The Positive talks to the stars of roller derby, the UK’s fastest growing female sport
There may be one almost exclusively female sport that appears to be thriving and gaining momentum in the UK: roller derby.
The prodigious growth of roller derby in Britain may come as a surprise to some. Originating in Chicago in the 1930s, however, roller derby already attracted more than five million spectators across America in the mid-1940s.There apparently was a roller derby renaissance at the start of the 21st century, with grassroots programmes and leagues run by women shaking off the elements of sideshow and functioning as a sport.
There are currently around 100 roller derby clubs in the UK and games, or ’bouts,’ often attract crowds of several hundred. Players are usually known by inventive pseudonyms or ‘skate names,’ which must be unique and are registered to prevent repetition. Teams have catchy monikers too.
Last November, top British club the London Rollergirls — whose travel teams are called London Brawling, Brawl Saints and Batter C Power — went to Berlin and were crowned European champions at the Track Queens Battle Royal competition.
It was an achievement for a young squad who came to the sport from a variety of backgrounds. “I’ve always been quite sporty… I had [eased] out of the habit and was just [far from attentive] at the gym. I was looking for a new challenge to keep fit and found roller derby. That was four years ago and I keep looking forward,” London Rollergirls player Shaolynn Scarlett tells The Positive.
“People tend to see roller derby as a spectacle or performance when we actually all work really hard in our spare time, along with training… also funding and organising it ourselves to compete at the highest level.”
For Scarlett and her team, success in Germany seemed to be a welcome reward for their efforts. “The tournament in Berlin was a promising display of how far roller derby has come in Europe and it was great to come out on top of that.”
Roller derby is certainly for the strong-willed. Skaters wear helmets, mouth guards, wrist and elbow supports and kneepads. It is a full contact sport. First-time spectators are often amazed at the physicality. However, it is also a very tactical game and requires quick thinking as well as power and pace. A bout sees two teams of five players — from a squad of 14 who come in and out of the game — skating around a track. Each side has a ‘jammer’ whose job is to aim and score points by lapping the opposition team. The rest of the team plays as ‘blockers’ and they try to prevent the jammer from getting past them while protecting their own side’s jammer.
A bout consists of two 30-minute halves of intense activity with each play or ‘jam’ lasting up to two minutes. The number of points a jammer scores is dependent on how many opposing players are passed. Physically, roller derby demands a high level of athleticism. “To make it onto the London Rollergirls’ travel team now you have to train like an athlete,” Rollergirl Olivia Coupe explains. “I’ve ditched my skate name and started focusing on my diet and exercise regime.”
Although its devotees stress that grassroots participation must be the priority for roller derby, the sport is becoming ever more professional. “I hope that roller derby continues to grow and becomes one of the most popular sports on the planet,” Rollergirl Raw Heidi enthuses. “I would like to see roller derby athletes considered in the same way as other sports and inclusion in international sporting competitions would be great too.”
There has been talk of roller derby becoming an Olympic sport within the next decade. “I would really like to see roller derby funded and recognised at the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics,” Shaolynn Scarlett says. “It’s one of the few sports where participation amongst women has increased year on year, and it really does attract women who would never normally consider playing a sport, creating positive role models.”
For anyone wanting to get involved in roller derby, there are teams across the country and watching a bout is the ideal way to get acquainted with the sport.
How might the rise of Roller Derby gain a new generation to become involved in sport?