Hot Wheels of Plymouth

PUBLISHED: 16:26 27 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:33 20 February 2013

Hot Wheels of Plymouth

Hot Wheels of Plymouth

Belinda Dillon finds out about the sport that's taking the country's women by storm. Photos by Andy Lloyd

Hot Wheels

Belinda Dillon finds out about the sport thats taking the countrys women by storm. Photos by Andy Lloyd

In a sports centre just off Plymouth Parkway, a group of women wearing quad roller skates, helmets and gumshields are tearing around a coned-off track, jostling for position and banking into the corners at considerable speed. Taking note of their t-shirts emblazoned with names like Muscle Sprout, Midslammer Murders and NunnRa, youd be forgiven for thinking youve stumbled on a pro-wrestling session from the 1970s or a nihilistic comic book convention, but these are the Plymouth City Roller Girls and this is roller derby an all-female, full-contact sport that is becoming the go-to activity for women keen to play hard, feel empowered, and have a whole heap of fun.

Hailing from America, roller derby started in the 1920s, when pairs of skaters would compete in endurance races some lasting for days at a time for cash prizes. Today, its a tactical battle thrashed out by two teams of five players on the track at a time. Its fast, frenetic and physical players can come away from a bout a little bruised and battered, and occasionally there are broken bones but that hasnt affected its growing popularity: since arriving in the UK in 2005, there are now more than 80 teams (or leagues, in derby parlance), with more springing up all the time.

"Roller derby is different from any other team sport Ive ever seen, and I wanted to get involved because it represents women as being really strong, as doing it completely for themselves," explains Elizabeth Cheesewright, who skates under the name Kathleen Hamma, and was the driving force behind revamping Plymouth City Roller Girls (PCRG) in 2010, and now organises team events, and all home and away games. Initially inspired by the 2009 film Whip It, Elizabeth sought out other enthusiasts in the city, and pretty soon they were hitting the streets. "We started skating on the Hoe and in car parks, generally around the place. Eventually we decided to make it more professional so we booked a hall at Kitto Centre, and now we train there two nights a week."

The sport attracts women from all walks of life PCRG skaters include an art curator, a nuclear engineer, and a freelance journalist and Elizabeth credits joining the team with giving her the confidence to get back into education; she was running a chip shop when she first picked up her skates and is now studying for a BA in Social Work. Men are involved, too, but as referees and other non-skating officials, but its the countercultural, DIY aesthetic all teams are skater-owned and operated that is a big part of the sports feminist appeal. This aspect is reflected in the street-style kit (PCRGs red, black and white strip is inspired by Smeatons Tower), witty team names, and players pun-heavy, often risqu, derby aliases. All names are registered with the Womens Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) in the US, and no two players can skate under the same moniker.

"One of the things that attracted me the most was creating an alter ego," explains Elizabeth, who based her derby name on Kathleen Hanna, singer with the 1990s all-girl band Bikini Kill. "Generally the names tend to be feisty, but with a sense of humour puns on famous peoples names or phrases. We recently merged with a Cornish team to become the Beasts of Bodmin, and I played as Fromage Affray, incorporating an aspect of my real name, and I cant decide at the moment which one to use..."

Although camaraderie and the social aspect are big draws at your first roller derby practice youll make 30 new friends without even realising it! the sports growing profile has seen a shift in how seriously players are taking it. "When we started, there were a few slogans going around, such as my drinking team has a roller derby problem, and so forth, but in the last couple of years people have started wanting it to be taken seriously as a sport, with players looking after their bodies more, thinking like athletes," explains Elizabeth.

"Weve got a really hardcore training regime, and our attendance requirements to make the team are very high, and its all about winning now. We do have a social scene as well, but not as much as we used to."

While the open, inclusive ethos that underpins roller derby is a big part of its appeal, fitness is key to winning and to avoiding injury. "New skaters go through rigorous training and complete a minimum skills test, to ensure they are safe on their skates and can perform required manoeuvres. Once theyre competent, then they get to join the league, and get placed on teams. A lot of injuries that people sustain are because of their fitness level, as well as trying to remain upright when another player takes you out. We have a big focus on teaching people how to fall correctly!"

At the moment, bouts are organised quite freely, taking place as and when between teams from all over the country, but there are hopes to organise a more structured season for South West teams in 2013. "All the local leagues will play each other in a tournament stretched over a few months, at the end of which therell be a regional champion," says Elizabeth. "Ultimately wed like to start travelling, to play international matches, to take it to another level."

And while fitness, a steely determination and a good pair of knee pads are important, there is no upper age limit. "The WFTDA did a survey recently of all derby players, and the average age was 34," says Elizabeth. "Our youngest player is 18, and our oldest is 43. Its never too late for anybody. Cornwall has a skater in her early 50s, and shes pretty mean..."

See the Plymouth City Roller Girls in action when they take on the SW Angels of Terror, from Exeter & Taunton, on 7 July (from 12noon) at Torbay Leisure Centre, Paignton. Ticket information and links available at

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