There aren't many female-only sports that can regularly sell out a 3,000-seat venue in this city. Common wisdom would suggest only one: netball. But there is another ‘sport de femme’ doing just that, and in a few short years, it has gone from practically zero to alternative culture hero.
It takes every bit as much skill to play as netball, but there are fully legal shoulder charges that would sit rugby players on their arses. Competitors do laps around a track on wheels, but there are no motors or pit crews in sight. And it's got enough theatrics, eye shadow and fishnet stockings to supply a Rocky Horror Picture Show production, and it's not, well, an elaborate, risqué, cross-dressing musical.
It's Roller Derby, a sport enjoying such a boom at the moment that there are now 50 roller derby leagues around the country with 15 in NSW and five just in the greater Sydney region.
“It's the fastest growing female sport in the world and that is definitely reflected in our league,” says Sydney Roller Derby League (SRDL) member Carrie Grace, who skates under the name ‘Winnie Bruise’. “In 2009, we played our first bout in Sydney in front of 200 people in a high school gym. In 2010, we were selling out almost 3,000 seats at the Hordern Pavilion. Last year, we moved out to Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre”
“We added two new teams last year just to keep up with the demand of new girls wanting to play and the only reason we haven't added more since is because logistically we just can't expand any quicker than that.”
For the uninitiated (and that’s most of us), the golden age of roller derby came and went with the baby boomers in the ’60s. Some may even recall its inception as an endurance race in the days of the Depression that lasted an astonishing 57,000 laps of a track, totaling 6,400km. In its third and current incarnation, it’s something like female Fight Club, just more fun and with more wheels.
Today, roller derby looks like this: five members from each team skate around a rink with one designated player from each team, called the ‘jammer’, trying to lap the other team's players. If they do so, they get a point for each player they lap. The kicker is that the players they are trying to lap are allowed to barge, block, hip-thrust and shoulder-charge the jammer out of their way, off her feet and preferably all the way off the track.
“My worst injury was when I bruised my rib cage and tore the muscle off my two lower ribs,” says Winnie Bruise. “I thought I'd actually broken my ribs, ’cause I couldn't even breathe without it hurting.
“The most common injuries are blown-out knees and broken ankles though. The worst I've ever heard of was a girl in the US who actually broke her neck... That's why they tell you to get private health insurance before you start playing.”
Despite the risk of injury there are plenty of young women queuing up to get on eight wheels.
“We've got so much ‘fresh meat’ coming in right now that we just can't keep up. We've had to turn girls away, which is a shame but the competition for places on teams is really good for the quality of the league. It's so competitive now that there was even a little underground movement of girls who would go to car parks at night just to get their skills up so they had a better chance at try-outs”. (Car park locations are secret as the lots are used without permission.)
For ‘derby girls’ as they call themselves, being passionate and dedicated is as essential to their game as having a sense of balance and co-ordination. Roller derby in Australia is entirely run by league members who volunteer their time.
“The skaters do everything. There are teams and committees that look after media, promotions, merchandise, training, fresh meat, refereeing, membership, sponsorship and community service. The bout production team is at the stadium from 7am until midnight on the day of a bout preparing the track and venue and making sure everything runs smoothly”.
It's not hard to see why it's becoming such a popular sport for young women to be a part of – for people who might be ‘outsiders’, there is strong sense of communal identity and camaraderie amongst roller girls. “It's such a great group of people, I've made so many friends out if it. Everyone becomes really close after a while, we're really intertwined.
“There are a couple of girls up in Brisbane who own a dedicated roller derby shop called Skate Salvage. When the floods hit Queensland a year or so back their house got flooded and all their furniture was destroyed but within a few days of the word getting out into the derby community via facebook they had a completely furnished home again all donated by people throughout the various
The rebirth of the sport started in the US in 2000 as an entertainment event called Bad Girls Gone Wild. With lots of theatrics, mock-fighting and no real rules, it was something akin to rock'n'roll wrestling.
Ten years on, and roller derby has evolved into a serious sport played all around the world. There was a World Cup in Toronto last year in which our Aussie girls biffed their way to fourth place. This result didn't surprise Winnie, who knows how much effort roller girls put into developing their skills.
“The SRDL hold four official training sessions a week. Three for league players and a fourth for the Assassins, which is Sydney's all-star team. When you add in bout nights and the more social events like street skates on Wednesday nights, when we skate around the city's cycleways, you're skating up to seven days a week with four or five of them being full-on
Bout nights take on a carnival atmosphere with a fancy-dress theme and giveaways throughout the night. Indie bands and circus performers keep the crowd entertained between bouts and the pre-game player introductions have each team going through a rehearsed pantomime as the players’ derby names are read out to the crowd who cheer on the roll call of often gruesome and comical puns. Apollonia Thunderpussy, Barge Simpson, Hell McFiercin, Bride Of Skatan and Aprila The Hun are some of the names girls have chosen for themselves.
How does Winnie’s family feel about her taking part in this rather bizarre sport?
“I was actually a little worried telling my parents about playing derby,” she says. “I thought they might just see it as a joke of a sport and a flash in the pan kind of thing, but they were really great about it. My brother and his family have seen me bout and my parents even flew down from Queensland to see me bout last year. I think it was a bit of a spin out for them but hearing people cheer for me I think they were actually pretty proud."
The Sydney Roller Derby League kicks off their home season opener on June 23 at Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre with Beauty School Knockouts vs. Team Unicorn and Sas vs. D'Viants.