Deakin University intern and local Launcestonian Brielle Quiqley discovers the magical world of roller derby in Tassie and learns its great history.
Ask the average person what they know about roller derby and you will likely receive answers that range from the vague mentioning of roller skates to, “isn’t that the movie Drew Barrymore was in?”.
I know this to be true because – up until very recently – I was Average Person.
Hazy recollections of cult classic Whip It, blended together with colourful tattooed stereotypes, to form what was ultimately my sole understanding of a sport Australia was actually world number one in as recently as 2019. Not exactly expert level stuff by me.
But nevertheless, when I started seeing advertisements for a roller derby bout in my small city of Launceston, I was intrigued. Do all of the players really have outlandish names and vibrant hair colours to match? What would it look like to see a full contact sport on skates? Would Jimmy Fallon be commentating the match? (Okay, the last one I knew the answer to). I had to go and see what “rugby on skates” was really like if I wanted to feel like a smug sports encyclopaedia the next time someone brought it up.
When I arrived, a ghoul and a zombie bride loitered at the entrance of the sports centre. No, this isn’t my weird take on a ‘walks-into-a-bar’ joke, but rather the moment I realised it was October 31st and – you guessed it – Halloween. Feeling very underdressed, I had my ticket scanned by an attendee draped in floor-length red lace and ghost makeup.
“Have fun!” she grinned at me, and behind her a player was receiving the finishing touches on a Harley Quinn style clown. I began to wonder just how much of a spectacle I was about to witness.
Interestingly (and perhaps ironically), roller derby found its initial rise to popularity through exactly that. First played in Chicago during 1935, the sport was rooted in endurance skating and reimagined as a co-ed contact sport that, by definition, included women from the offset. In the decades that followed, it quickly transformed into a larger-than-life circus of showmanship and characterisation that was closer in nature to the WWE than elite-level sport.
“Obviously what roller derby was is completely different to what it is now, I think it was 2010 that it had a real change and turned into more of a sport than an entertainment thing. It was a bit like the wrestling, it was all structured and pre-written, whereas now, I mean, we’re athletes. Sporting people, at least… even though I never did P.E.” laughs Nadia Coull, player and committee member for Devil State Derby League.
Nadia is right – roller derby has undergone a serious transformation from the days of fixed matches and rehearsed stunts, largely due to the grassroots efforts of American women who revived the sport after its disappearance from the spotlight in the early seventies. This is one of several factors that makes roller derby so unique; not only is it a contact sport where women haven’t had to fight for space where it didn’t exist, but they have been the driving force behind its reintroduction into the 21st century. By self-organising amateur leagues and making way for modernised rules that honour the seriousness and skill level of the athletes, roller derby earned its status in the sporting world as a feminist exception to the male-dominated rule and found its way to Australia by 2007, gradually building momentum ever since.
But despite the contemporary evolution of roller derby, it retains plenty of its historical entertainment factor. From the moment I watched the zombie referee in skates blow the whistle to kick-off the match, it was abundantly clear that the sport had embraced the paradoxical and refused to conform to the rigid expectations of ‘serious’ codes. It was every bit as colourful as I had been primed to expect; bright lights swirling around a dark room before the players rolled in, flashes of helmet-covered hair that could form a rainbow, heavy makeup and fishnets to boot. ‘Tina Burner’ rolled past me during the warmup, and I laughed out loud in pure joy at the powerful irreverence of a largely female-dominated sport that had been in consideration for the 2020 Olympics.
The physicality and athleticism of roller derby is equally engaging. While there were no moments where players punched each other over fowls (yes this is another Whip It reference, no I cannot be stopped), there were definitely moments where I felt myself inhale sharply as a player would be sent flying after copping a hit, managing to peel themselves off the ground and quickly shake it off with the sort of gracefulness only skilled skaters could have. In those moments, painful flashbacks of Friday social skate nights from my early teens consumed me while Flo Rida’s ‘Low’ echoed through my brain like the soundtrack to a bloopers reel. It was almost unbelievable to see the power and speed these women were capable of while on wheels, skills that Nadia tells me take years to perfect.
