If I asked you what the fastest growing sport is in the world, what would you guess? Wrestling? Volleyball? Lacrosse? No-no-no.
How about… Roller Derby?
It’s okay. I had no idea either up until a few months ago when I decided to join (got suckered into) a newly formed roller derby team, one of over 1000 leagues worldwide – not just the first in its league, but the first women’s flat track roller derby team in China.
But first things first. What IS roller derby? If you’re thinking fast skates, fierce alter-egos, and feminist punk rock influences, you’re on the right track (hah).
In derby, two teams skate together in a pack around a rink in short contests, called jams. One player from each team, called a jammer, starts behind the pack and attempts to break through, then skates as fast as she can around the rink a second time, scoring points for each opposing skater she passes; the pack tries to help their own jammer get through while blocking the other. It’s a fast-paced and physical sport that can get real dirty real fast.
"It’s a fast-paced and physical sport that can get real dirty real fast."
I learned this quickly at our first practice. First, we covered how to fall correctly – and believe me, even decked out in full gear, this is an intimidating first step. We practiced sliding to the track on each knee in different ways, and hoisting ourselves back upright within three seconds.
Our second meeting took place off-skates, as we practiced hip-checking and knocking each other over in a park full of thoroughly entertained Chinese spectators. All I could think was, “If I’m barely standing on my own two feet now, how will I ever do this on skates?” It probably sounds worse than it is, and actually becomes insanely fun.
As a sport, derby’s history extends from the 1930s but only got serious in the early 2000s, when leagues sprang up all over the US and then England. Members from England’s Dolly Rockit Rollers formed the Shanghai team after coming to China in 2012, two of whom – Naomi Rowe-Gurney (Afronaut) and Kelly Scott (Koko Kabama) – now lead the proud Shang-High Rollers.
One of roller derby’s most unique characteristics is its steadfast claim to be a sport entirely run by and for the players, at its heart a community-driven organization where every player becomes a valuable contributor.
Naomi truly hopes that China will learn to embrace roller derby. “I think China could literally thrash the rest of the world at roller derby,” she says. Everyone, and she does mean everyone, can join: “You don’t have to know how to skate, or you can be a ref, or just help out, come drink with us.” If any of this sounds like a good time, drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for me?
Next goal: learning how to stop.
WORDS BY ALEX LUO