IT all started with a Christmas present and quickly gathered speed. Three years ago Jonny Rudd bought his girlfriend, Bronia McNay, a pair of retro rollerskates after she mentioned skating as a kid.
Now the couple are celebrating one year of running their own roller derby team – the Durham City Rolling Angels. Bronia, who grew up at Hastings Hill, said: “I put them straight on. I was still in my pyjamas and I didn’t bother with socks.
“I started skating around the house and made Jonny a cooked breakfast wearing them.”
After practising in car parks and around the house, Bronia started looking for a sport to use her skills.
Bronia said: “I’d heard about roller derby and mentioned it to a friend and they suggested we watch the film Whip It! and when I saw that I knew that was what I wanted to do.
“Someone told me the Middlesbrough Milk Rollers team were having try outs and I set my heart on it.”
Roller skating became popular in America in the 1930s, as a marathon and endurance event for men and women, but has been through several evolutions.
Jonny explained: “It carried on into the ’70s and ’80s and became a bit like Gladiators, with hair-pulling and fake fights with the crowd going nuts. Then it disappeared off the telly until 2003, when someone got a team together for a charity event.
“It was like a cross between WWE and skating but gradually leagues started to form and it swept through America.
“A team started in London in 2006 and Middlesbrough is also one of the oldest UK teams.”
Bronia successfully tried out for the Middlesbrough Milk Rollers and took to it like a duck to water, but last year decided to start her own group with Jonny as co-referee.
Both agree that roller derby is a weird and wonderful pastime with many perks.
Jonny said: “We’re not bothered about winning or losing. It’s the effect it has on your life. Every time you come to practice you have to go out of your comfort zone and that bleeds into the rest of your life.
“Your fitness goes through the roof, your body shape changes. It’s a really really positive sport for people to get into. Imagine the endorphins. If you suffer from anxiety or depression it’s a natural remedy. When people get bitten by the bug, they just blossom.
“When you’re surrounded by people who love it, it’s pretty amazing. If you join with a group of people at the same time, then the bond is really strong.”
Bronia said: “It’s hard work training in skates for two hours but I don’t notice it’s exercise. You can get the skills in four months if you really take to it. It’s the only thing I’ve found that doesn’t bore me.
“I love it when you get a breakthrough with someone who’s been struggling with something. The other night one girl, who hasn’t stood out before, suddenly started jamming (see side panel) and being really aggressive and getting up really quickly when she was knocked down. It was great, I felt very proud. The fitter you are and the better you are at skating, the less likely you are to get hurt, but it is a full-contact sport and there are injuries sometimes.
“It’s aggressive but at the end of the game everyone is happy and there’s always an after party. If you lose the game you try to win the after party.”
Roller derby competitors often pick pseudonyms, with a strong tradition of punning. Scrawny Weaver, Joy Collision and Lolly Go Sprightly are all skaters. Bronia, whose skate name is Kitty Kaboom, said: “I like the alter ego thing. I think if you’re one of the girls who feels different when you put skates on, then it’s nice. By day you’re such and such and by night you can be your own superhero. It’s like a caricature of yourself.
“When I put my skates on I’m 12 again. I’m smiling and happy.
“Some girls use their own name, though, because they want to be seen as serious athletes and there is an idea that it will become an Olympic sport.”
Getting a group together is no mean feat, and reaching competition level takes time.
Jonny said: “The first obstacle was finding somewhere to practice, because most sports halls are worried the skates will damage the floor.”
After lots of knock backs the couple finally got a yes from the Spectrum Leisure Centre, in Willington, County Durham.
Bronia said: “They did roller skate parties anyway and they were great about it – they even lent us some skates.
“We started with a dozen friends and people who’d heard through word of mouth and started practicing until we got to a certain level. Then we had a try-out day and 40 girls turned up.”
The team practices three times a week and now also use the Bobby Robson Centre in Ushaw Moor. Practice is split into scrimmages (practice games) and drills and skills (stopping, turning, jumping).
Jonny and Bronia coach the team between them and Bronia is training to become a referee.
The next try outs are in September and the team plans to start competing on the circuit soon. Bronia said: “We’re getting close to being able to compete. It does take time to get a team through all their minimum skills training.
“Soon we’ll be having a match against Middlesbrough’s B team to see where we’re at. In practice the girls have to split into two groups so it will be great for them to play all on the same side for the first time.
“There’s a Roller Derby World Cup and a Team England – one day we could have a local girl on that team.”
The team is sponsored by The Angel Inn, in Durham, just up the road from the couple’s day job – running Scarlet Ribbons Vintage and Retro shop, in Neville Street in Durham.
Jonny said: “It was just one of those things but it’s changed so much for us and for the women who’ve joined.
“We have one who travelled a lot with the army and when she came back she had no friends nearby. She joined and now she’s got 30. They’re really really close-knit.
“It’s difficult to say what makes someone good at it. I think when you love roller derby it makes you want to be good and those people become the best players.”
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