Last night I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, I went back to Roller Derby training. Roller Derby, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a full contact sport played on quad roller skates. I started playing in 2011 with the Limerick Roller Girls (now called Limerick Roller Derby), and have went from being extremely involved (at my peak, winning best jammer awards, playing around Europe) to hanging up my skates, getting not so fit, and not so fast.
It all started out when I watched the mainstream Roller Derby Movie Whip It in 2011. In Roller Derby that’s a cliché most people wouldn’t admit to. I saw it, and my housemates and I were obsessed. I had skated from aged 6, even when I travelled around Australia in 2007/8, I bought some roller blades over there. I loved the skate park too much (actually dislocated my elbow on a skateboard in Oz.) In school I was pretty sporty, I was nominated senior sports person of the year, VP of the senior football team, on the basketball team, cross country team etc… But skating was my favourite. I skated around town as a teenager and believe me, that was not a cool thing to be doing. It was a pretty huge coincidence that the day after my introduction to the sport Roller Derby, my housemate comes in with her laptop and shows me a post on Facebook. My jaw dropped, there were two girls thinking of setting up a league in Limerick and they were meeting a few days later in Costello’s Tavern to discuss. About 12 girls showed up, we had a few meetings, we picked horrible colours (pink and black, since changed to red and green), we had a few fundraiser nights out, and a few of us went down to Cork where they had an established league, and we got to try a training session with borrowed gear. Some of the girls started getting together in a local hall to skate over the summer. I spent my summer working and saving for roller skates, which were €300, and pretty expensive for me as a student. I had just gotten a job in a recently opened up Roller Skating rink called Rollerjam, totally separate from Derby, but it allowed me have a lot of practice on skates before I started skating with the group at the end of the summer.
We didn’t know what we were doing to begin with, it was the blind leading the blind. Some of us had skating experience, but none had real derby experience. We met with girls from leagues in Dublin, Cork and Belfast who gave us tips and we learned the rest online. Two leaders stood out to me at the time, Jewel Suffer, who captained Limerick Roller Derby most of the time I was skating, and Ash Bandicoot who skated with and was involved in training the team for many years, both still play on the Limerick Roller Derby Travel Team. They, along with a massive amount of people, I couldn’t possibly name, took the league through many changes and venues, and we eventually found a home in Delta Sports Dome in Ballysimon. Ash had also gotten a job in the local Roller Skating Rink that summer. It was a good time; we eventually got the running of the team, everyone got really good on skates and we started bouting. We travelled to Frankfurt for our first game abroad, and back in those times the host team always sorted accommodation and it was all very DIY. After Roller Derby bouts the host team run big after parties in rock bars and it is incredible. We’d absolutely kill each other on the track, and then go party with the other team. One of my favourite video clips is of Belfast’s Buckfast Barbie absolutely bashing me off the track, and then giving me a smug face (footage, sadly, no longer exists). And then afterwards we’d hug and high five and go for drinks.
I took a break for almost a year when I moved to Cork, but took it right back up when I moved back to Limerick for my masters in 2014. Eventually at the end of my masters, I was unable to handle the full derby commitment due to my studies and work. If you’re competitive, you can understand that it’s not easy to stay with a club and put in just 50%. And so for the past couple of years, my trusty Riedell 265’s have stayed tucked beneath my bed.
So last night was my comeback, I was in a good head space and as soon as I got in from work, I found myself dusting off my skate bag and pulling out one of my old derby shirts. I left early to pick up my pal & former housemate/teammate Ash Bandicoot and her boyfriend (and Men Behaving Derby and Men’s Team Ireland skater) Jeff, who live around the corner. Eager beaver here arrived a little early, with my derby gear packed in my trunk. We drove out to Delta Sports Dome in Limerick and got geared up. Many familiar and new faces greeted me as I laced up my skates, put on my knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards. I could sense something was missing but couldn’t place it until Ash asked me if I had a mouth guard, rookie mistake. So I did the classy thing. There are these Protech gum shields that get really discoloured after they’ve been worn for a few months, they look awful, but remould perfectly every time, well most teams usually have a spare. Yes, my return to roller derby and I was going to be wearing the spare team gum shield, and what’s more, I didn’t care.
I happily boiled the kettle and molded that gum shield before taking to the track. I was in a good mindset, much better even than 2014. I think the difference in 2014 was that I was younger, more confident, and probably even over confident. In a way, that mindset served me well, because it didn’t take me long to get into the swing of things. When I hit the track, I usually warm up with a few mohawks of the track, that means skating with your feet both turned out. It opens up the muscles and usually makes me feel pumped. I used to do it all the time before matches, it just feels exhilarating to fly around the track at ease like that. Last night however, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I wanted to focus on getting my fitness up, not showing off. Looking around at the standard of my old team, I wasn’t even sure I could show off.
I could see the skaters that I used to play with, looking extremely toned, fit, and skating at a level that I’ve never seen them at before. I was impressed, and excited. A strong team means getting my own standard up too. But last night I was back to basics. After a quick warm up the group split into advanced and rookies, being my first day back I was a rookie. It was strangely humble, strange at least for me. In between drills I focused on keeping a really low stance, which is something I always wished I’d focused on more. In Roller Derby, you get hit, a lot. In the position I usually play, Jammer, you get hit even more. The idea behind a low stance means having more reach side wards, you have a lower centre of gravity so you’re more stable and better able to handle being hit.
The difference in last night’s return to Roller Derby vs my return in 2014, is 3 years, the difference between being 25 years old and almost 28. I feel each one of those years this morning. I’m sitting here typing and my muscles are aching, it’s a familiar ache and I kind of love it. I feel like the tin man who’s just been oiled for the first time in years. To prepare for getting back on skates, I had undertaken a fitness & diet programme and lost 1 stone in the gym in 6 weeks. However, all the TRX in the world can’t do to you what Roller Derby does. The muscles you use when hitting another player off the track on Roller Skates are somehow not fully accessible off skates.
All night my head had been telling me I could do it, but the reality was that my body needs a little time to catch up with what my head thinks I’m able for. I just looked up my favourite player, Bonnie Thunders, who’s basically the Cora Staunton of Roller Derby, to see if she was still playing. At five years my senior, Thunders, aka Nicole Williams, is thankfully still at the peak of her game. This is somewhat reassuring for a 28 year old getting back into Derby.
I’ll keep you posted.