I was messing about on Twitter the other day when I noticed that I hadn’t completed the “Bio” section of my profile. Instead of a pithy definition of who (and what) I am, a seemingly vast expanse of white space stared at me from below my user name (@FluidDruid, since you ask), begging to be filled. The OCD kicked in; this simply would not do.
I opened up the settings page and scrolled down to the empty field (mentally congratulating Twitter for inviting me to use fewer, rather than less, than 160 characters), and with surprisingly little hesitation, typed “Software developer, music nut, roller derby fan and all-round nice guy.“. That would do. Not exactly Shakespeare, but it had a mixture of brevity and flippancy that seemed appropriate (this was Twitter, after all). It was only when I clicked on the Save button and saw it there in grey and white that I actually stopped to think about what I’d typed, to ask myself why I had chosen those three things to define me (if you’ll forgive the blithe “nice guy” embellishment as a bit of self-indulgence).
Software developer is easy. Its my career of choice, and something that I enjoy immensely. Besides, chosen or otherwise, a person’s career seems to be the accepted way of defining them (although more on that later). Music nut is also easy to explain; I can’t get enough of the stuff, spending almost all of my spare cash on CDs and gig tickets, but that’s a story for another time.
Roller derby fan, however, is bit harder. Why has something that I’ve only recently discovered apparently clicked with me to such a degree that I instinctively associate with it so strongly? And a sport, no less?
I should probably point out that for most of my life (at least, before I went to university), I actively disliked sport. I hated playing it at school; I seemed to lack the inherent skill or agility to achieve anything approaching competence in any of the pointless rituals we were asked to perform on weekly basis, and soon developed a series of effective methods for skipping PE class altogether.
I was never really interested in watching it either. Most people I knew were football (that is to say, soccer) fans, but the weekly matches never really held much interest for me. Beyond those, there wasn’t really much else to watch, thanks a combination of living in the middle of nowhere and only having access to the five terrestrial British TV channels, so in the end I mostly just gave watching sport a miss.
But back to roller derby. For the uninitiated, roller derby is a contact sport played on quad skates on an oval track, almost exclusively by women (though men’s leagues are starting to crop up). Each team fields four defensive players, called blockers, and one offensive player, the jammer, who is their point scorer. The jammers start side by side and skate anticlockwise around the track. Their goal is to try and pass the blockers, who are given a head start of 30 feet. Meanwhile, the blockers must skate together to form a pack, within which each team tries to clear a path for their jammer whilst cutting off their opponents’.
Once a jammer has fought their way through the pack, they then race around the track and try to get through the pack again, gaining one point for each member of the opposing team they overtake on these subsequent passes. This play, or jam, goes on for two minutes, or until the lead jammer (the jammer who was first to pass the pack initially) decides to call a halt for tactical reasons (e.g. because they notice that opposing team is about to score some points). Teams play as many jams as as will fit into two 30 minute periods (together making up the bout), and the team with the most points at the end wins. Simple.
OK, I admit that it’s not that simple. I’ve left out all but the most basic rules of the sport, and I imagine that I’ve not even explained those particularly well. Wikipedia does a much better job, and there are several good videos available, such as this one. However, hopefully you’ll understand that it is at least a very fast paced and exciting sport.
I’m not sure when I first became aware of it; I’ve always had an interest in American culture, and I reckon I must have read about the modern incarnation of roller derby pretty soon after it gained popularity in the early 2000s. I was back at school then, but being the self-proclaimed non-sporty type I guess I just dismissed it as an inconsequential game played by a few people south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Fast forward to 2010, and I’d just watched the excellent Whip It, the gateway drug of choice of the recent roller derby convert. I’d sought out the film based on its strong reviews, excellent cast and its setting (the portrayal of sleepy, almost melancholic Texan towns appealing to the Americophile in me), rather than because it was about a sport that I’d never really taken much notice of.
I loved the film, and being a bit of a film buff/nerd/bore (delete as appropriate), hit Wikipedia to find out more about the movie pretty much straight after the credits rolled. Clicking from link to link, I soon stumble upon a list of UK roller derby leagues, and seeing that there were a few nearby, bought tickets to the next bout; one of London Rollergirls‘ intra-league matches at Earl’s Court. I instantly became hooked.
Watching roller derby is a far cry from watching twenty-two millionaires trundle around a field for the ninety minutes of a football game. Jams are seriously fast, and since they’re limited to two minutes, the action never lets up. They can appear frenetic, but underneath the blur of weaving skaters (and in between between winces at some of the hits they take), each is a very different, tactical play.
Roller derby is not your average sport, but it doesn’t want to be. There’s a fun, punky vibe to everything from the skaters and referees, who adopt sardonic aliases, to the general attitude of the skaters, officials and fans. This translates into a fantastic atmosphere at the bouts (I’ve been to several of the London Rollergirls’ now, and watched many other leagues’ online); it’s more like that at a party or gig than a sporting event.
That’s not to say that the sport isn’t as serious, or competitive, as any other. It may look intimidating (and sometimes even violent) to newcomers, but spend any time at a bout and you’ll soon realise that roller derby is just as much about equality, sportsmanship and athleticism as it is about alternative culture. Overall though, it’s just great fun for everyone involved.
It’s also growing fast. There are currently hundreds of leagues worldwide, with dozens of bouts being played each week. What started out as a fairly underground sport now has a huge, and dedicated, worldwide following. Just last weekend, London Rollergirls hosted Anarchy In The UK, the first bouts sanctioned by WFTDA, one of the sport’s main governing bodies, to be held outside of the US. It was an amazing tournament (video proof here), and if the audience there was anything to go by (hundreds of very noisy fans from all over the UK, US, and Europe) it’s surely just a matter of time before such bouts become as common in the rest of the world as they are in the US.
As you can probably tell from the length of this blog post, for me there’s something infectious about roller derby. Everyone involved has a huge amount of enthusiasm and incredible talent. This is impressive in itself, but even more so when you realise that this is a grassroots sport. The players train, organise and promote the bouts, sell tickets, and raise funding themselves; not just to keep their leagues ticking over, but supporting charities to boot. All in their spare time. Remember what I said earlier about not being defined by your job?
See you at the next bout!