Published on November 14th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor0
Susy Pow (L) by Tyler Shaw
By Sugar Hit
What roller derby skater doesn’t dream of the big time? Skating with the best of WFTDA at championships and play-offs must be empowering, exciting, and loads of fun. From the bottom of the world, in Australia and New Zealand, it looks like a good time anyway. But with the exception of a small number of teams and leagues, the closest skaters from Australia and New Zealand get to top-level competitions is through live-streaming (and even then, it’s fingers crossed the feed doesn’t cut out).
And so, over the past few years, skaters have left Australia and New Zealand and wound up playing derby in the Northern Hemisphere.
Susy Pow left Newcastle Roller Derby League in Australia’s NSW and found her way to Baltimore in Maryland, where she jams for the Charm City Roller Girls. Kitty DeCapitate returned home to the London Roller Girls after a successful stint with the Victorian Roller Derby League. New Zealander Olivia Coupe moved there too, and has made a name for herself with London Brawling. Fellow New Zealander Goregasm is with them as well, moving up the ranks to make the London Brawling squad this year. And in the past year, Hannah Jennings from New Zealand has completed TWO transfers to top-level leagues – first, Terminal City in Canada, before she settled in Portland, USA, with the Rose City Rollers.
DerbyLife asked them a few questions about their move, how it’s changed, what advice they’d give to other skaters who want to do the same, and whether they’d ever come back.
DL: Can you give us a history of your derby career before you moved?
Susy Pow (SP): I began skating with Newcastle Roller Derby League in September 2009. In early 2011, I went to England/Paris/Berlin for a month and stopped in to practice with London Rockin’ Rollers, London Roller Girls and a boot camp in some regional part of England. That trip and watching roller derby online live at 3am sparked my interest in international derby. Also I went to Toronto, Canada, as a jammer and blocker for Team Australia.
Olivia Coupe (OC): I began learning to skate and playing roller derby in 2007 after seeing a Pirate City Rollers game. Soon after I joined their fresh meat programme and worked my way into their new home team Mascara Massacre. We won our first game against the Black Heart Bruisers which was somewhat of an upset and I spent most of the game as the pivot which basically involved me turning around telling my team to go faster. I really had no idea what I was doing.
Goregasm (Gore): I started with Richter City Roller Derby in Wellington, NZ, in 2009 and fell head over heels in love with the sport (as you do). I skated with RCRD for a total of two years and I had earned my All Stars (A travel-team) shirt by the time I left to travel.
Kitty DeCapitate (KDC): I actually began playing roller derby in London in 2006 before derby existed in Australia. I moved back to my hometown Melbourne in 2009, so I joined VRDL as an already established player. My time at VRDL was pretty amazing, it always felt like we were doing something big and momentous (as it did in London too). We became WFTDA members, got to play Texas and Rat City, got our own training warehouse, won TGSS twice, travelled to the US to play in tournaments. It was pretty exciting to be part of all of that since just as I left London, London Roller Girls were really starting their international campaign.
Hannah Jennings (HJ): I started playing derby in early 2008. I skated with the Pirate City Rollers in Auckland, NZ, for my first three years. I got to skate in New Zealand’s first ever interleague game and was part of the first NZ team to take part in an international tournament. I helped form Auckland Roller Derby League in 2011 – we were unbeaten in New Zealand during my time in the league and I was part of the team that won the first NZ derby champs, which was pretty amazing! I left New Zealand in mid-2013, and was accepted onto the Team New Zealand training squad in early 2014, which I am very thankful for. I hope I can represent my country in Dallas this year.
DL: Why did you decide to move overseas? Personal reasons, for a new job, or to be closer to top-level competition?
SP: Personally, I had wanted to move to the US to increase my derby potential since getting a taste for derby competition in 2010. It’s an all-encompassing aspect of my life that has afforded me many many friends, new family and a wonderful supportive husband (the latter of which I met at Rollercon 2012). I knocked over Dan (Ogden Smash – after the poet Odgen Nash) during a black and white scrimmage. I like to say that I was jamming, jumped the apex, put a foot down on the track and hip checked him to the floor. He says it was after the fourth whistle and that I was airborne. I prefer my story. We exchanged details and just kept talking every single day until it was obvious that I was meant to be by his side. We feverishly looked up visa details, booked flights and rented an apartment in Baltimore, MD USA. Baltimore… because I wanted to strive to play with a D1 team.
OC: Auckland was getting a bit small for me and I wanted to travel around Europe then live and work overseas. I knew there were two good leagues in London so that helped me decide where to settle and at the time London was of a similar level to Pirate City Rollers.
