Women find their feet and roll with it
Aimee Olsen has been injured many times, but the thrill is irresistible “because it’s a high-adrenaline sport,” says one of the South African women who have become hooked on roller derby.
Fast-paced and aggressive, the contact sport provides a welcome bout of stress release for women players who say it’s an addictive exercise far better than any gym.
During a twice-weekly practice session at a sports hall in Johannesburg’s southern suburb of Turffontein, players sporting brightly-coloured crash helmets and protective elbow, knee and mouth guards speed around a concrete floor barging into each other.
The two teams of five all skate in the same direction, but one player— the “jammer” — scores points by careening through four blockers from the rival team in hectic, twominute bouts.
Flat-track roller derby is wellestablished in the United States but was only introduced in South Africa in 2011 by two women after watching the movie Whip-It, about a Texas teen who shakes off her small town misery by trying the sport.
“One of the most attractive, most liberating things about roller derby is that it doesn’t matter how big, how small, how unfit, howold, how young you are — this is for you,” said Dianne Silva, 30, a medic and keen roller derby fan.
Players include lawyers, filmmakers, full-time mothers and shop assistants— many of whom never played sport before joining up.
For the women, aged from 19 to mid-40s, it is more than a sport. It’ s a passion that em powers players, encouraging them to be physically and mentally challenged to the limit.
“Roller derby is not for dumb people,” said Silva, who is the chairwoman of South Africa’s C-Max Roller Derby league, in which four teams compete.
“We are constantly using our brains on track, and it’s fast and we play offense and defense at the same time.”
Players say it soon generates a strong sense of camaraderie.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is, it doesn’t matter if you have a sporting background or not, it’s a community,” said national coach Nic Chalmers.
The year two women introduced the sport in South Africa after they had watched the movie Whip-It.
Edgy nicknames are something of a rite of passage in the sport. The league itself is named after one of South Africa’s maximum security jails, C-Max in Kokstad.
Teams have names such as Thundering Hellcats or Raging Warmones while players go by such monikers as Faye Tality, Betty Bone Crusher and Clap Cake.
“It’s like an alter ego that I can go on skates and be the person I want to be,” said Aimee Plank, 23, whose derby name is Iron Tyrant.
For its South African enthusiasts, the next challenge is to attract more black players.
“Roller derby is a community, (and) we pride ourselves on being diverse,” said Olsen.
Women take part in a roller derby training session in Johannesburg. South African women are taking to the high-tempo contact sport they say is empowering.