Forget the fishnets and the theatrics – roller derby has become a serious sport in New Zealand, with teams like the Richter City All Stars leading the charge.

Before you think roller derby is women with tattoos, fringes and wild outfits on roller skates trying to hit each other, think again.

Penny de Borst will tell you otherwise. The coach of the Richter City All Stars, who’s also known as Rusty Stiletto, has seen roller derby come a long way – with less emphasis on the look and theatrics, and more on the sport.

“When I first got into it around 2009, it was all about tattoos and fishnets, and they had all got these cool names. But as the sport developed, there’s been more emphasis on the sport itself,” de Borst says.

Roller derby may still be a minority sport in New Zealand, but it certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Predominantly played by women, it’s fast, physical and tactical. And yes, they aren’t afraid to play like women. Strong, tough and skillful women.

De Borst was first drawn to roller derby after she watched a match, and got completely into it, screaming and standing on her seat. She admits she was never an avid sports fan, but she is a hard-core feminist.

“There were women out there, and it was the real deal, pretty feminist. And it was quite inspiring,” she says.

“By the end of the game I was standing on my chair yelling at people to do stuff, and my husband was like ‘you know, I think you should probably play this sport’. I really got into it because it looked like loads of fun.”

Last month, de Borst took her Wellington-based team to Brisbane to take on higher-ranked teams from across Australia and New Zealand in the Royal Rumble tournament. The Richter City All Stars’ aim was to improve their game against some of the sport’s best-performing teams, as well as having a crack at lifting their overall world ranking.

And it was a smart move, as they skated 49 places up the world ladder. The side now sit at 201st equal in the world, with Sonoma County Roller Derby from the North America West region.

The All Stars are currently ranked second in New Zealand, where there are around 25 roller derby leagues. But after footing it with the best Australian teams in Brisbane, the All Stars are aiming to take the top spot from the Auckland Pirates by the end of this year.

Traditionally, the All Stars team have never had a sole coach, as team members took on a player-coach role. After playing roller derby in London, de Borst returned to Wellington last year and opted to unlace her skates and provide expertise from the sideline.

De Borst says she has stayed involved in roller derby as it is a constantly changing sport.

“It’s a really young sport, and so it’s evolving all the time, and that’s what really appeals to me, because I really like the strategy,” she says.

“For me as a coach, captain and a player, there’s always been loads of opportunity to think of new ways of doing things, problem solving, trying new stuff, making it your own.

“You’ve got rugby or cricket, and you kind of establish how you play the game and not much changes season to season, whereas I think roller derby’s gone through five or six subtle changes in rules since I’ve been involved, and every time there’s people picking holes at the rules, as it doesn’t say you can’t do this, or what if we try it this way, and so that’s really inspiring.”

The All Stars’ Vicious Vegie stays in bounds despite the efforts of the Northern Brisbane Rollers in the Royal Rumble. Photo: Richard Tompsett.

In the majority of women’s professional sports, female athletes are expected to be physically lean and fit. However, in roller derby, the only requirement is to be able to roller skate. (To play in any competitive team in the worldwide derby organisation, there is a skills test and a short fitness test where skaters have to complete 27 laps of the track in five minutes).

One of the reasons de Borst is attracted to the skating sport is it promotes women to be body positive, knowing any body shape or size is suitable to play roller derby.

“It’s one of the few things I’ve been involved in where you have the courage to take up space. And it’s body positive beyond an advertising campaign,” she says. “It’s about, actually, there is a place for everybody’s shape and size, and it’s about what your body can do rather than what your body looks like. I think that’s pretty incredible.”

Racing around a flat track on skates is something not to take lightly, particularly when you are trying to attack (jam) or block, while thinking about tactics and game plans.

Merryn McAulay, better known in the derby world as Tuff Bikkies, was attracted to the game for the different skills and tactics involved. McAulay is one of the foundation players of the Richter City All Stars, from when the sport began in 2008.

Off skates, the women go about their day jobs, McAulay says. And when it comes to training and game time, the side comes together and skates up a storm in the hopes of becoming New Zealand’s best.

One of the Richter City All Stars players who has worn the black and white strip for New Zealand, McAulay says this is the first time in her derby career she’s had confidence in her side becoming number one in New Zealand.

She’s seen her team through many “ups and downs”, but on this latest trip to Australia, she felt the All Stars were the best they’d ever been.

“We’ve been ranked higher than we currently are in New Zealand, but we are well on the way to getting that top ranking back. It just feels good and a big part of that is having good coaches and bench crew,” she says.

One of the key wheels to their success, McAulay says, is de Borst, in her role as the team’s first non playing coach.

“It’s amazing to have people help us off skates,” she says. “When I’ve been to Australia in the past there has been nobody on the bench, or able to give us feedback as everyone is playing. We are very lucky to have Penny.”

Back in Wellington, McAulay is proud of the All Stars’ Royal Rumble campaign. They claimed wins over Northern Brisbane and West Australia, and narrowly lost to Sydney – a game in which they were “skated off the track” as their game plan was exposed.

For Claire Jaycock, or Claire the Decks, the tournament against the Aussies was her first – and she was happy to return home in one piece. But the derby newbie relished the environment, and she’s ready to take on more talented sides in order to up her roller game.

As a child, Jaycock would lace up her skates with no idea she would be doing the same thing at the age of 36.

After watching the roller derby movie “Whip It” and watching a few games in Wellington, she decided to give it a go.

“I’m not super young, and with most major sports, if you want to do well and get into the top team in your region or even in your country, you generally have to be quite young,” says Jaycock, who’s a jammer – the only person in a team who can score, by lapping the opposition.

“But because the sport is quite a lot smaller, you have more chances. Also, the best players in the sport are older than me. It’s cool, you don’t have to be some young gun, you just have to work really hard and you’ll be able to do really well.”

Despite her inexperience, McAulay praises the work of Jaycock, who she says has an incredible mental game, and brings so much to the team despite only having played the game for three years.

And it’s mental strength the powerful women will need going into the Top 10 tournament in Palmerston North in October, where the top roller derby teams from across the country will battle it out to determine the New Zealand standings.

If the best of Wellington’s roller women tighten their skates and block out their opposition to win the tournament, they will pilfer the number one spot from Auckland’s Pirates.

Kate Wells recently graduated from Massey University with a Bachelor of Communication and is a journalist at Sun Media in Tauranga.

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