Sport Sunday, November 29th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Questionmark Photography

The Rollergirls

Sport Sunday, November 29th

The Rollergirls

Skating the line between sport and sideshow, the jammers and blockers of Roller Derby have long-fought to shed the image of ‘girls in little shorts beating each other up’.

From pre-war origins to more recent revivals in the 70’s and in turn-of-the-century Austin, Texas, skaters have embraced the kind of sporting theatre that those on the other side of the Atlantic do so well.

Skating under pseudonyms – Nurse Venom, Toxic Toad and Van Kell’sing have lined up for the Hereford Horror Bulls  - and borrowing from old school prize fights in marketing their ‘bouts’, the sport has found an unlikely home in Hereford, thousands of miles from the warehouse rinks of Texas and fans raised on rodeo and WWF.

But while the Hereford Roller Girls echo that All-American aesthetic – their shorts are still short and their games are a wild mix of high-octane action and blaring rock music – among them are a growing number of skaters who are seeking to forge a path towards what would be considered a more traditional sporting professionalism.

Kim Wild, 28, was one of the team’s star players, until she announced this month that she would be joining up with Europe’s 15th-ranked team, the Tiger Bay Brawlers from Cardiff.

“It started like WWF wrestling, it was all staged – girls clotheslining each other and racing around in little shorts to the delight of men watching.

“If there is still an element of that, it is now without doubt considered a proper sport not a show, although it still definitely has a stigma attached to it that I know I am keen to get rid of.

“To put it bluntly, a lot of people think its girls wanting to look sexy wearing fishnet tights and beating each other up.

“We are fighting hard for it not to be seen that way.”


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Off-skate and conditioning sessions are no longer an optional extra for the dedicated, but an expectation for those who hope to represent Hereford’s Horror Bulls, who train three times a week and last year competed in the British Championship’s third tier.

“Now it’s like, if you’re not training outside of skating too, then why not?” said Wild, who was one of the club’s first skaters after it was formed in 2011.

She now faces her biggest challenge on eight-wheels. An internationally-respected team, the Brawlers are ranked 5th in the UK, 26 spots and two leagues above the Horror Bulls. That means a step-up in speed and intensity, but also the chance to train week-in and week-out with and against elite skaters.

Last year, Wild laced up her skates for scrimmages with another top derby league, Croydon Roller Derby.

“I wanted to test what we’re doing here. I got my ass kicked. I loved it,” she said.

“I’ve got a lot to prove, I’m totally ready for the challenge though. And I’ll be HRG’s loudest fan next year.”

Perhaps a sign she was born to be Roller Girl, “Kim Wild” is her own, legal and perfectly Derby-esque name.

However the issue of skater aliases have become a telling touchstone for a sport at a crossroads.

Like many of the sport’s elite practitioners, when she began competing Wild soon took the decision not to adopt an additional moniker, skating under her own name as a nod toward her desire to be taken seriously as an athlete.

And whilst roller derby is characterised by a global sisterhood, a close-knit community who want above all to spread the gospel of skating to the masses, there are voices within the sport who question whether elements of its past identity are beginning to effect its future credibility.


This offseason, for example, one of the sport’s governing bodies, decided to drop the term ‘bouts’ to describe matches in favour of ‘games’.

As in any growing sport, there comes a time when the priorities of the elite clubs and athletes begin to diverge slightly from those held by its enthusiastic amateurs.

While not yet earning Wayne Rooney-money ¬– top British skater Stefanie Mainey has a sponsorship deal that requires her to fit skates at a stall during major tournaments – roller derby has reached a point where, even in Britain, top teams are regularly flying overseas to compete.

The London Roller Girls, who rank among the best in the world, are by any definition elite sportswomen, and across the Atlantic their acceptance in the mainstream has been rubberstamped with ESPN broadcasting the most recent Flat Track Championships on national television.

But there is some concern that aliases like Honey Badger Von Sparkle T**s – recently registered on the entertaining online name bible – which are a badge of honour new skaters earn after being cleared to take part in full contact, and a big part of the Roller Derby’s roots, are simultaneously holding back the sport from truly reaching the next level.

“The whole Roller Derby name thing is split,” said Wild. “They are kind of like a rite of passage; some people are totally into the names and the whole gimmick-ness of it and the alter ego they adopt, but there has been a big move.

“Some people say that arguably roller derby is not going to be taken seriously as sport when you have people called these names.

“I use my surname, another girl on the team uses her surname, Stefanie Mainey, who’s the best skater in the country, skates under her real name.
“Everybody involved wants roller derby to be taken as a serious sport, but some people think that takes away from it. Personally I think that’s a really fun part when you first start – it’s a really cool part of it.

“But I think people who are in it for the social aspect are going to want something slightly different out of the sport.”

When she started with the Roller Girls, dodging pianos in Aylestone school hall, her experience on skates started and ended with doing laps at the Hereford Roller Disco around a decade earlier.

The club had only recently been set up by Zoe Butler, who had until then been making a weekly pilgrimage up the M5 to skate with Birmingham-based Central City Roller Girls.

More and more girls began lacing up their own skates and the Hereford chapter grew from there.

Wild said: “You are with these people three times a week - you are beating each other up three times a week - but there’s a real connection, a community.”



The Hereford Roller Girls’ progress has mirrored the trajectory of the sport as a whole, competing in the inaugural British Championships last year, and finishing fourth this season in the competition’s third tier, in amongst big-city opposition from Nottingham and Belfast.

Gaining and retaining enough numbers to grow remains the biggest challenge to the club, who put all ‘newbies’ through a six-week programme before they begin contact.

And the Hereford Roller Girls took the decision ahead of the coming season to step out of the league set-up in order to bring their current crop up to competition standard.

In its four-year history the club has never had enough depth to be able field a full matchday squad of 14. It’s a problem common to almost every sport in a rural county like Herefordshire.

“It is hard because we are such a small league,” Wild said. “There are people who want to come and want to play, but don’t necessarily want to take it further and then there’s people that do.”

However at a time when many established adult team sports are seeing more and more players give up after 16, roller derby has built a model which is bucking the trend, and is attracting in people who were not necessarily engaged with organised sport at school.

It’s among the fastest growing female sports in Europe, along with similarly ultra-contact sports rugby and boxing.

“A lot of people talk about how roller derby is really a sport that is super-inclusive. For example it has positive takes on transgender skaters.

“Anything goes, I think that’s what appeals to ‘alternative’ girls and girls who felt like they didn’t get on well with team sports when they were younger – they feel a connection with it and feel like they are going to be accepted.


“It’s okay to be on the curvy side and wearing lycra or little shorts, because that’s not what it’s about.”

What it is about is harder to define. 

Wild and Butler crank out the miles on the running machine whilst watching roller derby footage on the small screens set into the control panel. Skaters on top-ranked teams from the west coast of America fly thousands of miles to help coach a Tier Three British team in the art of blocking. There is a palpable excitement in both the sport and the unique community around it that Wild admits is perhaps the truest thing about the Hollywood’s latest roller derby offering Whip It.

With the emergence of structured leagues and worldwide appeal, roller derby’s latest iteration appears to be emerging confidently from its sporting adolescence.

And its DIY ethos – the unofficial motto ‘by the skaters, for the skaters’ – is hitting home from Austin to Hereford.

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