Need for speed? Baying for blood? It’s not violent, but it’s not far off. Zuzia Whelan speaks to Sonia Fernandez of the Dublin Roller Derby A-team for a run down on the rules, the names and the jams.
In an ordinary community sports centre in Inchicore, the scream of wheels on wood rings like a gunshot.
Those who get there early ask if they can “roll around a bit” while they wait for the rest to arrive.
Soon, the hall is filled with the sounds of high-impact and full-contact as the A-team roll on in.
Roller derby is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.
“It’s not violent, but strong. You need to be yourself. This is not a girly sport,” says Sonia Fernandez, known as “Chancleta” by her team mates.
For the curious
It is a full-contact sport, on quad-skates, played on a flat track.
They also use fantastic pseudonyms; Malibruise Stacy, Maria von Slapp, Valdemort. I could go on.
Skating counter-clockwise on a circuit track, there’s one designated scoring jammer, and four blockers, sometimes including a pivot.
Speed, agility and a layer-cake of padding on elbows, knees and head is a necessity.
In game play, there are two teams of up to fourteen players, five of whom are fielded in each two-minute jam during each 30-minute half.
“We have skaters who are forty-five years old, and we have those who need permission from their parents to be involved.”
Only jammers can score points, and their basic objective is to get past the four blockers of the other team. The blockers use full contact to prevent this at all costs, while also trying to let their own jammer past.
Essentially, this is playing offence and defence at the same time.
Father Ted Final; The Eoin McShoves v The Fuppin’ Baxtards. Photo credit: Al McAleese
Dublin Roller Derby
Dublin Roller Derby was Ireland’s first roller derby league, established in 2009, and has over sixty members, three travel teams – the A’s, B’s and C’s, and three home teams.
The A team compete internationally the most — last Saturday they were up against Nothing Toulouse.
As an amateur sport, the league has no official funding, and relies on sponsors and competition entry-fees to cover the costs of venues and travel.
The home teams are intraleague and play each other; they’re also Father Ted themed, The Eoin McShoves, the Whack Hacketts and the Fuppin’ Baxtards. Beautiful.
“Every now and then, one of the players in a jam is shoved out, whereupon they leap gracefully and land with a sound like a car being hit with a baseball bat.”
Monday nights are A-team practice, which means a lot of drills.
Watching each pack getting ready to go is like watching someone put marbles in a blender, and then connect a detonator and walk away.
The beating heart
Sonia came to Ireland from Argentina two years ago, but she has been playing roller derby for about six years. Before moving country, most people who play derby check out the local teams before going ahead. This is one of the reasons she and her wife came to Dublin.
What made you want to stick to it?
Sonia: Oh, the toughness! I used to play hockey, that was tough enough, but with roller derby I knew I could learn and get better, because I sucked at skating. I never skated professionally, like my wife – she did figure skating for 20 years – for her it was easy.
The posture is really different when you do figure skating, it’s beautiful, like a dancer. But in roller derby it’s more like a fighter, a warrior. You need to be prepared all the time; you’re going to get pushed, you need to push people around, you need to get faster. The lower and faster the better.
Would you say roller derby is good at bringing people together?
Sonia: It brings a lot is different shapes and characters. It brings the most weird people together, that’s a fact.
How has the league advanced since you started?
Sonia: The competition is stronger. When me and my wife came the league was kind of quiet. We were good, but now people are getting better. If we make a move in the A’s, they feel it in the B’s. people are changing all the time.
You travel a lot for competitions, right?
Sonia: We play mostly in the UK because it’s close. In the UK you get a lot of people who travel outside. If we want to rank, that’s what we need to do. You play the other teams whose rank is better than yours.
You were in Toulouse on Saturday for a competition.
Sonia: That was a very tough game. Surprisingly they are not a WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) league, because they are co-ed. They are a very good team, we lost by 150 points. But every time it’s that tough we learn something; we have clear objectives. That’s the main idea of playing; to grow.
Is it true that roller derby is more popular with women?
Sonia: It definitely is. When it started it was a women’s sport. The origins are in the 80s and it was a totally different game. The track was at 45 degrees, and it was more like a show, not like a real sport. Around 2000 it got more competitive and aggressive, but even each year it becomes different. Now the game is getting faster and faster.
Before, every time a jammer got a penalty, she sat in the penalty box for one minute. And if you think that a jam is two minutes, they were sitting in the penalty for half the jam? That’s no fun at all! Then they gave you thirty seconds, which is enough to make the game interesting. It makes the game faster.
There are so many rules and they are so specific. Awareness is very important, physically and mentally, we train mind and body together.
We are getting more and more women involved in this, and it doesn’t matter what age you are. We have skaters who are forty-five years old, and we have those who need permission from their parents to be involved.
What do you think puts newcomers off? Why do they stop coming?
Sonia: Because they don’t want to. You come two or three times and you notice what you need to be good at this. You need to like it. If you don’t like it or you are too lazy to get better, you won’t stick around. You need to want it.
What makes people stay?
Sonia: Friendship. This is a very close group of people. But at the same time it’s very personal. You know you can get better, and you want to stay to see if you can do it. You need to have blood in your veins, basically.
Where would you like to see DRD in the future?
Sonia: The Division 1 playoffs. Minimum. This is the top section, and they all play against each other.
What’s your favourite part of derby?
Sonia: I think travel, but it depends on the team. Because if we are talking about playing derby in Argentina I think it’s the passion. Here the sport is different. It’s more serious and cold. You are skating not only because of friendship and travel, but to get better. In Argentina it’s very different because we are very close. We don’t travel a lot. You have a game every single weekend, so you see your friends every weekend. Here, it’s once a month. In Argentina there is no structure, it’s messy. Dublin has more money so we have somewhere to train. In Argentina we play on the street.
What makes this sport different?
Sonia: It’s on skates, and there’s not so many team sports on skates. You need to be quicker physically and mentally, and it’s very interesting when you get to know it. When you see it from the outside it’s confusing, and it’s just a bunch of people hitting each other; it’s a mess.
How do you choose your names?
Sonia: That’s very personal, there’s a story behind each name. Sometimes it’s related to the real name, or a joke. For example, I’m “Chancleta”. In Spanish, it means flip-flop. And I’m very clumsy in general, especially when I started, I was very kamikaze, and it didn’t matter if I hurt myself. In football, when somebody is bad at sports, you call them “chancleta”. So basically I am torpe, it means clumsy. My wife is Manicha. It’s very slangy in Argentina. It means that person that cannot stop, at all. They’re very manicha. It’s so Argentinian.
Dublin Roller Derby B Team v Namur Roller Girls. Photo credit: Al McAleese
It’s true that as an outsider, roller derby looks like a mesmerizing mess. There’s a lot of contact for sure, and clashing, but nobody falls unless they’re royally pushed.
Their balance is hypnotic, and the speed nauseating. Every now and then, one of the players in a jam is shoved out, whereupon they leap gracefully and land with a sound like a car being hit with a baseball bat.
Roller derby is a rare thing; a full-contact sport dominated globally by women, and gaining momentum in popularity at break-neck speed.
Twice a year DRD hold their “fresh meat” sessions, for all the newcomers who want to try out. The sixteen-week course will take you through all the basics of skating, stomping, skating backwards and of course, falling. The latest in-take is past, but e-mail email@example.com to find out more.