People keep asking me about this roller derby sport I recently started, so I’m posting something I wrote for a zine being made by girls from London Roller Girls. It’s about the rookie/beginner boot camp which started in January of this year, which took place over four weeks and was designed to determine whether we could continue with the LRG training programme.
In January all the new wannabe rollergirls headed down to CoLA in Bermondsey to see if we had what it took to participate in the London Roller Girls rookie programme. Although that part of South London might seem like an unlikely destination for a Saturday morning convergence of women of all ages, shapes and sizes, armed with wheels and helmets, around forty of us stormed the changing rooms and filled it with the smell of brand new skates and nervous chattering.
We came from a range of backgrounds; people who hadn’t skated since they were kids, others who had been unsuccessful in the last rookie in-take and were trying again, and some who were proficient at the roller disco jam skating style and wanted to branch out into new territory. We all wobbled down the hallway in our squeaky new skates and into the gym to have a crack at becoming full fledged rookies. I personally felt sick to my stomach when I put my mouth guard in for the first time and looked around at all these girls gliding across the smooth floor effortlessly and with grace. I felt like a lumbering hulk with two left feet and an oversized head due my ill-fitting helmet. I had the distinct impression that I was making a big mistake.
Once we were all in the gym and warmed up, we were split into groups and taught the basic derby skills we were expected to master over the coming four weeks. These included the t-stop, the plough, the one, two and four point falls and derby position (which is basically people skating as if they are taking a shit in a toilet at Reading Festival, as someone helpfully put it). For the next hour the room was exploding with the sound of pads-on-floor and laughing. Every time I threw myself onto the boards my peripheral vision caught multiple other girls throwing themselves down in kamikaze fashion and springing awkwardly back up. It felt like an extreme army boot camp. I can only speak for myself, but having not done much sport except cycling and skiing since school, I felt like I aged about ten years in that two-hour session. My thighs and back were screaming with the exertion of constantly throwing myself up and down and and my legs were beginning to stubbornly resist any attempt to form the required t-stop shape. I looked around me and dozens of other girls were sweating and red-faced, but equally determined and good-natured about the brutality of the first rookie practice.
After learning the basic derby techniques we had to do an assessment in front of all the judges to determine whether we had grasped enough to be able to continue. It felt a bit like I was in a bad high-school cheerleading film with all of them sitting there in their skates with notepads while the uneasy beginners tottered around the track for their perusal. Of course, during my turn I fell flat on my face and lay there for what felt like an eternity before getting up to the sound of some girls clapping and encouraging me to carry on. At points I wondered if I really needed to put myself through this kind of stress, but the experience of learning something new and meeting a whole host of different people convinced me that the balance tipped far more to the positive side than the negative.
At the end of the assessment we all crawled wearily to the changing rooms to get dressed and de-brief about the experience. Everyone was elated with nerves and expectations about the prospect of receiving the dreaded e-mail a few days later which would either confirm our continuation with the programme or tell us ‘better luck next time’. Fortunately for me, I made it through and had the chance to embark on some of the most gruelling and demanding training I have ever done over the next four weeks. My (frequently hungover) body was flung around tracks in time trials, it attempted cross-overs, pace lines, jumping over cones and more falls and stops than I care to remember. I began to truly understand the meaning of the words ’sore coccyx’ and how to stretch properly so that at work on a Sunday I would still be able to bend my legs without excruciating pain. I also began to understand conversations about wheel specifications, gaskets, bearings and toe guards – equipment that was alien to me a few weeks previously. Amongst the other rookies I found girls to chat about the stresses of the week with, to share war wounds with and hopefully develop some real friendships. The relationships emerging from the practices were not strictly limited to the rookies, as I found myself being mentored and encouraged from fully fledged roller girls down at the pub after practice or in the changing rooms beforehand. Most girls made themselves available to re-adjust an askew helmet, lend some pads, commiserate over the horror of cone-jumping and tell us to keep trying.
After four weeks we were once again put through our paces in a vigorous assessment designed to slim us down to a smaller group and send some girls away to work on specific skills before the next in-take session. We were assessed on everything we had learned in front of judges who noted our strong and weak areas. Although at this practice the atmosphere was pretty low because nobody wanted to loose any of their new-found friends, we got on with it and performed to the best of our ability, making sure to encourage those who seemed to struggle or who fell down during a trial.
I’m happy to say I survived the lion’s den and will be continuing with the rookie programme for the time being. It was really sad to see our diminished numbers at the following training, but those I spoke to were positive that now we would get more intensive coaching because the coach had fewer people to watch over. Additionally there were fewer girls to crash into and knock over in the enclosed space of Brixton Recreation Centre. We felt this could only be a good thing, as we’re determined to carry on and show LRG what us rookies are made of.