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I'm a real high roller
Despite a pink helmet and the threat of ‘body contact’ REBECCA MOORE finds a session with Oxford’s female roller derby team empowering
An invitation to join a group of cool, sassy – though possibly crazy – ladies is usually a challenge I accept readily.
However, when that invitation includes the words ‘gory’, and ‘body contact’, even I pause for breath before saying yes.
I haven’t played team sport since high school, so when the Oxford-based roller derby club, Wheels of Gory invited me along for a training session, I was more than a little nervous.
In fact, I’ll admit that I was terrified. It was only the possibility of ogling lycra-clad male skaters on the rink that coerced me to Wheatley Park Sports Centre, for the ladies’ Sunday afternoon slot. Spoiler: there are no lycra-clad men in the remainder of this article, neither were there any on the rink, I unhappily report. Upon arrival, Claire (Miss N Limbs) offered me a kit for my free trial, something the team are always happy to do for newcomers.
My terror was not allayed when she had to remove her gum shield to discuss my need for wrist supports and knee pads.
It was at about this point that I remembered a friend’s jolly email describing roller derby as, ‘a bit brutal’ but ‘great fun nevertheless!’ I shuddered and followed Claire on to the rink.
To add insult to (possible) serious injury, my borrowed helmet was fluorescent pink. Pink! The ladies – with player names such as Pina Collide Her and Mental Floss – were already limbering up in the centre of the rink. They take time before each session for light exercise, and on Tuesdays they have half an hour off skates, led by one of the team who also happens to belong to the US Air Force.
Apparently, she works them hard, but to my mind, anything beats being ON skates. Except, there I was, calmly strapping skates to my feet, and velcroing pads to every shatterable part of my body.
“Right, shall we see how you skate?” Claire asks as I wobble to my feet. I haven’t skated since school. Primary school. I’m suddenly overwhelmingly aware of my legs. As I’m doing my best Bambi impression, a wayward roller lady collides with a team-mate and hurtles toward me.
I don’t want to die wearing skates and a pink helmet.
Thankfully, at the last second, and through no skill of my own, she avoids me, slides across the floor for a second then hops straight back up. She’s been well trained to fall painlessly.
That’s right – she’s had to learn how to avoid pain in this sport. I spent some time in the centre of the rink with Jacqui – another newcomer who hopes to get in shape after having two children, while having fun doing so – watching the other girls train around us, trying to get a sense of what the rules and aims are.
I’m not going to lie – I’m still unclear on their aims. I fear that this has less to do with the game itself, and more to do with my lack of attention, trying as I was to remain within the inner ring of the rink, and not get killed by the stampede spinning around us.
I managed to glean this: roller derby consists of two teams of five members rollerskating in the same direction around a track. There are a series of short ‘jams’ in which both teams designate a scoring player (the jammer) who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to assist their own jammer while hindering the opposing jammer. It sounds easy, it probably IS easy(ish) but it looks . . . intimidating.
I was most impressed with the group’s inclusiveness: I feared that I’d be ridiculed for my lack of expertise on skates, or that newbies would be relegated to the sidelines as the tougher, more fearsome of the crew took centre stage.
I thought it would be like high school sports day all over again, where you’re left on the bench until the bitter end.
But the newbies are on one side of the rink learning the required skills for skating with Jane Cameron – founder of the group, AKA SmackHer Lazarou – while the more experienced are training for the weekend’s match against Coventry Derby Dolls.
When the whole group comes into the centre to discuss their upcoming game we have a laugh, and it’s clear there’s real friendship and camaraderie here.
I got that same longing I used to get watching the school basketball team head out of the school gates in the minibus: I wanna be in the gang! However, as far as basketball was concerned – at a mere 5’ 2’’ and diabolical at running – access to that minibus and all those team songs was symbolised by that minibus shunting over the horizon.
Claire is social secretary and organises monthly events, including gliding, cocktail trips, bBurlesque evenings, and treasure hunts. I imagine they drink regularly to numb the pain from continual injury.
After all the bumping and Bambi-ing and distinct lack of lycra-ed men, I’d need a good, stiff drink. Immediately. To be honest, despite the pink helmet, it all seems pretty empowering: not only are you part of a fun team, but you’re also taking part in a powerful, and fast-paced sport, highlighting the point that women can be tough without necessarily being aggressive.
The aforementioned ‘body contact’ that so terrified me, is reasonably mild, and restricted to the torso: no kicking, tripping or foul play allowed.
Except there’s one move whose very name strikes terror to my core: The Can Opener. This is what the breast plates some of the girls have proudly told me they’re wearing are for, as it involves an opponent’s forearm thrusting back and up into the torso (or breasts) of the other player.
As this move was gleefully explained, I felt my boobs shrivel into their bra. I managed to skate, and learnt how to fall painlessly, if rather inelegantly. Astonishingly, I was more stable on my feet than most newcomers, according to Claire.
If I return, I’ll have to get to grips with the basic manoeuvers, before joining the big girls in proper training, but I really think it’d be worth it.
As I untied my skates, and left the inner circle of the rink to head home, I felt a little upset not to be part of that team. Despite the pink helmet, and The Can-Opener move. Afterall, what’s a few broken breast-plates between friends?
Training sessions: Sundays 3-5pm and Tuesday 7-9pm, Wheatley Park Sports Centre, Wheatley. All members MUST be over 18. And any age thereafter… The first two sessions are free (and extra kit is available), after which there’s a £30 monthly fee. It doesn’t matter if you can’t skate/haven’t skated in years: support, and training is offered. The group is always in need of sponsors: see the website www.oxfordwheelsofgory.co.uk for details about the Buy Our Bums campaign, which is less seedy than it sounds. If you are in Coventry – or fancy a trip to Coventry – this Sunday then tickets to watch the Wheels of Gory gals take on Coventry’s Derby Dolls are available for £7 on the door at Coventry Sports and Leisure Centre.
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