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On a roll: Skater women hit hard

A player lay motionless on the ground as the final referee’s whistle echoed across the vast, hangar-like hall. As medics slowly lifted her onto a stretcher the fear was that she may have badly injured her neck. The FixR — tall and lanky with the squad number 1994 emblazoned on her back — seemed to have hit her head on someone’s shoulder as she lost her balance, ensuring an awkward and unprotected fall. 

It was on this solemn note that Africa’s first inter-continental roller derby tournament came to an end.

Yet as clear as the concern was for her well-being, such injuries are not unexpected in this contact sport. Nor did it prevent the event from being chalked up as an incredible success.

Roller derby is tricky to describe — it involves teams of participants on skates blocking the opposition from scoring points, which they are able to do by racing ahead on an oval track.

“So what happened was when roller derby came back, all the men were at war and the women had nothing to do really,” says Dianne Silva, aka DiFibrillator, player and chairperson of the Golden City Rollers.

The Cairollers from Egypt employed crowdfunding to raise enough money to travel to South Africa for the inaugural African Good Time bout. (Devin Botes)

“So they created this sort of big spectacle where the women would box each other essentially and run around on track.”

To many of the participants involved, it is precisely the inherent danger of the sport which begets a sense of empowerment. Roller derby — a sport in equal measures graceful and ferocious — is an opportunity to discover who you really are. Or, perhaps, invent somebody new entirely, says Silva.

“I run a business, we have designers, we have doctors, we have marketing managers [on the team]. And when we put our [team] names on, it’s this pseudonym of this strong, strong woman that we want to be. It’s also quirky. Best one, I always think, is Klap Cake.”

It was a moment that all on the track on Sunday have dreamed about for over a year. Despite its fluctuating popularity in the United States and elsewhere, roller derby has never taken off to a significant degree in South Africa or the continent at large. With such a small pool of players, teams rarely get to test themselves outside of the usual local, mostly low-key, skirmishes.

Cue instant excitement then when the CaiRollers of Egypt reached out to arrange a continental get-together.

Much like here, the North Africans receive no support from any official structure or body. Financing their trip would have to be done themselves. They set up an Indiegogo campaign and raised just over R90000 — a welcome injection, but only 27% of their stated goal. After exploring various other avenues of crowdfunding, and putting whatever cash they could between themselves, the team finally had enough to make the trip to Johannesburg.

Members of three other clubs — Durban Roller Derby, Cape Town Rollergirls and UAE All Stars from Dubai — combined to play as the Pan-African Rollers because they weren’t able to fly in full contingents.

The inaugural African Good Time bout would thus be contested between the three sides — playing each other once before the top two would meet in a final.

But first, everybody met at the venue the day before for the scheduled bootcamp. The location in question was the Uniao Portuguesa recreation centre, not far from the Turffontein race course.

The court is ordinarily used for futsal and was repurposed by the skaters with white tape that had to be removed whenever they finished a session.

The bootcamp was an occasion for everyone to train together and get to know each other before they fought it out the following day.

As seriously as they would take the competition, the overarching goal with this initiative was to build and grow a “community”. In established sport that might sound like a platitude; here it felt sincere and genuine.

Still, there was palpable excitement for the next day. All involved had been counting the sleeps and training tirelessly for this moment. For them, roller derby represents far more than just a sport.

“It’s cheap therapy,” jokes Delia du Toit, nicknamed Deeablo (with a 666 squad number to match). “It’s also ‘weird’ open-minded types that tend to gravitate towards it. It’s really fun finding like-minded people, because you don’t find all the weirdos in normal, everyday life. It becomes a family.

“It’s women hitting each other! I think for outsiders it’s the hitting part that looks empowering but when you become a player it’s really the difficulty of it. It’s hard. It’s hard to learn … So the empowering part when you start playing is learning every new skill and mastering it, and seeing that something that was super hard in the beginning becomes second nature eventually.”

