Roller girls battlefield
Journalist Grace Uhr gets her skates on to tackle the growing craze for roller derby.
It took about two months for my boss to convince me to join the Cairns roller derby girls for a skate, so I could write about their sport from "personal experience".
Then it took an extra-long time for me to psych up enough courage to get out of the car when I arrived at their training session last weekend.
When you’re told to go into the sporting arena alongside girls that call themselves names such as Malice N’ Mayhem, Killer Bones and Lambikini, it’s not exactly a decision you take lightly.
And with a sporting background that involves the somewhat girlier domains of netball and jazz ballet, I wasn’t really sure it was somewhere I belonged.
But with my helmet and mouthguard packed, worker’s compensation form ready to be filled out and boyfriend on call to drive me to the hospital, I stepped on to the turf of the Reef City Roller Girls.
"Hi, I’m Grace from The Cairns Post. I’ve come to skate with you guys today," I utter tentatively to a woman with hot pink hair and tattoo-covered arms.
She breaks into a big smile. "Hey Grace, I’m Denise – well DiePolar B...h. I wasn’t sure what size skates you were so I’ve got three pairs and all your safety gear. Let me know whatever you need."
She couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful. This was not what I expected.
But it is stereotypes like my own that these girls are fighting to shrug off.
"People think we’re angry, man-hating lesbians that don’t shave their armpits, but we’re not, we’re empowered women and I think we show it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you’re in control of your empowerment," DiePolar tells me later.
"It’s about breaking that stereotype.
"I look at all of these girls and they all offer something else, they’re all so different."
DiePolar (they all prefer to go by their derby names when they’re practising and competing) is secretary of the Roller Girls League and points out a few of the girls to me.
"She’s a nurse, that girl over there is a police officer, she’s a dental nurse, there’s a few mums."
Skates, knee-pads and wrist-guards donned, I struggle to my feet like a newborn puppy on kitchen tiles and wait for the mayhem to begin.
But as I stagger my way around the ring, there is no one attempting Greg Inglis-style shoulder-charges and no one trying to mow me down and use my body as a practice jump.
I find out afterwards, this is because the rules of the sport, particularly for beginners, are incredibly strict.
Along with having to wade through a 40-page rule book, "Raw Meat" and "Fresh Meat" skaters also have to pass a skating and a written test before they are allowed anywhere near a "bout".
One of these skating tests includes trying to complete 25 laps of the track within five minutes. I gave it a go and made to 11. Barely.
The ladies tell me it can take weeks or months to get to that level and everyone progresses at different speeds.
Mother-of-two Brenda Hill, or BooZuka, is in the Fresh Meat group after she took up the sport late last year and is waiting to pass her practical test before making her bout debut.
"I’m petrified (about my first bout), but I’m looking forward to it," she says.
"It’s the only full contact women’s sport in the world and that’s why there’s so much safety," she says.
"I admit that when I told them (my family) about it they were a bit worried I’d get hurt, but they know how much I love it so it’s OK.
"For me I was only a mum and I didn’t really get to have a name, so it was a release and getting to do something for myself."
The concept of "having an outlet" seems to be a fairly common theme for most of the women involved in the sport in Cairns and according to James Cook University sports psychology expert, Joann Lukins, this is true of many sports people.
"There’s a lot of preparation needed to get ready to go out on to the track and it’s almost like you also need to step into a persona to take out there which lets you do things you wouldn’t do in regular life," she says.
"You’re using a persona to enhance your self-esteem, build confidence and get ready to compete.
"It’s a great forum to explore other aspects of ourselves. And as long as the persona is consistent with ourselves I can’t see anything wrong with it and if it helps build self-esteem and confidence, that’s great."
The sport has become a worldwide phenomenon where players can register their bout names on a site, ensuring their individuality.
DiePolar emphasised how much their names and the numbers they have on the back of their shirts mean to each girl.
She sports the number 85 in recognition of the number of kilograms she lost after taking up the sport almost two years ago.
"Every name and number is strategic. It’s someone we can create on the track that we can’t be in real life," she says.
"I am a b...h so I thought I’m going to own it, and I’m a bit bi-polar on the track. I can come here and yell and scream and that’s OK, but I couldn’t do that during the day at work.
"A lot of people have families or high-stress jobs and it’s a release for them."
As reportedly the fastest-growing women’s sport in Australia, roller derby is starting to reach a fever pitch.
There are three teams in the local competition which began in 2009 and today two of them will take on Townsville in a bout entitled Skate of Origin.
Townsville has long been the top team in North Queensland as it was the first in the region to launch the sport, but DiePolar reckons this could be about to change.
"I’d like to say yes, we’ve got as good a chance as any and we’ve been training very hard. We’ll be bringing our A game and there’s no reason we couldn’t win," she says.
How does the game work? I hear you ask.
It is an hour-long game, split into two halves which each consists of two-minute stints called "jams".
Each team has a "jammer" who gets points for every opponent they can pass on the track, while the rest of the team are "blockers" who try to stop the opposing "jammer", while assisting their own.
Blocking can only be done using strategic hip and shoulder moves and there are a range of minor and major penalties for illegal hits.
One of the referees who will be in control of today’s games is Interceptor, aka Stephen Mulcahy, the husband of DiePolar.
"He joined because that’s the only way he was going to see me because derby consumes your life," she says.
"It’s the only time he’s allowed to boss me around and it’s the only time he gets away with it. But to be honest I couldn’t have done it, been secretary of the league and all that, without his support."
Cynthia Kloprogge, aka Smiling Chaos, competed in her first bout last September and flew past me about 20 times during practice before I had to stop and ask how she does it.
"Have you been skating for years?" I ask.
She laughs: "No, I’ve been here probably close to a year-and-a-half now. I’d never even been on skates before.
"I was like: ‘How am I ever going to be able to do that?’."
The full-time body piercer has all the tricks in the skating book and looks like Torvill or Dean on wheels, so her sporting background would come as a shock.
"I used to do tenpin bowling and I got over it and wanted a change," she says.
Had she played an other sports in her youth? "Nope," she chuckles.
"It’s such a hard game to wrap your head around, it keeps you on your toes.
"It’s so different to any other sports women play."
Smiling Chaos plays for the Cane Sugars, who will take on Townsville team the Slaughterers in the opening bout today at 4pm, before our Monsoon Maidens play visitors Skull Ravens at 7pm.
Both bouts are being staged at the Fred Moule Pavilion at the Cairns Showgrounds.
I decided to leave the girls in peace after about an hour of training and emerged from the Fretwell Park building sweaty, stinking, but with all limbs intact, which made both me and our workplace health and safety manager very happy.
What I took away from that afternoon was that these girls are tough but they work their guts out to get better at a sport they love, which happens to be physically demanding.
And like any other top sports person out there, that’s to be respected, not criticised.
As I walked away DiePolar shouted out: "Come back and skate with us sometime!" and you know what? I just might. If I can fit it in between the netball and jazz ballet of course.
Skate of Origin is on today at Fred Moule Pavilion, Mulgrave Rd. For tickets visit: http://reefcityrollergirls.oztix.com.au/
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Reef City Roller Girls roller derby competitors DiePolar B...h and Ree‑Possessed. Picture: BRENDAN FRANCIS