Game day: The Harbour Hellcats (black and orange) mix it up with the the Fort Smashleys (blue and grey). Picture: Chris DonnellyIn 2013, Newcastle Roller Derby League had the world at its wheels. Its three home teams and one representative side had amassed a significant fan following and were playing in front of sold-out crowds. The league’s committee had big plans for advertising campaigns, team travel and sponsorship deals. All of Newcastle was going to become acquainted with the sport of roller derby.
However, momentum was halted when its main training and event venue,Gateshead Indoor Sports World, advised the league’sexecutive committee that the space they had been hiring up to four times a week for training and games was going to be redeveloped. The league had just six weeks to try and find a new home.
According to league president Jeanene “ValFreya”Douglas, this turn of events virtually decimated the league. It tookseven months for the not-for-profit group to secure another regular training venue – withmembership numbers droppingfrom 100 to 32.
“A lot of our skaters, when we didn’t have regular training sessions, or not knowing if we would even be able to play a game, they found other pursuits and other interests,” Douglas says. “It was hard because it effected our resources, how much money we were bringing in, how much we could promote, all those sorts of things had a flow-on effect.”
Four years on, the league is only beginning to recover. Membership numbers are increasing, and with a little help from guest skaters in other leagues, the popular home teams have made a triumphant return.
Jillian “GodJilla”Mathieson, a coach and the longest skating member of the league, says the re-institution of the home teams is a positive step.
“What it has given us is consistency,” she says. “It means that all of our players have playing options . . .Because if you’ve got new players coming in thinking they might not be able to play for three years until they make it to representative level, why would they stay?”
For the women of the league,the road to return was particularly tough. In addition to the structural requirements of the league, it has also faced barriers related to people’s perception of what roller derby is, and their attitudes toward it as an alternative culture.
When the league was informed it would have to move, Douglas says she called 53 different schools, sports centres, factories and warehouses in search of a new training space. Many were too small or the surface was not appropriate for skating.
Douglas says she was able to secure some bookings at the University of Newcastle’s Forum Sports Centre but the time slots were severely limited.
No kidding: The hits are real in roller derby, as shown in this file image of the Mustdashers versus the Bearded Ladies. Picture: Marina Neil
The league also tried making use of outdoor areas, but itlimited the kind of training they could do. “No one likes to fall on asphalt, so we weren’t doing a lot of contact,”Douglas says.
The league even considered leasing their own building and hiring it to other sporting groups.“We worked it all out that we could afford it, but none of us was willing to sign off on it because it was such a big financial risk,” Douglas says.
One of the most frustrating things during this time for Douglas was venues refusing to hire space to the league because they believed their equipment would damage the floor. Despite having references from Gateshead Indoor Sports World, the n Institute of Sport and other sports centres which contradicted this view, the league was turned away from several prominent Newcastle venues.
“Our gear is specifically designed to be used on indoor floors, wooden floors . . . We do no more damage to a floor than what basketball shoes do, no more wear and tear,” Douglas says.
Midway through 2014, the leaguesecured a training venue in the hall of Kahibah Public School. Their games are held at the Newcastle Showgrounds Exhibition Centre, which while expensive to hire, is the only option available to the skaters.
By far the most significant barrier that the leaguefaced while searching for a venue, and still encounter when seeking sponsorship, is people’s misconceptions about what roller derby is. Mathieson believes this comes down to a simple lack of local exposure.
“Look, we’re in Newcastle, which is still quite an old-fashioned town in some ways. People rollerskating down the street is still a little bit odd, like this isn’t LA,” she said. “So everything is kind of a novelty, and whenever someone thinks something is a novelty, then it loses its professionalism and its . . .I don’t want to say the word respect, but it goes from being a sport to being a spectacle.”
The worldwide governing body for roller derby is the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. They describe the sport as being “a fast-paced, full-contact team sport that requires speed, strategy, and athleticism”. A game is played wearing roller skates and full protective gear including helmet and mouthguard.
Roller derby has roots as far back as the 1930s, with its popularity peaking in the 1970s as a violent, theatrical form of sporting entertainment. Roller derby in its current form began in the early 2000s and spread quickly; withhundreds of leagues registered worldwide, andmore than 70in . While originally a female-only sport, roller derby has expanded to include men’s, co-ed, and even junior teams.
Modern roller derby does its best to distance itself from the scripted and rehearsed version of the sport that many people remember watching on television when they were kids. Leagues now consider their skaters to beathletes and emphasise sport over spectacle. A high level of skill is required by all participants, and safety is prioritised. There are strict rulesdictating when and how players can make contact with each other. Violators arepenalised, and, inserious cases, may be ejected.
Roller derby also has strong ties to the LGBTI+ community and takes pride in its reputation as an all-inclusive sport.
“I don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg,” Mathiesonmuses, “Are people attracted to it because it’s a safe space, or is it that roller derby became a safe space because of the people that it attracted? Either way, we like everyone to be a little bit different, and different means from the straightest of the straight to the strangest of the strange.”
Veteran skater Renee ‘Reggie Ramjet’ Graham says she often feels embattled when talking about the sport that she loves, but for her two young daughters, “you couldn’t ask for a better group of role models”.
Graham joined the leaguein 2010 after the birth of her second daughter. She says what set roller derby apart from other sportswas the culture and sense of community.
Slam and glam: Newcastle roller derby action. Picture: Marina Neil
“So many other sports, the culture is just turn up, run around for an hour and then get pissed. I don’t think there’s a lot of value in it,” she says. “And there’s no community in it, and I think that’s what this is, so when I started playing derby, I not only got a circle of friends, but I got this whole community of people.”
She also credits the culture of roller derby with increasing her confidence, which has carried over into her everyday life.
“I was a big girl so I was embarrassed about my shape and I was taking up room. And then I came here and suddenly being big wasn’t a bad thing, and being strong wasn’t a bad thing . . . The things that I’ve always thought were the bad things about me are no longer bad, they’re actually assets.”
This sentiment is echoed by Mathieson, who says that roller derby has allowed her to find power in words such as athlete, which she “would never have found in a million years in any other sport”.
“What I also see that probably supports that in others is when people come in a little bit shy or unsure and within a really small amount of time you just see this flower open, and you see strength and power from the smallest voice.
“I think we all have those small voices inside us and I know there’s lots of times in my real life that derby has reminded me that I can do stuff, or I don’t have to put up with stuff.”
Despite the challenges faced by the league, as an organisation it has demonstrated an unshakable commitment to the sport, and formidable determination in the face of adversity. One gets the sense that it’s a case of get on board, or get out of the way. Newcastle, prepare to become acquainted with the women of roller derby.
For details on the league: newcastlerollerderby苏州模特佳丽招聘.au.