Australian roller derby: wheels of change

Meet the determined men and women of roller derby, who are skating for strength and identity.
By Amy Russell October 31, 2012 Reading Time: 8 Minutes

THE SCENE PLAYS OUT in front of me as if in slow motion, and I can see the accident coming before 891 hits the ground. I want to yell out over the shrill whistles of the referees and the noise of the crowd, and warn number 9 to get out of the way. But it’s too late. Despite her best efforts to avoid it, 891 falls fast and hard; her knee collides with 9’s shin and they topple like a tower of cards, forming a mound of limbs on the cold concrete floor. 

For a moment the bout continues, until the other players notice there are two women down. Number 9 lies still. She’s breathing heavily, her chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm, and she raises a shaky hand to wipe her brow. Players and referees swarm around, obscuring the injured women from the crowd.

Someone from the pack calls for the paramedics, stationed on the other side of the track. They infiltrate the huddle to assess the damage; 9 is loaded onto a gurney while rumours of a broken leg filter through the crowd. As she’s wheeled towards the mouth of the stadium, she passes by AG photographer Dean Saffron, and I hear her bellow: “Make sure you’re capturing this!” I notice her feet before they disappear through the doors – they’re still adorned with her skates, the wheels of which are slowly spinning.

Roller derby grassroots

THERE’S SOMETHING POWERFUL brewing in our cities, in suburbia and our country towns. Day by day it grows stronger and its rhythm picks up speed, feeding out into the wider community and luring unsuspecting victims into its fold. It targets outcasts, lost souls, the lonely and those simply seeking a new purpose: they are attracted to this cultural phenomenon like strays making their way home. The force is roller derby. And, with more than 70 new Australian ‘flat-track’ leagues created in just five years, it’s one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports.

The game is just as it’s hyped to be – fierce, fast and fiery – but it’s also surprisingly tactical and requires a high level of fitness and finely honed skills. It’s also played predominantly by women. In Queensland, the Brisbane City Rollers (BCR), whom Dean and I have travelled to Ipswich to meet, is one of only a few leagues with both male and female teams.
As we’d entered the Ipswich Showground’s deserted parking lot, about 45km west of Brisbane, earlier today, there was scarcely a sign of the sport that is running rampant in Queensland; since 2007, when the state’s first league, the Sun State Roller Girls, was established, more than 20 others have set down their roots and recruited members, players and volunteers.

Muffled shouts emanating from the hangar-sized shed to the left of the lot beckoned Dean and me to follow, and, upon entering the arena, we were met with a hive of activity that indicated the Open Season Round 4 bouts were well underway. A welcome desk at the entrance sold tickets to queuing spectators, and barbeques and merchandise tables were being erected in one corner. A captivated crowd sat cross-legged on the floor. These spectators encircled a masking tape-defined track, in the middle of which women on roller skates chased each other in circles and violently barged opposing skaters out of the way.

Their fancy footwear was the first thing I noticed, the second was the speed and ease with which they moved. And the third? How hard they smacked into one another. They can be “terrifying”, roller derby photographer Storm Jury, 34, says of the skaters, as he joins me trackside after 9’s accident. “I wouldn’t get on skates and go out there… I’d be killed. Their athleticism is astounding.” Having photographed almost every Australian league since he fell in love with the sport in 2009, Storm is a celebrity figure in Australia’s derby community. Dressed in tight, leopard-print jeans, with his long, purple-streaked hair pulled back in a ponytail, he blends in seamlessly with the motley crew I’m here to meet.

The BCR Devotchkas are wearing orange and black, their uniforms a jumble of fishnet stockings and hot pants. Some are sporting brightly dyed hair teased into elaborate styles; most wear striking makeup, and I see more tattooed bodies than ‘cleanskins’. “When you’re new to derby you think all it’s going to be is lots of girls with tattoos and funky haircuts,” says Brad ‘Entropy’ Marsh, an IT consultant for Fujitsu, head referee for BCR and one of the six founding members of the league. “But it’s actually a bunch of women of all ages who want to play sport.”

