Angels of Terror: Somerset and Devon's Roller Derby Team

The South West Angels of Terror (SWAT) Roller Derby Team is based in both Somerset and Devon and has

The South West Angels of Terror (SWAT) Roller Derby Team is based in both Somerset and Devon and has been a league since late 2011 - Credit: Paul Delooze

Terrifying or thrilling? RACHEL D’CRUZE-SHARPE checks out one of the county’s newest sports.

Hailing from the United States, with its roots in roller skating endurance races dating back to 1884, roller derby has come a long way.

These days it is played by around 1,250 amateur leagues worldwide, with nearly half of these now outside the United States. Dominated by all-female amateur teams, the sport is now so popular that it was under consideration for the 2020 Olympics.

The South West Angels of Terror (SWAT) Roller Derby Team is based in both Somerset and Devon and has been a team since late 2011. It consists of 40 females aged 19 to 45, with professions including doctors, vets, writers and accountants.

I’ve met up with the team at one of their weekly Thursday night training sessions in Taunton. They also train in Exeter on Mondays and Saturdays in Cullompton. My main points of contact, Dee ‘Tension’, a police officer called Dee, who was SWAT’s oldest player until she switched to being a referee and Emma ‘Insane Bolt’ who is a Doctor of Philosophy, couldn’t be more welcoming.

Spirits are high, as the team has just won the SW:UK League, for the second year running, beating Dorset Roller Girls with a score of 214–94.

“We weren’t sure what to expect as we’d only just scrapped a win against Plymouth and they’d thrashed all of their other games. We thought we’d win but we thought we’d have to fight tooth and nail for it, so it was great to win by that much,” says Emma.

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This is the second year that SWAT has entered the league and the second time they’ve brought the trophy home to Somerset and Devon. Emma tells me that the reigning champions entered into a specific nine-week training program to get ready for the league, which speaks volumes for SWAT’s dedication and determination.

All the girls in SWAT are incredibly friendly, referring to themselves as a big family. It’s not long before I find myself coaxed into giving it a go for myself…

I haven’t been on roller skates since I carried my Rainbow Brite dolls everywhere with me, but all kitted up in wrist guards, knee pads, elbow pads, a helmet and mouth guard, I feel quite safe. The only way I can leave with bruising is if I take a tumble backwards and fall on my bum, but as you lean forward when you skate this shouldn’t happen. Of course it does, but it doesn’t hurt and it’s not long before I’m making my way around Taunton’s 1610 Leisure Centre with a big smile on my face, receiving some effective coaching from Emma. I can see the appeal – it really is great fun and I’m genuinely wowed by the moves of some of the team in their speedy backwards-skating glory!

Despite the spangly hot pants and fun names, there’s no forgetting that this is a full contact sport.

“The refs check all equipment before the matches and it’s a well regulated sport,” says Emma, who has been with the team since the beginning and so great is her love of skating that she incorporates an eight-mile skate into her work commute.

Indeed, all of the girls I talked to at SWAT commented on how addictive the adrenalin-fuelled sport is. Interestingly, a couple of the SWAT team have gotten so involved with the sport that they’ve ended up starting their own businesses centered around it.

I met Kate Garrard who now runs her own company called Dude Where’s My Pants, selling her own custom made attention-grabbing roller derby shorts and hot pants.

When skaters join a team they known as ‘fresh meat’, which sounds terrifying, but in reality you receive full training when you join and you have to pass a series of minimum skills tests before you can take part in jams, which includes knowing the safety rules and moves including hitting, whips, blocking and jamming. SWAT put a lot of effort into teaching and supporting new members, often spending weeks on end guiding new recruits around on skates with proficient skaters on each side for support.

One of the nicest things about being at SWAT’s training session and finding out more about this fascinating sport, is how friendly and inclusive the atmosphere is and that extends to the team’s approach to recruiting new players too.

“We welcome all body shapes and sizes. You can use weight to your advantage, or, if you’re small learn how to use your footwork to get speed – it’s about how you approach your positioning,” says Emma earnestly. “We always encourage everyone to have a go at jamming at training, as that’s the point scoring position and it builds confidence. We are a friendly bunch that’ll help anyone,” she adds.

I’ll second that.