Tackling - without arms

02:19, Nov 07 2012
SUNFLASH: Palmerston North’s Swamp City Roller Rats’ Jessie Walker, left, says roller derby is the fastest, toughest, hardest sport of them all.

Jessie Walker was Fresh Meat a scant year ago, just able to skate confidently in a circle and stay upright.

Now she's one of Swamp City Roller Rats' A-team jammers, Sunflash, with a roller-derby "wife" called MaDD Honour.

Manawatu's roller derby squad are training at Palmerston North's Leisureplex skating rink, skate wheels whirring on the surface, voices echoing against the high roof. Sunflash is temporarily stationary, in full kit - helmet, elbow and wrist guards, knee pads, but mouthguard out - ready to talk about roller derby.

Roller derby's possibly the fastest, toughest, hardest full-contact sport that any woman with the necessary courage and skill will ever play. Skating, blockers clump in fours, doing their utmost to stop a speedy, agile jammer from forcing her way past them. Every blocker passed by the jammer is a point scored. Every jammer blocked is good defence.

They lunge, push, shove, lean deep. The allowed hit zone is knees to shoulders, and the weapons are skaters' butts, hips, and shoulders, or whole-body lunges. "No elbows or punching or grabbing. It's like a rugby tackle without arms," says Sunflash.

A full game is an hour; split into two-minute rounds, or jams. Jams can go right to the two-minute maximum, or can be ended if the first jammer to get through the pack decides it's strategically better to stop at that point level.


"There's so much strategy to learn in this game," Sunflash says. "You have set moves, you strive constantly as an individual to improve your skills, but the team aspect is huge and you have to think all the time."

On the rink, a jammer rams her way past two blockers. There's a jostling melee, limbs tangle and skates clash, and two bodies hit the deck, sprawling with that relaxed grace only the confident can achieve.

"I wouldn't call it aggression," says Sunflash, reflectively. "I'm not really sure . . . maybe competitiveness? It's really strong, you can be really strong out there."

There are about 50 women in the squad. They run two teams - The Plague, or A-team, and The Poison Ivies, the B-team. Then there is a third group of bronze level skaters striving to achieve the skills needed. You have to be 18 to play in a team, and you have to prove you've mistressed the skills necessary. One fitness test measure is 25 laps of the rink in five minutes. Sunflash does this in under four minutes.

"You start being able to skate in a circle. We teach you everything else in our Fresh Meat training." Sunflash grins. "There's more slang in roller derby than in any other sport I've ever played."

She'd never thought of roller derby until she saw the first game in Palmerston North. A black belt in taekwondo - "that's helped with the idea of close contact and falling" - she sat in the stands, breathless with excitement.

"I looked at these chicks skating, and I thought, yeah, I want to do that."

Her mum encouraged her to learn to skate, and learned herself. She's now a keen roller derby player herself - Brass Bulls.

The squad train four times a week, at different levels. Some go to all four. Staying fit helps avoid injuries. Nobody who plays roller derby worries about bumps, scrapes and bruises. The most common serious injury is broken legs - effective wrist guards save the arms.

"I say common, but it doesn't happen regularly.

"This year, 50 women, most training four times a week, plus games - there have been three broken legs."

A full kit, bought new, costs about $500, but second-hand might be $300. Serious competition skates start at $700.

Players choose their names - Under Age Rage, Blue Blaze, Nerdy Perfect, Nine Inch Diff, Beauty Terrorist, Cherry Pie, Mini Mosh, Foxypop, Hazy Dayz, Kaf-fiend, Bronstar are some of the names painted on the helmets whizzing past.

The names give shape to an alter ego.

Player numbers are registered and have to be unique in the league; the number identifies a penalised player.

Sunflash says there are a lot of myths about roller derby - take the idea of having a roller derby "wife". The ill-informed get all excited about lesbianism, but what a "wife" does on-rink is look out for their partner.

Her fiance's interested in starting a male roller derby league in Palmerston North, but there aren't, as yet, enough skaters of a sufficiently high standard to form a men's team.

"So if the dudes want to work on it a bit, we'd love to get a men's league going. And a co-ed one."

More information about Swamp City Roller Rats on facebook.com/swampcityrollerrats. The flat-track league formed in 2010. August 2012 saw the Swamp City Roller Rats host the country's first national tournament, with 13 teams participating. Swamp City's team The Plague went head to head with Auckland Roller Derby League in the final.

Senior coach Justine Saunders (Just Ass 4 All) was picked for the New Zealand training squad to work towards this year's inaugural roller derby world cup to be held in Canada in December.

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