At Christmas time in 2008, this lanky, articulate 35-year-old, his partner, Aliya Hutchison, 29, and four of their friends sat at a backyard table and talked of creating something different – a league of their own. “We were looking for something inclusive – a friendly, easygoing league where people could just…play.”

Today, the BCR has roughly 150 members – including players, trainees, referees and non-skating officials – and, like all Australian leagues, it is self-run and self-funded.
“The first few months were nightmarish,” says Brad. “We had to try and find places to train before we had enough skaters to [be able to] afford it, and we were funding the entire operation out of our own pockets.”

Almost four years on, the lack of available, derby-appropriate venues is still the biggest threat to the future of the league; they’re often denied access to sport centres for fear they will cause damage, and are forced to travel out of Brisbane to places such as Ipswich. “I’d like to see us get some funding and a real roller derby venue we can call our own,” he says.

Roller derby: alternate personalities 

ELEANOR SWIATEK, 40, relaxes on her sunny back porch with her sons, Zane, 7, and Riley, 5. Her backyard is carpeted with a lush, green lawn, littered with doggy chews and kids’ toys. The walls of her home – a tidy, four-bedroom bungalow in the Logan City suburb of Daisy Hill – are decorated with family photographs, and her sons’ and husband’s karate certificates.

It’s the picture of suburban normality, but all is not as it seems. Eleanor has a secret: 2-3 times a week, she drives almost an hour to Ipswich, and it is here that she transforms. As a member of the BCR Bomb Squad, Eleanor becomes her alter ego: ‘Hell ‘n Awe’.

Deeply ingrained in the foundations of roller derby are the concepts of escapism and reinvention. From as early as the 1930s, when promoter Leo Selzter first held endurance ‘roller races’ in Chicago, USA, skaters created characters to roll out on the track. This tradition continued as Leo, working with author Damon Runyon, moulded the game into a contact sport, after noticing spectators hit fever pitch when skaters collided.

Derby’s popularity skyrocketed in the USA in the ’40s and ’50s, drawing huge crowds who revelled in the performances of the aggressive, loud-mouthed female players, dressed in outlandish uniforms inspired by the rockabilly scene. Throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, banked-track (sloped) leagues toured the country until it became too costly and the sport died out from lack of funds.

Derby was revived in Austin, Texas, in 2001 with the creation of the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, and is now played in more than 35 countries around the world. Today, as flat-track leagues continue to crop up around Australia, roller derby is less of a circus, and is blossoming into a serious sport. But remnants of the spectacle and rockabilly aesthetic linger: new league members create a fierce derby name and a number, and log them with an international register. And, before stepping onto the track, most players still shed their everyday skins – their professional and personal personas – and slip into a pair of fishnets, or the like.

Both of Eleanor’s sons were diagnosed with autism at an early age and it was through an autistic support network that she heard about roller derby. “The experienced skaters were like gods to us. All I could think as I watched them skate was, ‘I wish I could do that,'” she says. Having played for just over a year and a half, Eleanor likens the sport to therapy – it’s something just for her, and it defines her outside of her family. “I’m not the mum of two autistic kids on the track; I’m Hell ‘n Awe,” she says.

“We attract women who are facing challenges in their lives,” says Stephen ‘Dr Roadkill’ Potts, 44, a sewing-machine technician from the Sunshine Coast, and the human resources manager for BCR. With his reading glasses, tidy beard, and nondescript T-shirt and jeans, he bears none of the branding of the derby scene. But, he assures me that while he mightn’t look “unconventional”, this is the first place he’s felt he really belongs.

“We’re open to everybody and we have a big mix of people… This sport calls to the fringes of society, an alternative crowd,” he says. And it’s this ‘open-door’ policy that has fostered the BCR’s microcosm of misfits – a community where oddities are revered. “It’s a nurturing environment. When these women feel they fit in, they can express themselves and work as a team,” says Stephen.