Each potential player, Du Toit explains, must undergo intensive training before they’re allowed to take part in any sort of competitive play. She will have to take at least three months practising on just her skates; another three to learn the contact aspect of the sport and however more months are necessary to put it all together — it can take anywhere up to a year to be game ready. But with dangers that clashing at high speed on roller skates presents, these are steps that can’t be forsaken.

High risk, high effort, almost no tangible reward. It’s worth emphasising again that most players here find a deeper meaning in their trips around the track.

“When you play roller derby you apply it to real life,” says Lina Elgohary, who made the trip from Cairo. “When you fall, you learn to get up. The sisterhood is strong in all leagues around the world. We have each other’s back all the way through ups and downs. It’s more than just a sport — in the track and outside the track.

“We always brag about the mothers in the team. Some have full-time jobs, husbands, houses, family; everything and they play roller derby.”

It didn’t take long on the morning of the tournament for a dominant force to emerge. The Golden City Rollers simply crushed the competition that was put in front of them. Even for us non-aficionados, you could hardly mistake what was happening: their “jammers” whizzed around the track, sometimes ducking through the available spaces before the opposing “blockers” had realised they had rejoined the action. In defence, the Jo’burgers offered a near-impenetrable wall, bogging down the attackers in an unmoving scrum or forcing them out of play.

This one-sided nature of the games was reflected in the scorelines: the long-awaited duel with the CaiRollers ended 248-16. The Pan-African Rollers could offer little more when they met in the final, falling 285-37.

“It was really tough to hold them because they had some really strong players but we have been training really hard and have been super locked down,” Silva said after the game. “So our strategy outperformed their brute strength. Our jammers did amazingly.”

“We are exceptionally proud of our skaters. We’ve worked exceptionally hard since November towards this game. We’re very proud that Golden City made history.”

Perhaps most striking to the outsider was the temperament on display. Despite an hour of what old wrestling commentator Jim Ross might call a “slobberknocker affair”, there were almost no nasty confrontations or verbal bickering. At one point an Egyptian player did get heated and was promptly sent off after two warnings. She raged on the sidelines and threw her helmet to the ground, but no one paid her much mind. With the risks involved, there is a collective understanding that it is not worth it to skate with emotion.

As much as almost everyone has a tale of injury to tell, scenes like that which saw The FixR being treated by medics are avoided as best they can be. There’s an inescapable element of violence, but no one wants to hurt each other. Fortunately, The FixR herself sustained only mild whiplash and no long-term injuries. There’s little doubt she will be back on the track soon. 

The inaugural champions have ambitious plans for the near future. The next goal is to enter an overseas tournament, following which they should be able to get a ranking from governing body Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. They were dominant on this day, but no one is under any illusion that bouts against established European teams will present a significantly different challenge.

But for now, all will be content to relish his day’s memory.

Jammers, blockers and rules of the game

The rules of roller derby are filled with nuance but the basics are simple enough to grasp for an appreciation of the game. Each team has rotating groups of five that skate counterclockwise around an oval track. Play is broken into periods called a “jam” (what we could loosely call a scrum), which last for two minutes. At every jam, teams nominate a “jammer”: the player responsible for scoring points and distinguished by a star on the helmet. After the whistle, jammers must break through the opposition “blockers” as they travel around the track; each player they pass earns them a point. The team that accumulates the most points over two 30-minute halves wins.

The blockers look to create walls by interlocking their arms around each other’s shoulders. They then look to halt the progress of the opposition’s jammer while clear the path for their own.

As heavy as the team emphasis is, the most eye-catching plays come from the jammer. The more adept in the position weave together a fine combination of core strength and agility. Travelling at speed they smash into the opposition pack, destabilising the unit before swerving into the open space they leave behind. On some plays, the jammer gets right on to the front of her skates and tip toes between blocker and the boundary line, bending her body to stay in the legal area.

The jammers on show tended to have what we would consider an athletic build. But everyone else was spread across the spectrum of conceivable body types. Players are proud that anyone can come into the sport and adapt a style to their own attributes.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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