Tough girls on retro roller skates in wild outfits – roller derby has landed in Finland, but what’s it all about exactly?

FISHNET STOCKINGS, fast speed, bruises and tattooed girls – these are some of the first images that come to mind when somebody mentions roller derby. But despite the image created on the sport most recently by Drew Barrymore’s film Roller Girl, it’s not all about tough looks and the will to hurt your opponent.

A bit of history

Invented in America, roller derby is a contact sport that dates as far back as the 1930s and initially served as a form of entertainment. It is played either on a banked or a flat track, with the former still leaning more towards entertainment than competitive sport.

The contemporary version of flat track roller derby was shaped in the early 2000s in Texas, and concentrates more on competition than image – though image does still play a big part in the sport, with players’ uniforms inspired by punk or burlesque fashion, and the use of inventive alias names serving as a kind of trademark of the sport. The image and, more importantly, the name of a skater often represents an alter-ego she takes on while skating, with the names utilising a satirical play on words or references to popular culture.

The reason for the use of “she” in the former sentence is that contemporary roller derby teams are mostly all female with only the part of a coach or referee granted to men. Roller derby contains a certain amount of feminism and a sense of “girl power.” According to many skaters the derby track is the best place to gain solid self-confidence.

Key terms

Bout – match.

Jam – a countdown period where both teams try to score points.

Jammer – the team member who is responsible for scoring points (not to be confused with the preceding term).

Blocker – defence player, a team member whose job it is to, literally, block the other team’s jammer from scoring points.

Pivot – a blocker who can become a jammer mid jam.

Pack – the largest group formed by blockers from both teams.

Training day

“Those who are not on their skates in two minutes, ten push-ups!” yells out “fresh meat” coach Miika Karttunen (aka Mick Dagger). A couple of late arrivals curse under their tongues and attempt to pull their skates and safety gear on before the time is up. No such luck though, the other girls begin to skate around the flat rink at Helsinki’s Hell Hole before they know it. “It’s no use complaining,” the girls say, push ten, and join the practice.

The skaters circle the track, increase their speed and weave around each other. They make sudden leaps and squats to practice their balance and test their skills on the skates. Soon they slow down and after a moment of stretching begin to practise various techniques from blocking and jamming to falling correctly. The more experienced skaters call out encouragements to the new arrivals and the coach reminds everyone to drink enough water as the scorching sun beams down on the track.

When asking who the team’s worst rival is, just about simultaneously the girls answer that there is no real rival as each team supports one another. “It’s your best friend who you want to beat the most,” explains BananaSpit, one of the girls who has been involved in Helsinki Roller Derby from the very beginning. “Of course everyone wants to do well but there’s no bitterness involved with roller derby. You do your best and have fun, that’s all.”

Leap across the ditch

Roller derby is fairly new to Finland, yet it has quickly gathered a large following. The people behind introducing this unique sport to the land of a thousand lakes are Jarrett Simon (aka TestosteRon Jeremy) and Blu Nordgren (aka Estrogeena Davis). The Finn-American couple were very involved with roller derby back in the US with Simon as a referee and Nordgren as a skater, and upon their move across the pond they simply couldn’t leave the sport behind.

The Basics

• The name of the game (in very simple terms) is to skate around a flat circuit track and score as many points as possible.

• Points are gained by the jammer by passing the opposing team members (1 point per each skater passed).

• There are two teams of five on the track at one time with four blockers and one jammer from each team.

• One of the jammers can become a “lead jammer” by being the first jammer to pass through the pack without committing any penalties.

• Each jam lasts a maximum of two minutes, but can be terminated early by the lead jammer (this can be used strategically to the advantage of your team).

“Roller derby is a lifestyle and we couldn’t just leave that behind when we left the US. There were no leagues here yet, so we decided to form one,” Simon explains. Thus Helsinki Roller Derby was born and has now been operating for just over a year.

“It wasn’t hard to find people who were interested in the sport but getting properly organised took a while. It’s an appealing sport and something new to Finland so many people came to watch us practise and got involved. But what people didn’t realise is that roller derby requires commitment and it’s not just about the image. It really is a sport and you need to have a certain amount of ambition to keep going.”

Simon believes that roller derby is a great sport for Finland and now is the best time to be a beginner league here as the sport has only recently started to take off in Europe. “In the US there are lots of really good teams and it would take a while for a new team to get to a high level, but here where the sport is young there are lots of teams at the same level and they are developing and getting better together,” he adds.

What is it about roller derby that attracts people?

According to Simon it’s the combination of many things: “First of all roller derby is an extremely communal sport. It’s competitive, yes, but teams support and encourage each other. Of course the image brings a fun part to the sport as well and the culture it involves is very enjoyable.”

Simon also emphasises that despite the image of an aggressive sport, there is very little rivalry and hatred involved and nobody is out to hurt each other. “There’s a lot of minor injuries, such as fishnet burns, bumps and bruises – these are unavoidable, but serve as kind of badges of honour and the girls often show them off! The skaters use a ton of safety equipment to prevent worse injuries and we also train to fall ‘properly’.” Simon confesses fractured tailbones to be the most common injury and has witnessed a few broken bones too – but that’s part of the danger in any sport, right?


Text by Petra Nyman, Photos by Miika Karttunen