The fact that you must be strong and fit to play is just another drawcard, says 35-year-old mother of two Chantal ‘Typsy Gypsy’ Meadlarkin, as we sit trackside with her five-year-old daughter, Leonie, during a bout. “I signed up because one of my daughters made a comment that Daddy was a lot stronger than Mummy. I wanted to show her that wasn’t true.”

With slogans such as, “If you can’t play nice, play derby,” the roughness of the sport really appeals to headstrong, alpha women, says Stephen. They’re often the types who haven’t had many female friends, and then, upon joining a league, suddenly find themselves ensconced in a close-knit sorority. After taking a name and a number, new players also take a derby ‘wife’ – a fellow skater they connect with who’ll offer support and encouragement when the woes of the track take their toll. The skaters train, bout and socialise together, and it is this family dynamic that retains members long after the lustre of the rockabilly garb has faded.

“We’re a really tight group,” says Miranda ‘XL’ Frare, 25, a head coach for BCR who played for the Australian Roller Derby Team at the 2011 World Cup in Toronto, Canada. Her shop, Skate Salvage, in Brisbane’s suburb of Rocklea, is Australia’s only specialised roller derby store. Stationed inconspicuously on busy Beaudesert Road, it sells an eclectic mix of skates, protective gear and spangled costumes. Cross the threshold into the back room and you’ll discover a theatre space – decorated with derby posters, mismatched couches, a screen and a projector – where local leagues can watch their bouts or international games.

“During the Brisbane floods in January the house I was living in flooded,” voluptuous, raven-haired Miranda tells me, as she attends to online orders from behind the shop counter. “The house I moved into after was organised through a derby skater. Another skater organised people to bring furniture, sheets, everything I needed… I would have felt lost without that help.”

Roller derby not for the feint-hearted 

I’M FEARFUL AS I LET GO OF Nardine’s hand. Strapped into a pair of borrowed skates, my feet are not my own, and I wobble precariously as I attempt to glide forward. “Derby stance is low and wide,” says Nardine ‘Narsty’ Smith, a 42-year-old graphic designer and vice-captain of the Bomb Squad. “Position yourself in an eternal squat, and engage your core.”

It’s Sunday afternoon in Ipswich and Nardine and her partner, Renee ‘Ace Vegas’ Strange, 29, are teaching me to skate as BCR training sessions explode around us in the shed. I’ve learnt how to “fall small”, onto padded knees and elbows, with my arms tucked in close to my body so my fingers aren’t shredded by passing skaters, and my schooling has been fast-tracked to include ‘whips’. I skate up to Nardine and pull off her hip with my hands – a ‘hip whip’ – and I ‘steal’ her motion and propel myself forward. With my stolen speed I skate in wide, glorious circles, and the rush of adrenaline makes me giddy.

Training for new skaters is intensive – it can take up to a year until they’re ready to bout – and, once they’ve qualified, they’re subjected to regular testing. “I failed the most recent round,” says Debbie ‘Ratty Roadkill’ Armfield, 49, as she sits beside me at the edge of the track after my skate. Today, Debbie wears a purple wig; yesterday it was blue. Her nose is pierced and she’s rocking a pair of heels. She proudly tells me she’s one of the oldest BCR members. “But I can’t skate until I’m reassessed. I’m pretty peeved.”

This is all part of what makes derby a legitimate sport, says Carly Lucas, an athletic, 20-year-old arts student with a blond, pixie-cut mop and a makeup-free face. She’s the only player I’ve met who uses her real name on the track; she doesn’t connect with the dramatic derby the public is familiar with. Carly’s a member of the new wave of skaters who want to see the sport go all the way. “I’d love to play for an Australian roller derby team in the Olympics one day. And the next World Cup team,” she says.

It remains to be seen whether this evolving, sober direction for roller derby will signal the end of the grassroots, circus sport of old. Brad hopes there’ll be a compromise, he says, as he sheds his striped jersey and packs away his gear after training. “This sport and all of its elements help to empower women because it’s theirs. They own it and nobody can take that away.”

Read the full story on roller derby in #111 (Nov/Dec) of Australian Geographic.