Ditching heels for wheels

Babette Decker meets a group of women who are battling it out on roller skates.

Newcastle Roller Girls at a mixed session with the Middlesbrough Milk Rollers

ADRENALIN is pumping high, girls are lining up in their roller skates, the crowd is going crazy. A whistle blows and everyone goes into a frenzy. The players start skating and whiz around the oval track while their teammates watch and cheer.

This is what a group of girls from Newcastle are training hard for – their first roller derby bout.

One of the newest games on the UK’s sporting scene, the Newcastle team, or Newcastle Roller Girls (NRG), have caught the bug that’s already bitten many others in America and across Britain.

Now Hollywood has got in on the act. The new Drew Barrymore film, Whip It, focuses on odd-ball Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who is trying to escape her small-town life when she comes across a roller derby team in Austin, Texas, which transforms her life.

Released in the UK on April 7, it will undoubtedly create unprecedented interest in this unique sport.

Roller derby originates from America and was first mentioned as far back as 1922 when the Chicago Tribune used the term to describe flat-track roller skating races.

It grew into a popular spectator sport and even featured in dedicated TV shows but, in the mid 70s, it had a sudden dip in popularity.

In 2001 roller derby was resurrected by a group of feisty Austin women who started the Texas Rollergirls ‘league’, as individual teams are called.

The UK’s first team were the London Rollergirls, set up in 2006. Other cities soon followed and now there are more than 24 established leagues with names like Birmingham Blitz Dames, Lincolnshire Bombers and Bedford Bandits.

In early 2008, NRG joined the ranks, following its closest rival on North East turf – the Middlesbrough Milk Rollers (MMR).

The sport is predominantly played by women, though there are a few all-men teams too and referees generally are mostly male.

The UK teams all play on oval-shaped flat tracks. Each team has five players on the track at any one time – the pivot, or captain, three blockers and the jammer, who is the point scorer.

The aim of each team is to get its jammer past the opposing team. With each player successfully negotiated, a point is scored.

The blockers will try everything to stop them by doing anything within the rules, blocking and body checking are allowed, but repeatedly hitting somebody in the back, for example, will land you in the sin bin.

All this happens at a fast pace, in up to two-minute intervals, or jams, with a bout lasting an hour.

It is a hard-hitting, full-contact sport, but it has become more refined since its conception, where pretty much everything was allowed. Now, roller derby teams play to set rules, a unified law book, adhered to around the world.

Skaters wear plenty of protection, including knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, helmets and mouth guards – all there to try to protect from anything more serious than the inevitable bruises and squashed limbs.

Needless to say though, injuries do happen but above all it’s all about having fun.

:: Click here to watch the trailer of Whip It

Part of that fun is indulging in one of the elements of roller derby to have made its way across the Atlantic. To make the transformation from working girl to derby girl, everyone has their own derby stage name. NRG have a great mix of people with similarly creative names. The idea behind it is to play out people’s alter-ego. Karen, aka ‘Rita Von Sleaze’, explains: "All skaters take on a skate persona, along with a skate name – anything from Bear 4ce1 and Booze Wound Barbie to Wizzee Rascal, so when you’re on the track you’re no longer a school teacher, a journalist, or a shop assistant, you can be whoever you want to be."

NRG founder member Claire Byrne aka Brie Larceny says: "This sport really keeps you in shape but, because skating is so much fun, it doesn’t feel much like exercise.

"A derby girl has to be able to skate 25 laps of the track in five minutes – and that is tough, especially at first.

"The game is suited to girls of every shape and size but because it’s a contact sport, being a bit heavier can sometimes be an advantage.

"Women aren’t generally used to being aggressive and roller derby provides a great outlet – and no one ever takes it personally."

So, you’ve guessed it, it’s a sport for toughies, and apparently, there are a whole lot of them about.

NRG are inviting newbies to come along for free skating sessions on Tuesday evenings, 8pm-10pm, at Northumbria Uni sports hall, or Sundays, 2.30pm-4.30pm at All Saints College in West Denton. Get in touch beforehand via www.myspace.com/newcastleukrollergirls  or search for Newcastle Roller Girls on Facebook. Skates and protective gear can be provided.

:: Click here to watch the trailer of Whip It

Derby girls show their fighting spirit

NEWCASTLE Roller Girls pivot Karen Slater (pictured right), 25, otherwise known as Rita Von Sleaze on the track, is a journalist for the BBC by day and turns into a fully-fledged roller girl in her spare time. Here she talks about herself and her "first love" – roller derby.

"I got into skating in 2007, when I was part of a DIY collective putting on unusual events in my then home of Teesside. We did a few skate parties and it was while I was trying to balance on eight wheels, I felt like a child again and felt a rush of adrenalin.

"Soon after that I read about roller derby when my friend Natalie thrust the story into my face. It sounded awesome – so we started up a team named the Middlesbrough Milk Rollers. It started out small, but soon picked up speed, and within a year, me and Natalie were on a plane to Vegas to learn how to take our team to the next level. A year later and we were a full- on, bout-ready, hard-hitting team of broads.

"Alas, it was then that true love came along, in the form of a handsome fella, who took me further up north to my new home of Newcastle.

"Thankfully, I didn’t have to give up my first love - derby. I found a position on the Newcastle Roller Girls team and have been training with them and coaching them ever since.

"I’m deadly seriously when I say that well-known derby phrase – roller derby saved my soul. Not only does being in a team hand you 20 new friends, it also teaches you a lot about self-esteem, and clears all of the brainwashing out of your mind that years of reading beauty magazines has put in.

"You’ll never hear a derby girl complaining how she wants to be stick thin because derby is for all shapes and sizes, and every shape has a place on the track. Derby has made me love my bum, made me do weights to get stronger, leaner, legs. It makes me eat better, drink less booze, have earlier nights – basically everything my mum tried to get me to do – and all for the love of the track. NRG has a bright sparkly future ahead of itself. A bout booked in April, and teams up and down the UK wanting to scrimmage – this is what a training game is called – with us, there’s no turning back for us.

"We may be brand new, but we’ve got fighting spirit and a really great positive energy. Having been in a team previously, I can really see NRG’s advantages – the team is strong, they all love the game, and they’re all willing to share and learn from each other. You can’t ask for much more!

:: Click here to watch the trailer of Whip It


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer