Words by Lindsay Walsh | Photos by Mark Rodgers
Roller derby is one of the fastest growing women's sports in the world. But how would Mpora's man / crash test dummy fare against the Portsmouth Roller Wenches?
According to James Brown it's a man's world, but obviously he never played roller derby. For those of you not in the know, roller derby is basically a good scrap on wheels - teams of women race around an oval track trying to knock seven bells out of each other. Picture rugby combined with speed skating and you're halfway there.
Would I make it through a training session with some of my dignity and all of my limbs intact?
Many skaters cite derby movie Whip It as the thing that first got them into the sport. The film stars tiny actress Ellen Page knocking people around and I felt reasonably confident that if a five foot Hollywood waif could do it then so could I.
Or at the very least make it through a training session with some of my dignity and all of my limbs intact.
So it was that I found myself slowly padding up at the beginning of a practice session for the Portsmouth Roller Wenches.
Each skater in roller derby has their own derby name and I was welcomed warmly by The Duchess of Crutches.
Hoping this wasn't an omen for the rest of the session I strapped on elbow pads, knee pads, wrist guards and helmet, borrowed the team's 'spare' gum shield (which had frequented goodness knows how many mouths before mine) and pushed slowly away from the wall towards the oval.
Finding My Feet
The Wenches were already in full swing, gliding effortlessly round the track, while I gingerly placed one foot after the other looking like Bambi after a particularly heavy night out.
I’d already been overtaken by the entire team by the whistle blew and I suddenly found myself facing a sea of helmets, pads and skates heading back in my direction at speed. It was at this point that I realised Page had one vitally important thing I didn't - a stunt double.
Trying to present the smallest target possible I wobbled on the spot as the Wenches barrelled past, each looking like they were been born already wearing their first pair of skates.
After another ten minutes or so I began to find my skating legs and, although I still looked like a cartoon deer, it was perhaps a marginally more sober cartoon deer. I got ready to take part in my first drills.
From the outside derby might just seem like high-speed violence but in the middle of all the painful takedowns there's a deeply tactical side. Each team fields five skaters on track, three blockers, one pivot and one jammer.
I was welcomed warmly by 'The Duchess of Crutches'.
The jammer's job is to skate around the track scoring points by overtaking the other team while the blockers (co-ordinated by the pivot) try to let their jammer through and take out the opposing point scorer.
Rolling With the Punches
In the chaos of the track co-ordinating set manoeuvres, keeping an eye on the opposing jammer and making space for your own to get through takes incredible team work, great skating skills and a fast tactical mind.
At this precise point my main focus was just standing up but I took my place in a wall of girls, trying to place my slightly off-balance body between jammer RIP McMurphy and victory.
As RIP smashed into us, I became very thankful for the ladies to my left and right who were the only stable things in a very mobile world. Held up miraculously by the various hips, elbows and knees of my team-mates my tottering skates slipped across the ground like it was an ice rink covered in banana skins.
Somehow I stayed on my feet but RIP butted and wrestled again and again until she found a weak spot and broke through, dancing down the track ahead of us.
Feeling like I'd just been attacked by a particularly ferocious goat that thought I'd said something about its mother I braced myself for the next hit. Sweat was already running into my eyes and minutes later I was dumped unceremoniously on my backside.
With the first fall out the way the adrenaline was pumping and after a few more runs my team-mates decided that I should have a go as jammer. Suddenly outnumbered four to one I felt pretty alone on the track.
Facing a team of experienced skaters I was very aware of my limited skating skills, however this was one situation where an inability to stop might actually be helpful.
Using the only trick I could think of I skated at the gap between two players, sidestepping at the last minute and throwing my weight through the gap on the other side. To both the girls' and my surprise this actually worked and I rolled unhindered down the track, enjoying a healthy dose of beginner's luck.
Separating the Women From the Boys
My second jam met much stiffer resistance and I piled into a wall of co-ordinated muscle. I had a brief pang of chivalry, feeling slightly awkward about skating into ladies, but it was quickly squashed as I was battered from side to side by the close-knit blockers.
This was war and it was every man, woman and bad Bambi impersonator for themselves. Throwing everything into it I made it through the wall a couple more times and really started to feel the buzz of the sport.
I had a brief pang of chivalry but it was quickly squashed as I was battered from side to side.
We finished off the session with some game practice, two full teams with 10 skaters on the track.
Several spectacular crashes and one particularly bruised butt cheek later I rejoined the wall and Dropkick Molly asked what I'd done to my arm.
There were several sucked in breaths and at least one whistle as my arm was inspected, confirming that this wasn't a complete 'winjury'.
And after a photo call where at least one Wench attempted to lick my arm better I felt suitably chuffed with my first case of rink rash.
The session finished and I felt I'd given as good as I got, spending slightly more time on my feet than off them and losing several times my own body weight in sweat.
It’s a Good Day When You Don’t Have to Call an Ambulance
As one skater was packed in ice after a nasty hit to the legs and another skated off bleeding from her hand the Duchess casually remarked “Yeah it's a good day when you don't have to call an ambulance."
She went on to elaborate on the topic of little bumps and scrapes or 'winjuries', which seemed to include everything just short of amputation, and then explained how diving in derby bought you time in the sin bin.
It crossed my mind that the Wenches could be put to good use giving some much needed 'man up' coaching to the more fragile members of our nation's football teams, but it would be a shame to take up their valuable skating time with lost causes.
People are too quick to claim that running, throwing or kicking like a girl means you are weak or bad at sport. I challenge anyone that's ever spoken that way to go for a session with their local derby team where you'll find that skating and hitting like a girl are some of the biggest compliments you can get.
If you want to find out more about derby or just congratulate the ladies that threw me around the track check out the Portsmouth Roller Wenches website at: portsmouthrollerwenches.com