my family. I tell them more than I tell my own mother and sister,” says Lady Roll D’Mort (Jane Whaling), 23, a sales consultant for an internet company and blocker for the Road Train Rollers. She moved to Adelaide from NSW in 2006 and fell in love with derby. It has changed her life. “I’ve lost 30kg, my confidence has gone through the roof and I have female friends, which I didn’t before.”

“There’s a real sense of camaraderie between teams. We get to skate with our best friends three times a week,” adds Betty. “For me, that’s what it’s about.” 

Holga Von Lomo (Marcia Burgman), a 33-year-old dental assistant and umpire, agrees: “I didn’t know many people when I moved here from Victoria and I had never roller skated; it started out as a way to make female friends.”

This is the sense of community Bessy talks about, something she says not all leagues achieve. “People from the States are sometimes baffled because we all really like each other,” she says. Perhaps that trust comes from the fact that, to be a roller girl, you have to be nice. “It’s the opposite of what everyone thinks,” says Bessy. “But you have to be nice to handle the competition on the track and still be able to work together.” It’s part of the “run by the skaters, for the skaters” philosophy – everyone is on a committee or helps out behind the scenes, so getting along is vital.

As for other qualities a roller girl needs, there are no specifics. Players’ ages range from 18 to late 40s, though most are in their 30s. Some have a sports background, some don’t. All physiques are welcome: lean girls make good jammers, larger girls are ideal as blockers. “I was the short, fat, smart kid and no one wanted me on a team, especially as I abused the umpires,” says the Mile Die Club’s Dee Injuria (Denise Lux Bridges), 26, a lawyer. “But in roller derby, being short, solid and loud-mouthed is an advantage.”

You don’t have to be a great skater when you begin, as long as you’re prepared to fall down. “That is the hardest thing to teach people,” Bessy says. “They’ve spent their whole lives being upright, trying to have good posture and we tell them to slouch, get low, touch each other and fall down.” Guys are allowed, too, though only as referees. Then there are non-skating roles, from umpires to score keepers, announcers to general helpers.

Like many of the roller girls in their 30s, I skated as a child, spent countless afternoons at roller discos. It was an escape – I was a sick child, so team sports weren’t an option. Like Dee Injuria, I was always picked last for any team. But I could skate whenever I was well enough. Also, like many roller girls, in my teens I outgrew my skates and moved on.

Cut to February 2009: the ABC is screening Roller Derby Dolls, a documentary about the Brisbane league but which also includes the Adelaide league. I chance upon it, get goosebumps. A female-only sport on skates? Where you get to dress up and aggression is encouraged? I can’t Google it fast enough. Soon after, a friend and I go to an afternoon skating session at St Clair Recreation Centre. It has been more than 25 years since I’ve skated, but I don’t notice. I’m too busy falling in love all over again.

Loving skating is one thing, becoming a roller girl is another. First you’re “fresh meat”, learning general skating skills. Then you progress to “raw meat” and do derby-specific training. Only when you pass that level can you call yourself a derby girl (or guy, if you’re a referee). Even then, it can be many months of training before you get a game – if your skills aren’t up to scratch, you’re dangerous. (Go to a bout and chances are you’ll see derby chicks in leg casts and wheelchairs – and they know how to do it!)

The Adelaide league has a fresh meat intake once a year, and turns more girls away than it can absorb into teams. However, a new league, Murder City Roller Girls, started up this year. Founding member Hit Me Spears (Elle Cottam), 26, says the idea partly came from the Adelaide league, which could see there were many girls with nowhere to go. “They’re like a big sister, they’ve helped us a lot,” she says. Murder City’s first fresh meat intake was 40 people; the second was 50.

It’s March 2010, and that first intake is having a warm-up skate at Lefevre Community Centre. Since work commitments curtailed my training sessions with the Adelaide league teams, I’m here too. As well as my skates, I’m wearing knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, helmet and mouth guard. I am ready to roll. Some people wobble along uncertainly, others glide by doing jumps and skating backwards. I’m not that good, but I’m OK. We chat as we go, but no one asks about careers or families, just how long we’ve been skating. “The usual rules of what defines you as a woman are thrown out the window,” says Murder City founding member Jezebel Dandy (Danielle McAuliffe), a 39-year-old radiation therapist. “All they care about is what skates you’re wearing.”


Photo: Greg Higgs for SA Weekend magazine.

Over the next few weeks we learn T-stops and snow ploughs, leg cross-overs, sticky skating (keeping your feet on the floor), stomping from one foot to another without rolling, weaving between and around cones and skating on one leg. For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying my body for what it can do, and not caring about how it looks while I’m doing it. It’s a freeing experience, though I notice my body prefers “doing” skating to stomach crunches (believe me, you haven’t done stomach crunches until you’ve done them in full derby gear!).

I get outdoor wheels, skate on my local tennis court after work, go to weekend roller discos to weave between kids. I even wear my skates while doing the cleaning to improve my balance. When I can make it, I go to derby-run social skating sessions, weekly training sessions. I’m starting to see how derby can take over your life and I’m not even on a team yet. Then comes the fresh-meat test. I am not confident – I’ve never taken a sports test before, let alone passed one – but somehow I scrape through. I almost cry when they tell me. I feel like I’ve won Miss Universe.

When I tell people I’m a wannabe derby girl, the first thing they ask is what’s my derby name (no idea yet – got any suggestions?) and the second is when can they come cheer me on (when I get on a team). Bouting is the exciting part of derby, but for those on the inside of the sport, it’s just one small part. “Training is the core experience of derby,” says Jezebel.

“Bout day is like a wedding day: you get dressed up, get your make-up done and perform what you love in front of people you love. But you’ve got to live with the girls afterwards.”

The Murder City girls are in no hurry to start bouting, preferring to take their time to get everything right. For now, the new league’s goal is to find a permanent training venue, so they don’t have to move between community centres and school halls.

Raw meat training takes place in one of those community centres, just big enough to hold us. We learn new skills: pack skating, shoulder bumps, hip and arm whips, jumps and several types of falls. Jumping terrifies me, while pack skating is one of the most difficult yet joyous things I’ve done so far. I love the combination of working as a team and thinking of so many things that you forget your feet.

The biggest challenge for roller derby may not be keeping people involved, but ensuring the sport is sustainable. No one wants it to get too big too fast and then die. “There’s a push for it to be an Olympic sport within the next 10 years,” says Bessy. “Never in my wildest imagination would I have dreamed of that. To me, roller derby is a hobby, a way to have a community in a cool way. It’s exciting, it’s fun and it’s healthy.”

Roller derby has become a juggernaut. Three years ago there were three Australian leagues with two or three teams each: now there are more than 40. In SA, a co-ed kids’ league has started up and there’s talk of a social derby team. Globally, there are more than 500 leagues in 15 countries.

You never know who is doing it. That girl on the bus who winces if you accidentally bump her thigh, the girl who hobbles around the office the same day each week, that driver who weaves through traffic like she’s dodging skaters – they might just be derby chicks in daytime-disguise. All over town, stripy socks are being concealed beneath sensible suits, ready for after-work training, and when the kids are fed, mothers are putting on their skates and heading to the nearest car park for some extra practice. 

Because when they tell you the hardest part of derby is falling, they’re right, but not about falling down. It’s falling in love: with a new hobby, a new community, and that feeling of being free to be yourself, whoever that may be. I’m still only a wannabe roller girl, but just getting this far has been an adventure. Remember, if you can’t play nice, play roller derby.

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