"All sorts of entertaining" - Elizabeth Seckman

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"An Australian version of me. Only younger. And Talented. And better looking. Okay, nothing like me." - Al Penwasser

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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

New Experience Challenge Week 38: Roller Derby

My sister Christina (being the ultra-mega-feminist that she is) found a place in Adelaide that holds roller derby bouts every Friday night. I (being the type of guy who loves skydiving out of his comfort zone) decided to go and check it out. It was being held at the Campbelltown Leisure Centre, where I used to play basketball in primary school. Christina was going with some friends of hers from work, one of which (named Caitlin) had a friend who was competing. I went along with Jerida, who had wanted to see a roller derby ever since she saw the movie Whip It.

It was $5 to get in, which isn't bad for an hour of entertainment. We found Christina and her friends and sat down on two of the very few chairs they'd bothered to set up. Caitlin turned to us and said
'Hey guys, so you're going for the Dames of Hazard.' Seemed fair. I liked that name a lot better than the Valkyrie Storm anyway. To be honest, I was more preoccupied about looking like I fit in. Whenever I'm in a strange new place, I wonder if people can tell I don't belong there. Generally the more alternative the situation, the more I can picture people looking at me and thinking "Hey... He's not one of us..."

Anyway... On the court in front of us, there were two large teams of women lined up while the commentators introduced them. The Dames of Hazard wore red singlets and the Valkyrie storm wore blue. Each singlet had the player's name printed in different fonts on the back. One of the most unique things about roller derbies is the names of the players. They pick playing names, which are usually either violent, clever or both. And I was delighted to find that even the referees had their own names. They had them printed on the backs of their black-and-white prison bar shirts. I saw "Quiet Riot", I saw "Staine", and I saw "Bear Grilled". Buy my favourite name of the night come from the referee called "Brutus Incorruptus". Not only was it violent and clever, but it was also a statement on his ability as a referee.

Five players from each team lined up on the starting line of the makeshift track. A referee blew his whistle and the players jostled off. Within seconds, a girl in a blue singlet had pushed her way in front of the pack and left them behind. A referee blue his whistle and pointed to her, and the rest of the pack stopped and waited for her to do a lap and rejoin them at the back. Suddenly the scoreboard on the wall showed that the Valkyrie Storm were up 7-0. Jerida and I looked at each other with blank faces. We'd both just had the same realization - that we had no idea what a roller derby was. I tried unsuccessfully to get an explanation from Caitlin, who seemed to just repeat the word "jam" a few times and motion her finger around in a circle. So I got out my phone and we looked it up there.

So a roller derby is played in two 30-minute halves each half is played in short 2-minute bursts called "jams" One person on each team is named as the  "jammer" and is denoted with a star on their helmet (we looked up and realized that one person on each team did indeed have a nylon cover over their helmets with a picture of a star on it). The rest of the players are "blockers", whose aim is to stop the jammer from progressing. The jammer will try and get past the blockers (which is pretty easy since they're not allowed to use their arms) and do a full lap around them and try and pass them again before the opposing jammer can do the same. The jammer who does this (called the "lead jammer") will earn a point for every opposing blocker she can successfully lap during the jam. If the opposing jammer is close behind her, threatening her leading position, she can choose to just pass a few blockers and then call the jam off early by repeatedly tapping her hips as a signal to the ref. If she fails to do so and the other jammer overtakes her, she loses all the points for that jam.

So, hesitantly comfortable that we knew what was going on, Jerida and I looked back up from the phone and realized our team was quickly getting obliterated. The Storm were something like 40 points up. We couldn't understand why they were doing so much better than us.

Then, just before half time, a tussle happened. The jammers from both teams broke away at the same time and began an intense race to complete their lap first. The crowd was getting into it, cheering their own player on, and I found myself raising my voice too. Afterwards, Jerida asked me what had just happened.

'Well, only the jammer who's in the lead can get points. the second one gets nothing. So they were both racing to be the lead jammer, and when "Mad Hala" from the Storm got there first, she called off the jam and took the minimum three points.'
'Oh ok, I get it now!' she said, and I realized that I was really getting into it. I was comfortable with the rules and was enjoying watching the Dames try and whittle back their enormous deficit.

In the second half, it was my turn to ask questions. Something had happened on the far side of the ring and I couldn't see it because there were too many players in the way.

'Both of the jammers were fighting over the chairs in the sin bin,' said Jerida. 'I don't know why.'
Caitlin had the answer. 'Only one jammer can be in the sin bin at once, so if there's one there and the other one gets sin-binned, the first one gets to rejoin. Both of the jammers were just sin-binned at the same time, so whoever got there first got to come straight back in.'
'Oh, that's cool!' I said. 'We just paid to see a roller derby - now they're treating us to a free game of musical chairs!'

Children's party games aside, the Dames were still getting their butts kicked. They showed a lot of spirit, fighting back every now and then to score a run of points in a row. And in these sorts of competitions, isn't spirit held in higher regard than actual results? After one such run, in which the Dames scored 11 points, I turned to Jerida and excitedly said
'That was a good jam!'

She stared at me blankly for a second, and then we both pissed ourselves laughing. Christina and her friends turned to see what was so funny.
'Michael reckons he's got the game all figured out,' laughed Jerida. 'I think he'll be buying a membership soon!'

It was true, I was definitely on board. I felt like Channing Tatums's character in 21 Jump Street when he's exploding bottle rockets with the nerds and he's yelling "This is awesome! Why didn't you nerds tell me this science shit is so cool?!". After the game finished, everyone rushed to the side of the ring and players from both teams skated along and hi-fived them all. It was apparently a tradition and I could see that both the players and the spectators had huge grins on their faces because of it. I loved the atmosphere and I hope that roller derbies get the exposure and support that they deserve.


  1. My Rare One and I LOVE roller derby! We follow a local team here that a friend of ours plays for. Her derby name is "Nerdess the Pagan Punisher." OMG it's a rough sport and those girls are playing on cement -- I cringe every time one of them hits the floor! Ouch!

    1. See, we were surprised because we were expecting it to be more violent than it was. There was no animosity at all in the game we saw.

  2. I don't see why it's a single sex sport. I'd like to see a unisex event. How good was the girl with fat thighs?

    1. I'm not sure that's a good idea, I have a feeling that adding men into it would make it worse. But I'm all for an exhibition where men can be shown how much better at the sport women are.

  3. Hmm. Doesn't look anything like it is portrayed in the movie Whip It! Thanks for explaining the rules to me, I think I sorta get it now... I hope.

    1. It seemed simple enough once we'd read it.

  4. I've always wanted to go to a roller derby, but I'm a little unsure mostly because I'm not the biggest fan of violence. But I am even more curious now...I ought to try it once, right?

    You cracked me up saying you worry about whether you fit in or not when at a new place! I mean, who fits in at a roller derby anyway?

    1. Hahaha I think the rule is the more butch you are, the better you fit in.

  5. Sounds exciting and fierce. One of my friends is on the local roller derby team, but I have yet to watch it.

    Michael, thanks so much for making a donation. You are an angel. It means a lot. Every dollar counts, and you can know that you've helped contribute to saving lives. What better cause is there?

    Bless you, dear friend. Smiles.


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