Fast and furious: Welsh Roller Derby dragons on the rise
If you haven’t yet heard of Roller Derby - this is definitely going to change in the next few years.The sport started in the 1930s in the US as a kind of ‘entertainment sport’ (in the same way as hammy WWF wrestling). It originally became better known for its theatrics than it’s athleticism, but the sport became professional and competitive in the 1940s, with 5 million people in 50 American cities regularly watching the bouts.
What the hell is roller derby, though?
Essentially, it’s a gritty contact sport on wheels - it welcomes everyone, no matter what shape or size and there is a bit of a hangover from the early ‘entertainment’ side of the game. Derby team members sometimes choose a ‘persona’ or a derby nick-name. You might see a lot of dyed hair, tattoos, glitter, ripped tights, stripy socks, piercings. Despite the ‘alternative’ vibe associated with a lot of Derby players though, we treat it as a professional sport. Many of us cross-train as well and approach the sport as athletes. My hope is that Derby will be taken up as an Olympic sport in the near future - this will give it an even bigger platform, worldwide.
Some have likened Derby to a mash-up between hockey, rugby, and wrestling on wheels...at high speed, while people try to take you down. Two teams of five race counterclockwise around a flat track in a series of short match-ups (called ‘jams’). Each team will have a ‘jammer’ who has to try and bust through the pack. You score points for every blocker you pass and well...let’s just say things can get a bit scary. There’s a huge rule book about when/where you can pass, which moves you can do, where on the body you can hit.
But you WILL get hit.
You’ll use your shoulders, bum, and hips to whack people out of your way/block them from passing and do everything in your power to stop the opposing team’s jammer. One of the best things you can do is shift them off the track completely or try to get them to lose their balance.
I’d say learning to take a body blow was one of the most empowering and exhilarating things that attracted me to the sport in the first place. OK, yes - you can get injured. There are some horror tales of snapped ankles, broken wrists, scuffs, bruises, concussion….
The worst injury I have sustained was a concussion which led to severe tinnitus and a hearing impairment. I know how this sounds, but trust me - there’s a lot of discipline and skillful gameplay involved. You’re always learning new things!
How I got into Derby
I was looking for a hobby that also kept me fit. I’d tried a number of other sports and classes but Derby was the only one that stuck. There really is no feeling like teaming up and ‘slaying’ your opponents. Adrenaline, guts, speed - it’s got it all. You don’t need to be big and powerful either - some of the more slender/shorter girls will excel at darting through the pack and you can use clever footwork to evade or outwit the opposing team.
Growing the sport in Wales - and bringing the fire worldwide!
Roller Derby is the fastest growing female sport in the UK, with more than 50 leagues operating and what some don’t realise is that Welsh roller derby teams are doing amazingly well, not just in the UK but in the world leagues, too.
It’s really growing and developing in Wales, there are now around 7 teams in Wales. Tiger Bay Brawlers are my home team, we’re based in Cardiff and are currently Wales’ only World Flat Track Derby Association ranked team. There are also more and more junior and men’s teams popping up all over the place.
We’re really happy with our results, the team worked so hard to place 11th out of 38 teams at the Women’s Roller Derby World Cup. As for the future of the sport in Wales, I’d like to see it grow in popularity, possibly by merging some smaller teams into the bigger ones. Hopefully, this will then bring in bigger crowds to our games and create more competitive talent pools that skaters can grow and thrive in.
For Team Wales I’d like to see us place within the top ten teams at the next World Cup and to achieve the 1st in Europe title.
At the World Cup, our stand out blocker would have to be Dos Santos. Her home team is the Tiger Bay Brawlers). She lands the biggest most crowd pleasing hits and I wouldn’t want to come up against her if I were a jammer!
Jammer wise Sally Jones (Home team Leeds roller derby). She was spectacular across the tournament, with fantastic footwork control along the lines of the track. Our captain Thrill Collins (Home team Tiger Bay Brawlers) has also done an excellent job over the course of the World Cup, she played in the pivot’s position and has blocked and jammed against some really tough opponents.
I’m absolutely certain that Wales is punching above its weight when it comes to competing on a world stage. The World Cup showed that Wales are here - and we’re ready to compete!
The current squad are also third in Europe after competing in ERDT in Belgium in 2016. We also finished our home tournament held in Cwmbran in 2017 undefeated and became the overall tournament winners. The recent men’s roller derby tournament and placement among the top of the world leagues is testament to the fact that Welsh roller derby is on the rise.
We’d love to attract more people as supporters - and of course, new players too. If there are any GlobalWelsh community members who are curious about it, I’d encourage you to overcome your fears and doubts, strap on some skates and find your inner hero/villain persona.
There’s a place for everyone in Roller Derby, on or off track….you’re all invited!
Laura Kemp is a member of the Tiger Bay Brawlers, one of Wales’ most successful Roller Derby leagues and she also represented Team Wales at the Women’s Roller Derby World Cup. She is a supporter/campaigner for ‘Llanelli Yes’ and is a trustee for Great Dane Care, helping to rescue and rehome Great Danes.
Image credits: Team Wales Roller Derby / Tiger Bay Brawlers.
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