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Rollergirls just want to have fun

For a sport, its defining qualities are far from traditional: tattoos and piercings are frequent, shattered knee-caps common, fishnet tights encouraged, a love of punk music is helpful, and being a girl is mandatory.

This is roller derby, one of Scotland’s fastest growing sports.

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And with Drew Barrymore choosing to base her directorial debut, Whip It, starring Juno-actress Ellen Page, on this all-girl extreme sport, organisers in Scotland are bracing themselves for a massive influx of girls traditionally picked last for female-dominated sports such as hockey and netball.

“It is a sport for girls who don’t like sports,” said Jessica Combe, a 20-year-old student and Glasgow Roller Girl. “You can have tattoos and it is not frowned upon to have piercings or dyed hair. You get to hit someone twice a week and feel good about it.”

There are five roller girl teams around Scotland: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee. Glasgow were the first, beginning life as a post on MySpace in April 2007. Now they have more than 30 skaters, two teams, a set of jeerleaders (like cheerleaders but “edgier”), are ranked third in Europe, attract crowds of 250 people, and are planning a junior team to accommodate growth. Barrymore’s film is causing great excitement within the grass roots across Scotland.

“It’s amazing,” said Lianne Parry, a 35-year-old civil servant with the department of work and pensions and one of the Edinburgh team. “When we started 18 months ago there was hardly anyone. Now they are springing up everywhere. It’s about word of mouth. We’re expecting a whole lot more when the film comes out.”

“Anything that is going to get derby into the mainstream is great,” said Laura Montgomery, a 24-year-old fitness instructor and one of Glasgow Roller Girls founders. “It’s going to show people what the sport is about.”

The basic premise of roller derby is for each team’s fastest, most nimble player, the jammer, to lap opposing players on an oval track. Each time she overtakes an opponent her team scores a point. Players are allowed to block and barge opponents off the track. Games last for two 30-minute halves, divided into two minute “jams”.

Aside from the sheer physicality of the sport, another defining feature is its alternative image and ethos. Looking out at the swarm of Auld Reekie Roller Girls practising in Edinburgh’s Meadowbank sports complex last Friday night, skulls are painted on to helmets, dark make-up lines eyes and eyebrows are routinely pierced.

“It is not a mainstream sport so maybe it appeals to an alternative mindset,” said Parry, who skates under the name Crazy Legs 11. “People who like the alternative culture are more likely to take risks, be more daring. It’s quite mental really: a bunch of girls on wheels hitting each other. But equally you have girls out there who have never heard a punk band in their life. So it is not exclusively alternative.”

Roller derby is for “girls who haven’t played sport their whole life”, according to Collette Magee, a 32-year-old TV producer and a Glasgow Roller Girl. Whereas some sports are determined by a woman’s physicality and body shape, roller derby does not discriminate, argue organisers.

“It is incredibly empowering,” said Alison Adams, one of Auld Reekie’s coaches. “It builds up your physical strength – strength that you didn’t think you had in you or didn’t think you should build up. It does not sound very feminine but every girl out there is very feminine. People find them attractive and people like to watch them. It builds up self-image and body confidence. It is for all shapes and sizes. Heavier people make great blockers. You want them on your team.”

Roller derbies began life in the US in the 1930s where they shared a similar DNA to professional wrestling. Games had predetermined outcomes and were more about spectacle than competitive sport. Men and women played on the same teams. It faded into obscurity until it was revived in Texas in 2003 as an extreme sport for girls. No scripts were required; this time all the elbow-jabbing, blocks and shoulder charges were real. It spread across the US before hopping the Atlantic to London, and finally in 2007 to Scotland. Now hundreds of women aged between 18 and mid-50s compete across the country.

Glasgow plan to play an American team next year, Edinburgh hope to tour Germany, and there is talk of an all-Scotland tournament in 2010. Before that, Auld Reekie Roller Girls’ next bout is November 22. Next up for the Glasgow Roller Girls is a game against Manchester and Cambridge this Saturday at the ARC in Glasgow Caledonian University. The tag line for that event’s poster neatly sums up the sport: “Come on down and watch 56 girls beat each other up, with skates on!”

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