I knew a friend of a friend of a friend who played roller derby. I didn’t know much about it, but never got around to seeing a game. Not long after, I had what could be described as a bit of skate nostalgia. I remembered how much I used to love rollerblading as a kid. I’d also spent hours after swimming lessons at the local leisure centre, watching the figure skaters. One day I hoped I’d be able to gracefully skate backwards like they did on their quad roller skates.
I decided I’d get myself a pair of quads and enjoy pootling around local parks. It seemed a lot more entertaining than running (which I’d never mastered)! It was great fun and I ended up spending many a summer evening or lunch hour trying to figure out moves. Of course, my earliest moves involved trying not to crash into people or pavement furniture.
When the summer ended and the cold, dark nights started, I was gutted. I really missed being on wheels. I started to look at roller discos, but they were crowded, and mainly filled with families. So I felt a little out of place! At this point, I was also keen to improve my skating, maybe take some lessons. Enter… roller derby.
I figured: it was indoors, I’d get lessons and meet new people who also liked skating. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to play. I was self-employed at the time and couldn’t afford to get injured and not be able to work. But I realised you could train as a referee, and get all the skating tuition, with lower risk of injury. By then, I was pretty determined to do it! I went along to watch a local game, and spent a lot of time watching the referees. They made the skating and the officiating look easy, which was an achievement in itself. I was sold. I went back the next day to sign up as a trainee ref. The rest, as they say, is history.
It seemed like such an exciting sport and a great community (spoiler: it is!). I quickly got involved in the club I’d joined. You see, roller derby is entirely run by the skaters, for the skaters. From the governing bodies through to the local clubs themselves. There’s so much opportunity to volunteer, both on and off skates. In that sense, roller derby quite easily becomes a lifestyle, rather than a hobby. So I started helping with coaching (an area I already had some training in) and other tasks for the groups that ran the club. I learned so much in that first year. It was a challenge but I laughed a lot and made some great friends. I also chose my first derby nickname – “Iona Loudwhistle” – a bit of a tradition in the sport. The idea of choosing a nickname becoming less popular now, and some people choose to go by their legal surname instead. Still, watch a local roller derby game, and you’ll hear some great puns as the skaters are announced.
You spend a lot of time with your roller derby pals, sometimes more than your own family. Despite this, it’s very easy to know someone for years and not know all the details about their lives. For example, how old they are, or what exactly their day job involves. It’s just the nature of the sport – it’s active and it’s busy. But there’s a lot of love there, and roller derby as a whole is a very inclusive community.
There’s also a bit of a running joke about travelling in roller derby. You can end up playing or officiating all over the UK, or indeed, the world. However, while you’re travelling to all these different places, chances are you’ll mainly see the inside of a lot of sports centres. Again, it’s just how it goes! It never stops being fun though.
Sometime in my first year, I decided to change my job and give skating a go. I loved the mental challenge of reffing, and wanted to do both that and play for a team. But with work commitments, I sadly wasn’t able to. However, I figured I might not always have the opportunity to play. So I grabbed a new derby name, and my mouthguard, and got stuck in. I finally learned to skate backwards too! My skating career lasted for four years, and was a fantastic experience. My first two games on a travel team ended up being in Belgium.
Roller derby has changed a lot since I started. It’s still a relatively new sport and things are evolving all the time. Game strategies, the sport’s image, governance, rules etc. From its early revival as a solely female sport, there are now men’s teams, co-ed teams and junior teams around the world. The list of individual clubs continues to grow. Roller derby’s profile as a sport is growing too – the final day of 2018’s roller derby world cup was streamed by the BBC for the first time.
As for me, I couldn’t hang up my club hoodie when my skating and reffing career came to an end. I’ve been an off skates coach for my club Roller Derby Leicester for the last few years. I coach mental training and love seeing people progress as skaters, officials or coaches! There’s no better feeling than being part of helping people to achieve their goals.
If you’re curious about watching a game or getting involved, find your local club:
This article was submitted by Iona De Track