Roller Derby Amsterdam

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Roller Derby is the rough-and-tumble sport that perfectly suits the Dutch spirit.

If you’ve never heard of roller derby, it’s about time you did. It’s a full contact, women-centric sport, which originated in the US in the 1920s and has been making a serious comeback since the early 2000s. The city of Amsterdam should be proud of the fun, fearlessly independent women who represent the sport, in all its glory, at Roller Derby Amsterdam.
 
Don’t call them ‘roller girls’
 
Women of all nationalities, ages and backgrounds come together two or three times a week to play at the Amsterdam Velodrome, in the west of the city. They arrive in dribs and drabs, smiling with skates in hands and greet each other like old friends. Mouth guards, elbow pads, wrist pads, knee pads and helmets spill from their bags as they ‘gear up’ for practice. After a series of warm-up exercises to get their blood pumping and their vocal chords rehearsed (it’s not just a physical sport, they tell me, there’s a lot of yelling involved) a scrimmage commences; it’s the A Team versus the B Team.

Roller Derby isn’t the easiest sport to figure out. It seems to be composed of a whole lot of commotion. Two sets of five players huddle on the court before the whistle blows, then, in a scurry, a ‘jammer’ from each team attempts to get ahead of the pack. She then tries to lap her opponents to gain points as ‘blockers’ from the opposing team try to get in her way.

The sport is aggressive but controlled, or at least it should be, as you don’t want to end up in the penalty box for unorthodox conduct. And while it’s entertaining to watch, there’s definitely more to this sport than meets the eye. It’s a sport full of empowered individuals but also very much about the team and community. You can see how it suits the legendarily open-minded character of the Dutch. As one spectator (the father-in-law of one of the players) tells me: “They beat each other up on the court but hug each other after the whistle blows. That’s the magic of it.”

Men can play Roller Derby, but women dominate

In the eight years that the league has been Rolling in the Dutch capital, the local team has competed across Europe. They have outgrown sport halls, welcomed many new skaters into their ranks and supported themselves to keep the league afloat. We caught up with some of the league’s most dedicated players and newbies to learn the ins and outs of this fascinating, alternative scene.

Portrait #1 Dirty Job
“My roller derby name is Dirty Job. My real name is Job but I used to be a bike mechanic so I always had dirty hands. “It means a lot of other really dirty stuff,” someone told me. I said, “good!””

Portrait #2 Insanely Dark
“For me, roller derby is great exercise mixed with a bit of aggression – and I’m part of this amazing community. People think it’s very aggressive, and yes, there are knee injuries and bruised ribs and the occasional concussion. But we’re not here to get hurt. We’re here to have fun.”

Portrait #3 Major Knocks
“I thought roller derby would be fun but I didn’t realise there would be so much more to it. When you’re in school, in Ireland, you learn to play traditional games like hockey, football and Gaelic football. Those are the sports you play because those are the sports you’re given. Roller derby is different because it’s the sport I chose. I’m so happy I did, as there’s a great community here in Amsterdam and internationally. And we’re growing. It’s exciting to feel like you’re really helping to build something.”

Portrait #4 Manic Panic
“Roller derby is intense. It’s a really tough sport. It took me a long while to get into it. I thought it was only for big strong women before I realised it was for powerful women of all shapes and sizes. When I started I was like Bambi on ice. I went to a Fresh Meat training to learn how to skate and get to know the basics of the sport. I felt ridiculous. I was scared of falling. But the more time I spent on skates, the more stable I started to feel. There are still things I want to do better, things I want to do faster, but I’m feeling more and more secure on wheels.”

Portrait #5 Miss Freeze
“My friends think I’m a tough cookie because roller derby is a really fierce sport. They ask if I’m scared but honestly I’m not. I did the Fresh Meat training twice because I broke my wrist while playing in the first round. Then I got pregnant - not while playing - so I was out for a year. When I started up again, I was nervous about falling and hurting myself but I bought the best gear I could get and now it’s safe.”

Portrait #6 Bludapest
“I love what roller derby stands for. I’m studying gender studies and actually researching roller derby. The sport started in the 1920s but died down in the 1970s. In 2001, there was a feminist revival of the sport. It was so empowering for women to have their own sport. Most sports like football are for men but they started women’s leagues and called it women’s football. With roller derby, it’s just women.”

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