In a world where many professional sports teams are driving the various codes toward becoming less inclusive, one sport has embraced the different genetic makeups we are born with.
Roller derby skaters, Primevil (Layla Robinson) and Cankle Biter (Zara Matthews), from Rotorua, New Zealand’s Sulphur City Steam Rollers (SCSR) have very different physiques, but each have attributes that make them assets to their league.
Matching her natural skating ability with strength and agility, Primevil is a great example of a roller derby blocker. In other sports, her physique and lifestyle wouldn’t ‘cut it’
“When we started SCSR in 2011, I hadn’t done any form of exercise since high school. I simply wasn’t interested in the sports that are popular here like netball, hockey, touch or basketball and felt that I wouldn’t fit in well even if I tried. But when I learned about roller derby and how inclusive it is, I knew it would be something I’d be passionate about and decent at due to having skated as a kid.
“I’ve overcome a lot of challenges both physically and mentally in the time I’ve skated. My fitness level still isn’t where it should be, and with limited skating facilities in our city I often struggle to get out on my skates to do extra training. I’ve also had a couple of injuries in the past year which has certainly slowed me down. But I make up for my comparatively poor fitness and dicky ankle with determination to skate hard and play hard and so far that’s working for me.
“On the track, I’m currently focusing on being a strong anchor for my teammates, as well as a good communicator and quick thinker. Thinking like an athlete in a team sport doesn’t come naturally to me, I’ve found the strategy aspect of roller derby pretty hard to get my head around but with perseverance (and lots of derby video watching), it finally makes sense to me. It was worth the struggle because roller derby has saved me, it’s brought me back to life.”
When a new member joins SCSR as a Groupie, they take part in a 14-week training programme coached by Primevil and experienced skater, Nat Demon (Nat Calder). The programme starts with covering the basics of skating including technique, stopping and falling safely. They then progress to more derby focused skills including transitions (turning on skates), hitting (targeting legal zones on opponents’ bodies) and endurance (skating 27 laps in five minutes).
Once they have completed the course, Groupies sit the Basic Skills Test set out by the international governing body of roller derby, Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). It is upon passing this test that they are then permitted to partake in scrimmage training which leads to trialing for a team and eventually their first game.
Cankle Biter’s background as a dancer specialising in ballet is a far cry from the sport of roller derby. She admits that it was a big change. As one of SCSR’s recently skills-tested skaters, Cankle Biter has faced challenges of her own but says that the support she received from other members of the league kept her going.
“Being part of this team is amazing! The derby girls are the most inspiring women you will ever meet and the team has become like a second family. Everyone is so supportive and empowering it makes it fun to train/exercise twice a week.
“In the beginning I was scared to join as it all looked so intense and I’d never roller skated before. But the coaches teach you the skills right from the basics and really encourage you along the way.
“Initially I found it tough to adapt to the technique that roller derby requires. Being able to get down low in ‘derby stance’ is the foundation for roller derby, but in ballet it was the opposite. It was all about lengthening up. But I am a head-strong person, so stuck with it and now being low comes naturally when I’m on skates.
“The hardest battle has come from within though, because I’m a perfectionist and it takes me a while to get confident enough to step outside my comfort zone. But being part of such a great team has enabled me to become so much stronger mentally and physically.
“A few times when confronted with the various challenges of training I doubted that I would be able to stick with derby, but I really fell in love with the sport and now want to keep improving my skills to be the best ‘derby me’ I can be. I also work on fitness outside of derby training by dancing once a week to keep my body toned, and with Zumba to help with cardio.
“One of my favourite things about derby is that everyone has something different they can bring to the sport. Not to mention, derby is the best fun you will ever have!”
The Sulphur City Steam Rollers are always seeking new members for their Rotorua league. More information can be found on their Facebook page.