From Iceland — Rolling Around Reykjavík

Rolling Around Reykjavík

Published January 31, 2013

Rolling Around Reykjavík

Kristbjörg Sigtryggadóttir recalls the time when she lost consciousness at her very first bout in Montgomery, Alabama. A member of the opposing team slammed into her, knocking her onto the hard concrete floor. Shaken but stable, she pulled herself up and attempted to catch up to the speeding pack. That’s when she began to feel dizzy. She skated to the side of the rink and everything went black.

The game came to a halt as paramedics rushed to her side, but even then Kristbjörg wasn’t done competing quite yet. She sat out for a break, but was not content to watch from the sidelines and re-entered the bout. “When you fall–because you will fall–get back up as fast as you can,” she warns. “As you’re falling, you’re thinking about how you’re going to get back up.”

Roller derby comes to Iceland

This is roller derby, a predominantly female sport boasting thousands of members in 172 recognised leagues around the world. The sport, which dates back to 1940, saw resurgence in Austin, Texas, in 2001 and has since spread across the United States and Europe, finally making its way to Iceland seemingly by chance a year ago.

Kristbjörg, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, and speaks with a Southern drawl, had a chance run in with another Icelander, Guðný Jónsdóttir, at a roller derby match in Atlanta, Georgia in 2011. Both women had been casually playing on teams in the States.
 Even though they were still in the States, the two women were able to round up five interested Icelanders—Jóna Þorsteinsdóttir, Rakel Snorradóttir, Anita Rubberdt and Guðrún “Mobus” Bernharðs—who organised a meeting in August 2011 at a small cafe on Austurstræti to gauge interest in forming an Icelandic team. There was a big turnout at the meeting, and after getting protective gear and equipment shipped over from the United States and Europe, the ladies were ready to play by September.

Orchestrated chaos

From the outside, a roller derby bout looks like pure chaos: two teams of five women race around a track, skating until a referee blows a whistle to initiate a “jam”—a two-minute period where one person from each team bolts ahead of the rest of the pack, racing back around to be the first through the army of skaters.

Unlike most sports which involve a ball and some kind of goal, roller derby turns its players into points. “Everyone asks, ‘where is the ball in this game!?’ It’s not like handball where you know exactly what the goal is and where the ball needs to go,” Anita says. “The jammer is kind of like the ball.”

The team’s goal is to help their jammer through the pack while preventing the other team’s jammer from getting by. The first jammer to get through becomes the “lead jammer,” and each subsequent player they pass from the opposing team earns their team a point. The lead jammer can call off the jam at any time to keep her opponent from scoring, and there can be up to 15 jams in the space of one thirty minute half.

Although the sport is rough, there are a number of rules to keep players from outright fighting each other. Players are also required to wear wrist guards, mouth guards, elbow pads, kneepads and helmets at all times, and a team of seven referees and 15 non-skating officials are quick to call out those who violate the rules.

Players can’t use their forearms to push, shove or hit, explains Jóna, one of the founders and current coaches. Instead, they use their hips, shoulders and bottoms to block or hit opponents. “Yet, it doesn’t matter how many rules there are,” Mobus says, “there’s still going to be adrenaline and chaos.”

In addition to the strength and discipline it takes to play the game, which can last two hours, there are strong influences from DIY, feminist and punk cultures. Teams and players adopt intimidating monikers that are more punk rock than ice skating princess. Team names such as the Back Breaking Bambis from Frankfurt, Germany, the Crime City Rollers from Malmö, Sweden or the Rat City Roller Girls from Seattle, Washington embody the fighting spirit of the sport.

“It’s aggressive, which is something girls aren’t encouraged to be in contact sports,” says Jóna, whose derby name is Black Metal Banshee. “We’re more encouraged to be feminine and subtle and nice.”

No place to call home

As roller derby is relatively new to Iceland, none of the gear, including the sport’s signature quad skates, is available locally. In fact, there isn’t much of a skating culture in the country at all. Jóna, Rakel and Mobus all admit that they were completely new to skating and the sport when they joined the team, and only one of the team’s current coaches, Anita, had any previous skating experience. Not only that, but many of the team’s current members say they never played sports prior to roller derby.

“I’m hard-core anti-sports, actually,” jokes Rakel, who says she became interested in the sport after seeing ‘Whip It,’ a 2009 film in which a misfit girl from a small town in Texas joins a local roller derby team. For her, roller derby is different because it not only involves strength, but also speed and grace. “It’s aggressive, but you must know how to control your body and your legs while on skates,” says Rakel whose derby name, Rushkva, is a play on the Icelandic word röskva, meaning agile or quick.

With no place to call home, the team has had a number of practise spaces, including a parking garage and an old go-kart track. What’s more, the team has yet to play an official bout. But with the current core group of 8–10 girls practising twice a week and a third weekly practice planned after the new year, Jóna says she hopes they will be able to start hosting minimum skills tests as soon as February. The test, which was established by the sport’s governing body, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, tests players’ basic skating abilities as well as their knowledge of the game. In order to play in a bout, all players must pass it. 
“We’ll see how many can get through that, and then we can really start building a team,” she says.

Pretty in punk

While the aggression of the sport may scare some away, the Icelandic roller derby girls agree on one thing that makes it universally appealing: its acceptance of anyone and everyone.

“As long as you can skate and pass minimum skills test, you’re in,” Rakel says. In fact, Jóna, Rakel and Mobus say players with varying body types and sizes actually make for a stronger team overall.

“Here there is no cookie-cutter body shape. Look at me, I’m big and beefy,” Mobus says, gesturing to herself. “If I’m on a team with a bunch of skinny girls, like Rakel, who is super agile and fast, the team would have a completely different strategy. If you have two people like me and three like her, it would be a completely different team. Every time there’s a new person, there’s a new dynamic!”

“I have never felt too fat, too short, too tall, or too anything,” Kristbjörg adds, noting that before she joined the Alabama derby team, she had been self-conscious of her weight and big thighs. “After I joined the team, I began to see myself in a different light.”

For a sport that combines athleticism, feminism and a punk, DIY attitude, Kristbjörg says she sees no reason that it shouldn’t take off in Iceland. Not even the fear of broken bones and concussions keep her from playing, and in fact it’s part of the reason she keeps coming back for more. “It makes me feel like a superstar,” Kristbjörg says. “When I put on my skates and my gear, I feel invincible.”

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