“Me personally, this is going into my third year. Roller derby has quite a slow build up into playing, I was actually fast tracked through not because I was good, just because they were low in numbers. I was safe enough to play, so I actually got through a lot quicker than normal, but normally there’s about a 12-month period before you even get to play a real game just because it’s a lot to learn. A lot of people come to us who’ve never skated before so obviously that takes a little longer, if they’ve got skate experience, then it’s quicker.”
I spoke with Nadia after her team’s clash against the Van Diemen Rollers in a quiet corner of the sports centre. Initially, I hadn’t recognised her on the track – when we had communicated prior to the event, it had been via social media and her profile picture was a smiling woman with glasses. A different version of the Nadia that sat before me who, for the hour prior, had been referred to exclusively as ‘Go-Nads’. When I congratulated her on an epic performance and her team’s comfortable win, she proudly shook a jar of jam at me. It turned out Go-Nads had been named Jammer of the Match, a feat that was aptly rewarded with apricot condiment. We joked about her prize and the quirks of the game, with Nadia citing the tongue-in-cheek elements and broad appeal as part of what makes the sport so great.
“It’s such a fun atmosphere. It’s really supportive, really inclusive, like we’ve had mums, dads, grandparents, students, we have all sorts of different people of different ages and different fitness levels. I am not fit, like at all, I was going around looking at the jammer ref like ‘I need to get fit… can I call it?!’” she laughs.
The inclusivity of roller derby is a huge draw card for both spectators and players alike, with mixed gender leagues becoming more popular and men establishing their own roller derby leagues over the last decade. But as a rapidly growing sport, the increase in popularity has not been without its challenges, particularly for regional leagues. The bout I attended was the first to be held in Launceston in over three years despite Devil State Derby League hailing from the Northern Tasmanian city. Nadia explained that finding suitable venues for home games is an ongoing battle, with more mainstream sports often winning out. Similar stories have emerged from Canberra, with the Canberra Roller Derby League speaking to the ABC about challenges not unlike those in Tasmania last year.
Awareness, then, might play a key part in keeping this thriving sport alive in all corners of the country. But according to Nadia, the rise of men’s leagues around the world has sometimes resulted in the women’s game being left in the shadows.
“It is bigger with women, it’s the fastest growing women’s sport in the world, in saying that, when men play, and we do have quite a lot of male teams in the world, they still get more coverage than the women. Which is like, good on them, but really disappointing for us.”
This is an all-too familiar story that stings just a little deeper knowing what I know about roller derby’s history. While the sport champions inclusivity and welcomes all genders into its folds with open arms (and the affectionate gender-neutral nickname of ‘Fresh Meat’), it was built on the blood, sweat and tears of women who found both community and healthy competition in fast-paced, physical skating. There is nothing ladylike about roller derby, because what does that mean anyway? In its essence, it is campy and tough and serious while managing to cheekily wink at its audience through every little quirk. It is a sport like no other, established by women, for everyone. That is something that deserves to be talked about and upheld at all costs.
By the time I said goodbye to Nadia and left the sports centre, I had watched three matches and knew approximately 100% more about the rules than I had when I first walked in. I had almost been talked into joining (twice), the charming enthusiasm of the players so palpable I nearly forgot about the, ahem, ‘skating misadventures’ of my youth. While I was not about to be invited back as the next roller derby expert commentator, I had achieved my goal of becoming decidedly smugger in my understanding of the sport, with terms like ‘jammer’, ‘blocker’ and the points system not solely reliant on my recollection of the Movie That Shall Not Be Named (again).
Most of all, I felt an enormous sense of pride for my local Tassie league and the persevering, talented people within it. I had gone into the first match intrigued by the spectacle of roller derby only to realise the behind-the-scenes was just as magical as what we see on the track.
While I may not have the coordination for skates, I will absolutely be cheering for Devil State Derby League at the next bout. I might even wear a ghoul costume for good measure.