It takes a brave person to go up against the likes of Mo Mawl’em, Hannahbolic Steroids, or Sigourney Cleaver and, on the track at least, the Belfast Roller Derby girls always live up to their fearsome alter-egos.
The rules of Roller Derby can take a while to get your head around, but you can be assured each ‘bout’ — the Derby term for a competitive match — will be fast-paced, frenzied and furious — and bruises come with the territory.
A bout takes place on an oval track, where two teams of four ‘blockers’ and one ‘jammer’ — or point scorer — will use any legal means possible to block or knock the opposing team over in order to get their jammer through, thus scoring points and leading their team to victory.
While Roller Derby films, such as 2009’s ‘Whip It’ starring Drew Barrymore, have helped to raise the sport’s public profile, in Northern Ireland it is still relatively unknown and our Derby girls are on a mission to change that.
The country’s first ever Roller Derby league has gone from strength to strength since it was founded in 2010 by east Belfast woman Hannah Whitall (26) aka Hannahbolic Steroids.
In addition to travelling all over the UK to play bouts, the team has welcomed guest skaters and coaches from England, Finland, the Republic of Ireland and the home of Roller Derby — America.
These athletes train regularly, pushing their physical limits to the point of pure exhaustion.
“I think it’s the physicality of derby that makes it difficult,” says Hannah.
“It can be very hard when you’re getting knocked down for what feels like the 100th time, your lungs are burning and your body is just screaming at you that you can’t possibly give more.
“But then you get up, you draw breath and mentally give two fingers to your body and drive yourself through another lap.”
Every knock, bump, and bruise seems to make these girls stronger — not just physically, but mentally too.
Many of the team members insist that joining the roller derby team has been key to boosting their confidence and improving self-esteem.
“I think the very nature of the sport gives people confidence,” says Hannah. “The idea of strapping on skates to go out and let people hit you while you try to knock them over sounds mad but these women do it anyway. I think that takes guts.
“I also like to think that BRD (Belfast Roller Derby) gives people a supportive environment to learn and play in.
“The little achievements are celebrated and there's always someone waiting to give you a boost when you're not feeling so great about your skills. Knowing there's a group of people that have your back helps.”
The overwhelming air of confidence that exudes from this team is contagious and will make any woman want to grab a pair of skates and give it a spin.
They are always on the look out for new skaters, referees and officials and they hold regular ‘Fresh Meat’ recruitment events for beginners to experience the sport first hand.
“I think anyone can try derby,” says Hannah. “We have members of all ages over 18, all shapes and sizes. Most people do not have a skating background and are not already fitness fanatics or sporty people.
“Like most sports though it does require determination and a willingness to learn.
“Just try it! Sure you might look like an idiot for a bit and fall a few times but you could become the stronger individual — physically and mentally — that you want to be, meet some interesting people and get to feel like a kid again!”
See the girls in action at their next bout in the Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey, on December 1 at 7pm. Tickets £5 in advance, £7 at the door. A ticket will also get you free entry to the after-party at the Hudson Bar, Belfast. Buy tickets online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/295048
Roller Derby terminology
Bout: One roller derby match which lasts 60 minutes, made up of two 30-minute halves, broken down into ‘Jams’.
Jam: The standard period of play, lasting up to two minutes each, unless called off early by a ‘jammer’ who has gained the positional advantage of ‘Lead Jammer’.
Jammer: The skater in a jam who can score points, identifiable by the star on her helmet. Both jammers start each jam behind the pack (made up of four blockers from each team). After a jammer has lapped the pack once, she is then eligible to score points for each subsequent skater that she laps afterwards.
Blocker: A skater whose job is to stop or block the other team’s jammer from passing while also enabling her own team’s jammer to score. There are four blockers per team on track at any one time.
NSO: Non-skating official. A team of 14 NSOs work alongside seven referees to track points, penalties, line-ups and time the penalty box.
‘I feel like I can handle what life throws at me’
Name: Fionnuala Dempsey
Derby name: Dempsey Hammer
From: Living in east Belfast, from Derry
I saw the film ‘Whip It' and was hooked on the sport from that day! At the time I couldn't really express what it was that I loved so much about it, but I now know it was the mental toughness of the skaters — not just that they could physically take or give a hit, but that mentally they could.
