All of us are given a name at birth. Whether it’s Anna, Amanda, Apple or something not starting with the letter ‘A’, we learn to like or loathe it. Either way, we live with it.
But there’s a whole subculture of women out there who have taken on a second name. Like Breakface At Tiffany’s. Or Iron Maven. How about Florence Night-in-Jail or Ziggy Skullbust?
Then there’s me, Barack Oharmher.
At 20-years old I decided to enter the world of roller derby by signing up to a newly formed team on the Gold Coast. I became what they call “fresh meat”: a term used to describe new roller derby recruits. And boy was it appropriate!
In 12 months I learned how to skate, how to stack, how to slam and how to verbalise falling on my ass with an array of colourful language. I also adopted a new name. Since the original ones I wanted – Alfred Bitchblock and Mariah Scary – had already been registered on the International Roller Derby Name Registry (it’s a thing), I let myself get swept up in the excitement of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory and became Barack Oharmher.
A punny alter ego is just the beginning.
When you want to become a roller derby girl you need to grow some lady balls. You need to be okay with taking a shove from another woman, and then accepting her hand to get back up on your skates afterwards.
You need to become confident competing in fishnet stockings and bike pants, when really all you want to do is tug your singlet down to your knees.
You need to be able to bite down on your bottom lip and strangle out the words “I’m fine” after taking a particularly brutal tumble on to your tailbone. Most importantly, you need to be brave.
At my first-ever training session I knew no one, which is daunting enough in and of itself (let alone adding spinning wheels into the equation). I squeezed into line besides a tall woman with a tattoo sleeve and green and blue-tipped hair. She introduced herself as Sandy, a single mum looking for a new hobby.
The woman on the other side of me was Beth, a librarian-looking accountant who had always wanted to take up the sport since watching it on TV as a kid. What followed was so close to the “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball” scene in Dodgeball that I looked over my shoulder to check if Vince Vaughn wasn’t laughing quietly in the corner.
Alas, no. The coaches were serious as they had us skate the circuit while throwing witches hats, (small) spanners, balls and roller skates as we tried to dodge them and the falling bodies of our comrades.
At the time it was terrifying.
A few hours later we were laughing about it over red snakes and Gatorade, which perfectly sums up the nature of a sport that is equal parts hard-core and humorous.
Roller derby first gained notoriety in the seventies with televised bouts on a banked track gaining massive on-site and at-home audiences.
However, like John Travolta and hair with height, it went out of fashion before regaining popularity in the nineties. From there its mainstream appeal has been building once more.
Drew Barrymore’s stellar directorial debut Whip It! in 2009 gave the final push it needed. Now the banked track format is returning to Australia for the first time in 30 years, complete with the best skaters in the world: the LA Derby Dolls and New York Gotham Girls.
They’re taking part in the Roller Derby Xtreme tour along with a handful of our best Aussie skaters like Calamity Maim, Bacardi Bruiser and Winnie Bruise.
So just what is about strapping on a stack hat and lacing up a pair of skates that thousands of us find so gosh-darn appealing?
Yeah, there are bruises and bust-ups. Blood is often drawn. But to quote Batman’s ever-faithful butler Alfred: “Why do we fall sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.”
In a nutshell it’s learning to do something difficult, something out of the ordinary that has drawn women from all walks of life to the sport of roller derby.
It’s the adrenaline and exhilaration. It’s the funny nicknames. It’s getting knocked down and finding the strength to pick yourself up again.
And that, my dears, is one hell of a liberating spectacle to witness.
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*Maria Lewis is a purple-haired freelance journalist based in Sydney. Her writings have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, Empire magazine and the New York Post. Commonly found waxing lyrical about film, Batman, horror movies, Batman and all-things pop culture related, she is most likely Mark Wahlberg’s future wife. Most likely. She tweets too often over at @MovieMazz.
For an explanation of the rules of Roller Derby:
Roller Derby Xtreme will in Australia for three shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in November. You can book tickets here.