What I’ve learned as a roller derby official

In December 2014 I attended one of Rainy’s drop-in New Skater Sessions. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play derby and I didn’t have any dreams of being a referee – I just wanted to learn how to skate. At my second session I already knew that I loved derby, but I didn’t want to be in the firing line of such a highly physical contact sport. The option of refereeing was presented to me as a reduced risk, so I continued attending the new skater sessions.

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Jam Timing at British Championships – Photo by Dave McAleavy

Learning to roller skate in your 30s is so much fun! I embraced the challenged and watched my skills quickly improve, achieving things I never dreamed my body would do. My little brother even accused me of having a mid-life crisis.

By February 2015 the Rainy City officials had taken me under their wings and I was given my first look at the 74… yes 74 page rule book! How is someone with no knowledge of derby going to officiate this madness, I thought? With a lot of help, that’s how. I shadowed referees at practice scrims, got sent daily questions online, attended rules classes, and did all the reading. I took the rule book on holiday to Amsterdam and sat in bars drinking beer, watching bikes go by, and furiously highlighting everything.

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First appearance in a tournament program

Refereeing scrimmage was incredibly daunting at first. All the things happened, I saw none of them, and understood even less. But thankfully Rainy skaters are understanding and supportive. When I finally called my first penalty, the penalised skater’s team all cheered me.

I also started learning the role of a Non-Skating Official (NSO) to supplement my ref studies. In April 2015 I NSO’d my first game. I experienced the feeling of being a real official, and couldn’t wait to get my ref skills game-ready.

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The international officials crew at West Track Story IV in France – photo by Insane Motion

In June 2015 I passed my WFTDA Minimum Skills Test and was invited to scrim with the team as a one off. I was brave and agreed to play one period. It was an intense experience – I cried through the entire first 30 minutes. As soon as the half-time whistle blew I skated to the toilets, pulled myself together, put my stripes on, and psyched myself up to referee the second period. Suddenly I felt so comfortable! I realised how much at home I felt this side of the track boundaries – that I actually knew more about refereeing than playing. I stopped crying and started smiling.

Although really pleased to be refereeing, for the next few months I was stilled plagued by self-doubt. I felt a bit pathetic dedicating my life to a sport I’m not even going to play. I was surrounded by strong women I could never be like, and I believed I was on the side line. This all changed when I somehow got accepted to NSO a Sur5al tournament and then UKRDA’s Tattoo Freeze. I discovered the community of roller derby officials and my outlook changed. I’m not on the side line. I’m at the centre of an entirely different thing that exists in its own rights and is valid, important, fun, skilled, mine. At these tournaments I also realised I’d accidentally falling in love with NSOing as well as reffing. I now proudly identify as “bi-official”.

In March 2016 the big day finally came – I was to referee my first game. Not just that, it was a regulation double header, and I was Jam Reffing. Needless to say, I was incredibly nervous. 15 months of hard work had led me to this point. I arrived at the venue hours early. I sat in The Thunderdome reading all my notes. During skate outs my heart was pounding and it took all my strength not to cry. During the first three jams my hands were shaking. Game 1 is a blur in my memory. When game 2 started I realised that I was actually enjoying myself. By the second period of game 2 I was shattered and couldn’t wait for the final whistle. I survived. I didn’t make any terrible calls. I dealt with official reviews professionally. I didn’t cry. It was a success. I’m hooked and I need more.

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First open game as a referee – photo by Claire Brand

Behind my serious ref face, I’m actually having a wonderful time. I take a lot of satisfaction from doing a job well and making things happen. The challenge of keeping up with a fast and experienced jammer is fun, and being swamped by grateful skaters saying “thank you” at the end of a game is rewarding. And I’m pleased to discover the label “Team No Fun” does not prevent us from winning the lip-sync contest at the afterparty or making each other cry with laughter at verbal cue innuendos. I’m brand new to this sport but I can walk into a sports hall in an unfamiliar city and be greeted by so many familiar faces. Just like the skaters, I’m part of a team. But my team is spread across the country and indeed the world. We come together and perform together efficiently despite language barriers and not training together.

Writing this in April 2016, I’ve just come back from NSOing my first international WFTDA tournament in France. I went alone, I returned with friends from 7 countries. Officials get to travel, a lot. Right now a large portion of officials I know are at the Big O tournament in Eugene, Oregon (USA). Next month they’ll be in Belgium and Finland. I’m not at that level yet, but I am about to pack my skates and referee the most Northern game of roller derby to ever take place, deep within the Arctic Circle in Norway. If this is what my life is like after only 1 year, I can’t help but imagine what the future holds.

The road to being a roller derby official hasn’t been easy. It takes a lot of hard work, both on skates and off. I’ve had to come to terms with making some embarrassing public mistakes. I’ve wrestled with my emotions to find how I fit into this unique sport. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. My life is really exciting right now and it’s only going to get better. I give up every weekend because I love doing this. If you’d like to be involved in roller derby but with a lower risk of injury, I cannot recommend officiating highly enough.

Find out how you can train to be a Roller Derby Official with Rainy City

(banner photo by Shirlaine Forrest)

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DERBY TODAY
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