Whipping their sport into shape

'Ruby Deathskates' remembers her first practice.

"The first training session I went to was in an underground car park on Dixon St," says the founding member of Richter City Roller Derby, also known as Ruth Payne.

"Cars were coming in and out the whole time, and we were stopping by running into parked cars."

Richter City is now a fully fledged sports club with twice weekly training sessions, a publicity department and hundreds of devout fans. Their members are students, mothers, and professionals, many who came to the league as total beginners.

Libby 'Scarface Clawdia' Callander and Penny 'Rusty Stiletto' de Borst joined the league last year as novice skaters and are already part of this year's opposing teams, Brutal Pageant and Smash Malice.

Richter City's popularity has grown as fast as the ladies' skating skills. The league outgrew its first venue, a basketball hall, early in their debut 2009 season.

They now compete at the TSB Arena on Queens Wharf, which was nearly at capacity at last Saturday's first bout of the year. The huge crowd was unexpected and the stadium ran out of alcohol soon after halftime.

Payne says she and the other Richter City founders have always aimed high. "It's what I always wanted it to be, what I hoped for in five years or so, but this is way earlier than schedule."

Roller derby has been around since the 1920s but the modern version came into fashion in the United States in the early 2000s. It was further popularised with Drew Barrymore's 2009 film Whip It, based on the novel Derby Girl, by Shauna Cross, and starring Juno's Ellen Page.

Payne says she had heard criticismsthat derby was just a fad that would lose its novelty once it found mainstream popularity.

"But mainstreaming is exactly what we wanted. We want as many women to get involved as possible. That's why we focus so much on the sport and business side of things."

That means training with drills and fitness exercises, running the league as a sustainable business, and organising their own events and PR.

Derby is designed to be a spectator sport and the Richter City girls still love the risque outfits and their shock-horror alter-egos, but the spectacle comes a distant second to the game.

Every time they get media coverage, the players cross their fingers they will make it into the sports section, or at least general news – "anything but entertainment".

Roller derby is almost unique in its class as a contact sport dominated by women. Most modern roller derby leagues are all-female and strongly "feminist and feminine", Payne says.

"It's not body-hating, and we don't ignore people's bodies," as Callander discovered at her first "fresh meat and greet" introductory session last year.

"They were like, `You have great thighs, you can span half the track with those thighs'."

Richter City MC Hadyn Green is part of the derby "family" now but, in the early days, he had to prove he was more than just a groupie. "They are a hard group of people to get in with. When they meet a new person they're treated with a little bit of suspicion, but that's not uncommon in other sports, like rugby," Green says.

He does not skate, citing terrible balance, but has been a derby fan since the first Richter City game.

"I went to the first bout they had, and then I just begged them until they let me be their MC. It fits in with a lot of my interests – I like hot rods and rockabilly, that whole genre – and beyond that, it's just incredibly fun."

Richter City referee Greg Bodnar says he and the other men on the crew face the occasional comment "that we're just in it to be hanging around the girls".

"And we do get guys who do just want to be in it for that. But I just love skating, and you can tell quite quickly when someone's not really into it. Once you start pissing off the girls, they'll pretty quickly find ways to get you out."

More than 3500 people attended Richter City's "Stop Drop and Roll" bout last weekend.

The average attendance at ANZ netball championship games in New Zealand last year was about 3146 – in Australia it was 3114.

Green, an avid sports fan, says the only time he had seen the arena that full for a sporting event was at last year's basketball world champs qualifier between New Zealand and Australia.

The maximum seating capacity of TSB Arena is 4430 but roller derby bouts cannot house full seating because they need the space to skate.

Payne says access to a mid-sized indoor venue in the central city is key to Richter City's success.

Auckland's Pirate City Rollers had been around longer than the Wellington league, but only recently moved to a venue holding 1200 spectators, after years of being limited to a 500 capacity.

But Green says Richter City's popularity is down to more than just the right venue.

"Wellingtonians are known to get behind this sort of thing. Even at the Phoenix game last weekend [against the Boca Juniors] when it was freezing cold, the crowds were there."

There are now 13 derby leagues ,from Invercargill to Whangerei and Payne is the chairwoman of a new national body, Roller Derby New Zealand, set up to help budding leagues get established.

American derby magazine Blood and Thunder has held two training camps in New Zealand in the past two years, their first overseas. About 160 people attended this year's camp, which the Richter City girls say critically improved their skills.

Better skills mean fewer injuries. Payne, Callander and de Borst came out of last weekend's bout with barely a bruise between them, something they put down to their training.

"When you're watching and you see one of them stumble now, you can already see she's bringing her arms together, her knees together, almost like a cat," Callander says. "You also learn how to avoid getting hit, and how to absorb it without taking it full on."

The battlelines between last weekend's winners Brutal Pageant and the leopard-clad Smash Malice are hotly fought on the track, but off-track they're all on the same team.

Last year's teams were shuffled this season to even up levels of expertise and keep the bouts close.

Next BoutRichter City Roller Derby:
The Rubble Rouser is on at TSB Arena on September 4.

The Dominion Post