A Jammer competes in a roller derby jam.

VIDEO: The grit and glamour of roller derby

Sinéad Fogarty meets some skaters in the Sydney Roller Derby League,
which is celebrating 10 years of jams in Australia.

A scrummage of helmets and hotpants fall still, poised for the pierce of the referee’s whistle. Beads of sweat puddle over their brows, as lipsticked pouts retract into snarls. A final crouch, then a cumulative breath in, air spiked with anticipation.

The whistle shrieks, sending two teams of five flying like bats out of hell. The two-minute bout, known as a jam, is the Shibuya Crossing of full-contact sports; an organised chaos.

“It’s overwhelming, it’s fast – you just don’t know where you’re supposed to be,” says Clair Suters, known as “Minkey” on the track, who bought a pair of roller skates immediately after seeing her first bout in 2009.

Each team has four blockers and a jammer who respectively hit and hustle their way around the oval track.

Blockers are tasked with creating traffic on the 9m-wide course, to hold up the opposing team’s jammer. Blockers may use their body parts above the mid-thigh, excluding forearms, elbows, hands or head, to forge hell and wreak havoc. In essence, they are a wall, and therefore must also stay together, with no blocker allowed to stray more than 6m from the main pack.

The jammer is the designated point-scorer of the team, whose goal is to run as many laps as possible around the blockers before the countdown reaches zero. Additionally, one blocker is a designated pivot, who can alternate between being a blocker or jammer if the need arises.

It’s a bit like gridiron, except there's no ball – sometimes I’m the ball! Sasha Fierce

Sasha Van Veen, whose derby name is “Sasha Fierce”, didn’t even know how to lace up her roller skates when she rocked up to her first training session. Now she skates for Team Unicorn, also known as The Horny Rollers.

“It’s a bit like gridiron, except there’s no ball – sometimes I’m the ball!” Sasha says.

“I just recovered from a broken ankle. I was off skates for 6 months, and this is my fourth game ever. I have a plate and pins in my ankle, but I’m skating around and I’m good.”

Jacynta Norris, known in the derby world as “Skater Jupiter”, has been skating for two years, and says the liveliness of the sport is well worth the bruises the following day: “It’s a lot more fun compared to a typical sport. And the bruises? It wouldn’t be derby without the bruises.”

Rainbow socks and fishnet stockings are a world away from conventional sport. Yet the competitors hop on the tiptoes of their roller skates as if wearing ballet pointes, while teammates crouch, bind and set, as if readying for a rugby scrum. Jammers accelerate around corners like ice speed skaters and, just as blockers’ eyes bay for blood, they clap each other on the back in congratulations.

“It’s scary, but it’s empowering in the fact that you can learn something that you don’t think you can learn, and you can do things that you don’t think you can do,” says Sasha Fierce. – Words and video by Sinéad Fogarty