Finding out the hard way that roller derby’s a tough sport

“You’ve signed the waiver right?”, questioned the woman only introducing herself as Pink Mist, Pippy Longstocking-like braids cascading from her purple helmet, uniform complete with fishnet stockings, lime green singlet, hotpants and a hot pink mouthguard.

Granted, with rollerskates on I felt as unstable as Bambi on a frozen pond. But so unbalanced that the same question about my insurance waiver needed to be asked three times in succession before even I’d taken my supporting hand off the wall?

Besides, I’d come to this Fyshwick warehouse to pose the questions.

Well, just one exactly, and it must be one the Canberra Roller Derby League (CRDL) encounters a lot. It’s under the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website – is roller derby a real sport?

Not satisfied by the website’s answer of “Absolutely!” I accepted the challenge of the CRDL to attend a training session and find out.

I’d picked this fight. Last week a CRDL representative, Christine Murray – nicknamed Shortstop – had won the public’s online vote to determine Australia’s greatest ever female athlete.

Shortstop got more votes than them all: Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert, Layne Beachley, Margaret Court, Cathy Freeman.

Surely infamous computer hackers Anonymous hadn’t been guilty of such an online heist. It seemed as ludicrous as voting lip-synchers Milli Vanilli the greatest voices of the 20th century, and so I wrote as much.

But as I turned up to the training site and realised the CRDL’s logo was a stylised set of knuckledusters, I wondered if this was a fight I was prepared for.

Reassuring myself that female rollerskaters would be as intimidating as schoolgirls with a hula hoop or skipping rope, I donned my lid – ‘Helmet of Shame’ written on the back – and jumped straight to the point with President of the CRDL, Dena Cook – aka Cherry.

“We always get this question and yes it is a serious sport,” Cherry said.

“It’s competitive, we work in teams like any other sport, we use strategies, the physicality of it is similar to rugby.

“We’ve got skaters who’ve played soccer, been speed skaters, used to play netball and hockey … The only difference between us and any other contact sport is that we get to look good while we do it.”

Those who argue roller derby is not a sport point straight to the Rockabilly uniforms, which can make participants look like they’re about to deliver a hamburger and malt-shake to your car window rather than a captivating sporting contest. There’s less glitter at Mardi Gras.

Hot pants can make it look like a pantomime too. At one point in history roller derby was just that.

Roller derby can be traced back to the 1930s in America, its popularity selling out iconic venues like Madison Square Garden.

But it tried to evolve in the 1960s by using scripted and rehearsed bouts, becoming theatrical like professional wrestling.

Uniforms were bedazzled with sequins and the participants given stage-like nicknames.

This is another major sticking point to critics believing roller derby is a genuine sport.

As I start to find my feet by taking my eyes off them, I look around. There’s names like Rainbow Spite, Miss D. Meaner, Strawberry Punch, skating for teams known as the Brindabelters or Surly Griffins.

“It used to be a carnival and they were very open and honest about it at that time, just like we’re open and honest now that this is a sport,” Cherry said.

“The resurgence that’s happened in the last 10 years has been sport-based.”

Such to the extent that roller derby labels itself the fastest growing female sport in the world. There’s more than 1200 leagues world-wide.

And there’s a legitimate bid to have rollersport introduced at the Olympics by 2020. Annie Hart, aka Sugar Plum Crazy, isn’t so nuts about that idea.

“There’s a lot of people in the derby community that don’t like the idea of how organised and rigid it would have to be to be an Olympic sport, but there’s definitely a side for that.”

The basics of roller derby show sporting merit.

There’s teams of five skating in a clock-wise direction pummeling the bejesus out of each other, trying to stay on their feet and pass opponents as many times as possible. Steven Bradbury won a Winter Olympic gold for doing pretty much the same thing!

There’s scoring. There’s positions – jammers, blockers and pivots. There’s referees and penalties for foul play. There’s coaching and play-books for maneuvers.

As I’m taken through the fitness drill known as “fall and sprawl”, the athletic component becomes obvious.

“It’s such a strategic game, all the people who come and watch it love it for the game play, the big hits, the strength and excitement,” Pink Mist says.

Sugar Plum Crazy adds: “You’ve got to have the strength and endurance to skate for an hour and take hits, get up and keep going. It’s intense.”

There’s no sign of Shortstop this day, she remains a myth. Participants relay stories of a pocket rocket who skates like the wind and recently had groupies lining up to get her autograph at a roller derby convention attended by hundreds on the Queensland Sunshine Coast.

“She trains relentlessly to be a top athlete, no-one works harder than her,” Cherry says.

After an hour on the rink I’m dripping in sweat, my lower-back is aching from staying in a squat position – or derby stance so participants can brace themselves for hip-and-shoulder bumps.

Give me the nickname ‘Backflip’ because I’m starting to be converted here.

But one last question to Pink Mist before leaving – has she ever competed in other sports.

“I started pole dancing before I did this which helped with my core [muscles]. It’s also a great sport which I think gets a bad rep …”

Eyebrows raised, my mouth shut. Some fights are better walking away from.

* Is Roller derby a sport? To judge for yourself, the 2013 CDRL season gets underway on March 23 at Tuggeranong Stadium.

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