The Life And Times Of Ryan J Finnigan: Roller Derby
Sheffield Steel Rollergirls or: Why Roller Derby is Sheffield’s Best Sport.
Finding yourself greeted by the sight of stilt-walkers, jugglers and an army of girls on roller skates might not be your usual Sunday-afternoon fare. However, Ponds Forge was transformed from sports hall to Big Top for ‘Cirque du Slay’, as Sheffield’s own Roller Derby team, Sheffield Steel Rollergirls (SSRG) took on Birmingham’s Central City Rollergirls, in their final home bout of the season.
For the uninitiated, each Roller Derby ‘Bout’ consists of two halves of consecutive plays known as ‘Jams’. Five members from each team take to the track at one time with a chosen player from each, known as the ‘Jammer’ (indicated by a star worn on the helmet), starting behind the other players. The Jammer is the point scorer for the team and scores points by lapping members of the other team, known as ‘Blockers’. The Jammer to first make it legally through the pack is known as the ‘Lead Jammer’ and can call off a Jam at any time, otherwise the Jam ends after two minutes.
A brief explanation of Roller Derby undermines the fact that it is notably a complex sport; a heady mix of strategy, speed, skill and power combined with a much more complicated set of rules than hinted at above. Comparable to the plays of American Football, but with the aesthetics of a Demolition Derby, perhaps even, a surreal mix of Quidditch and ‘Road Rash’? Whatever angle a newcomer recognises, there is a base understanding from the beginning of what is happening, as opposing teams flatten each other and Jammers weave through the pack, with the unique nuances of the sport picked up throughout your first bout. This gives Roller Derby an infectious quality, those who arrive are almost certain to return to learn more and crowds grow through word of mouth.
Unlike most other sports, the two minute time limit and consecutive jams never allows Roller Derby to draw to a stalemate. This leads to an uncharacteristic quickening of strategy appealing to those turned off by Snooker or Chess whilst offering relentless contact sport action. Not content with providing enough tactics and thrills to enchant the die-hard sports fan, each team brings a mixture of performance art, personality and creativity for your entertainment. Try not to feel good as pun-emblazoned Derby names such as ‘Marianne Faithkill’ and ‘Eva Von Gorier’ adorn the backs of circus-costumed rollergirls, dancing on skates to a soundtrack of adrenaline-fuelled songs.
Therein is the unique quality of Roller Derby, the festival atmosphere, the punk spirit. It’s the hand stamp at the door, the sprawling stalls of cupcakes, jewellery and home-made merchandise, the celebratory crowd. It’s clearly a niche, tightly knit community but one that is not at all exclusive. Children and proud, supportive family members screaming are just as common as the hardcore Derby fan.
For the Rollergirls themselves, on the track, it is undoubtedly war. Yet, how uncommon in sport to see each team not only congratulate but celebrate each other, post-bout awards being given to the players with the away-team and spectators alike openly invited to after parties. Travelling to away games, it seems, is not just competition, but the chance to meet new friends elsewhere who too are under the influence of Derbymania.
Not only is there a feel of Roller Derby community but also of Sheffield community, as well as local crafts and trade, there are local artists, photographers and film-makers are on board to capture and promote the team. The DIY ethos and commitment to the sport is perhaps the most inspirational element of all, with SSRG organising their own bouts, training three times a week, as well as adhering to strict health and safety rules. Outside of Ponds Forge, fundraisers with local bands, bake sales and merchandise, such as the newly launched SSRG movie-themed calendar, provide money in a sport with little sponsorship.
In a Country oft-proclaimed to have ‘gone mad’, there is a logic in the channelling of energy here; carving out your own place, purpose, peers and role models, empowering yourself. It’s a riot alright, but SSRG are only out to get those who want to get got. Unfortunately, ‘Cirque du Slay’ sees SSRG narrowly defeated in a bout of high intensity. Quickly taking to the internet to communicate with fans, they tweet “We may have lost but we still feel like winners as we played our hearts out!” which is a rare display of passion and pride in an era of overpaid, questionable athletes.
Though a sport of American origin, it feels somehow quintessentially British. Suffragettes with a communal War-time spirit and grit combined with a Seventies real punk attitude of “we know what we want and we know how to get it”. Illogical as it may seem in sport these days, your local team here IS your local team and they’re as proud of Sheffield as you should be proud of them. To paraphrase Joe Strummer, This is England, Quads of Sheffield Steel. Roll on next year.
For more information, please visit: http://www.sheffieldsteelrollergirls.com/
Written By Ryan J Finnigan
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