They just never gave up, and I wanted to be more like that.
On my first night at Fresh Meat I stood up on skates and just fell over, I was like Bambi on ice.
Now I can skate fast, do jump turns, skate outside, stuff that I thought I'd never be able to.
I'm in the advanced training sessions now and I'll hopefully be playing my first public bout in December, although my stomach flips every time I think about that!
Roller Derby has really helped boost my confidence.
I've faced some challenges in the past which really affected my confidence, including being on the receiving end of a couple of violent crimes, and while I had worked through that and come out the other side, I still never felt totally safe from harm in day to day life. I worried a lot.
That has changed now and I don't worry as much. I feel like I can handle what's thrown at me. I'm just not afraid of it and if anything like that were to happen I feel like I’d be able to cope.
The fact that I'm now stronger and fitter than I was is just an added bonus!
I've been injured twice. Coming back can be difficult. You can doubt yourself and think you can't do it.
This is where the mental toughness comes in. Getting hit hurts but you have to make the decision not to be afraid of that pain because it's what's standing between you and your goal.
I wouldn't change a thing about being part of my league. I love my teammates, we have brilliant coaches and amazing referees and NSOs (non-skating officials), and watching new skaters come in and get hooked by the sport we all love so much is an amazing feeling. I'm BRD for life!
‘Joining Derby helped me after birth of son’
Name: Maedbh Williams
Derby Name: Sylvia Wrath
From the word go Roller Derby was so much harder than I ever imagined. At Fresh Meat, I remember standing up for the first time and being so unsteady I had to hold another skater’s hand and get her to walk me to the wall. I was determined to keep at it though and I now have eight bouts under my belt, I am the recruitment officer and was recently chosen as vice captain of the Belfast Banshees, our travel team.
On a personal level it has done wonders for my confidence and believing in myself. I am a single parent and when I started I was a new mum. My son was only six months old. I hadn't done much the whole way through my pregnancy and for the six months after he was born and I felt very isolated. I guess my friends were at different stages in their lives and I didn’t see much of them. Joining Derby gave me something that was just for me and I met a great group of people. To know that people believe in you and what you can do is amazing and I am so thankful to all at BRD for being a part of that. I think if I didn't have Derby I really don’t know how I would have coped.
My fitness has improved and I have found a new love and met some great people who all share the same passion. I love being a member of BRD. Even if you don’t have a clue what Derby is just come and give it a chance!
There is a place for everyone in roller derby and you don’t have to be super fit and athletic to start as long as you are determined to persevere when things get tough and prepared to put in the effort. You will learn a new skill, meet a fabulous group of men and women, improve your fitness and most importantly have fun!
‘You’re gonna get hurt but it’s well worth it’
Name: Angela Morgan
Derby name: Morgan Affray
From: Living in Belfast, from Cloughey
When I first joined Roller Derby my daughter was just one year old. My life had changed dramatically since getting pregnant and having her.
I suppose like most people without kids, it was all about my social life and having time for myself and being able to do anything at the drop of a hat.
After quite a difficult pregnancy and birth, I suffered with post natal depression, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I thought everyone felt that way after having a baby.
It was hard for me to get out and mix with people.
More to the point, I didn’t know how to get out. I was losing my confidence and found it easier just to give into it.
When I found out about Belfast Roller Derby, what I really liked about it was the idea of women of all shapes, sizes, religions and backgrounds getting together to play a really empowering sport.
“I found out pretty quickly that the group of girls I had involved myself with were exactly what I needed to build myself back up, not just physically but emotionally — not by telling them all about my woes but just by them being totally supportive and encouraging in all things Derby. I feel that it has really helped me to deal with things, and to be honest, hitting pretty girls around a hall would make anyone feel better!
Roller Derby is like nothing you’ll have ever seen before. It’s filled with speed, aggression and drama. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
You will get hurt but it’s well worth it. What you get out of it is so much more than bruises, which you begin to treat like trophies. It is the people, the camaraderie, the empowerment and the sheer joy of skating on track with some awesome bad ass girls.