Gore: I never actually planned to move to the UK (I left New Zealand with a friend to travel the world). We kicked around South America for three months and our outbound tickets from Rio were to London. We had planned on staying there for a few weeks then moving to either Berlin or Barcelona, just to have a bit of a life adventure. I was never attracted to the UK, it didn’t seem exotic (or warm) enough for me. By the time we arrived in London we were totally broke and had to get jobs ASAP, which kept us here for a bit longer. Eventually I started skating with London Roller Girls. From the first training I knew I wasn’t moving anywhere soon: the level of training and coaching was SO good, so so good. Even though I didn’t move to London for derby, I stayed here for derby, and I live here for derby. I don’t think I will leave London until I am done with skating.
KDC: It was pretty clear after about six months of being back in Oz that I pined for Europe again. I LOVED everything I was doing with VRDL and it was great being back with family but there was just something missing. I felt quite isolated from the rest of the world, and really missed the adventure of London, the travel, and the opportunities.
HJ: I moved out of New Zealand to be closer to top level roller derby. My partner at the time and I moved without any jobs lined up and only a little pot of savings to our name, but it was important for me to get out and be part of top level WFTDA play while I’m still young. My father even told me that if I was going to “pursue this bloody derby thing” that I better do it now before my knees and hips give out. Thanks, Bruce Jennings. (I get my charm from my father.)
I actually moved to Vancouver, BC, Canada first. Moving within the Commonwealth is very easy, and obtaining a one-year working holiday visa was a breeze. I skated with the fabulous Terminal City Rollergirls from the time I moved over from New Zealand until earlier this year, when I transferred to Rose.
DL: How hard was it for you to make that decision? Did you have to justify the move to anyone, yourself included? Were your friends and family back home supportive of you?
SP: I felt a little bit uncomfortable telling my derby friends that I was moving to the US for a guy. That’s not the first thing they’d expect me to say “well, hey I met a guy and I’m moving to America”. Worse still was when Berzerker (VRDL) found out that I was moving to Baltimore. Berzerker was a founding member of Charm City Roller Girls and warned me (the day before I moved!) that Baltimore had high crime levels and was not somewhere I should move!
Gore: My friend who I moved here with, though she tried to be supportive, was always pretty scornful of how much time derby takes up my life. She would always say how I lived in one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the world and never saw a second of it, which is absolutely true. She was also worried (and I agree with her) about how it was affecting myself as a person. Because London is such a bitch to get around, it takes an hour, at least, to get to and from training. Which means that when you train four days a week, and have a job and stuff, there is very little time for anything else. I use to be a very creative person. I used to paint and draw a lot. I used to do a lot of theatre. I love to travel. I barely do any of that anymore.
KDC: I can’t say the idea of playing for Brawling again wasn’t exciting for me, but because it was actually such a long protracted process for me to get back there, we really HAD to know this is what we wanted. (I had opened a small business that I had to sell, and it took over 12 months on the market, with eight months of that in the country on my own as my husband moved back to London earlier). Everyone was really supportive of the move though, as much as they wanted me to stay.
HJ: The decision to leave New Zealand was made years before I actually did it. I toyed with the idea of moving to Melbourne or Sydney, and explored a thousand different options that could lead me to the States, but didn’t actually make tracks to move until I found myself without work at the end of 2012. It was extremely liberating, particularly as someone that had been building a career in a very gung-ho fashion since I left university. In the end, leaving my friends and family wasn’t that hard – so many of my nearest and dearest live overseas now that it was pretty much a rite of passage that I left. What was hard was leaving the league that I had built – I was a coach, a captain and a head of media, and handing it over was much, much harder than I could have anticipated. Thankfully Auckland Roller Derby kept in touch for help throughout the rest of the season, which cushioned the feelings of abandonment to some extent.
DL: Was your current league open and supportive when you arrived? Did you have to fight to “prove” yourself and your skills?
SP: When I emailed through a transfer request, I wasn’t really sure what the response would be. Most WFTDA D1 teams expect you to be playing for another WFTDA league to qualify you for a transfer. I think that my stint on Team Australia might have swayed them to accept me in. Or maybe my sheer tenacity… that seems to get me places.
It was definitely hard work integrating into the league. Obviously you knew everyone in your former league including what their assets are and when to steer clear of them. That’s a learning curve that only time will solve. I’ve never been interested in hearing from other people “you won’t like her” or “she’s drama” or “you should try and get into this home team” and it’s made it a lot easier to integrate with everyone.
I feel like anyone who joins a high level WFTDA team is going to have to prove themselves. Most Top 20 teams have solid rosters already and when you’re looking to fit into that, you’re going to have to showcase what you’ve got, but be more than ready to push aside some of your prized skills for team integration. I chose the hardest path by entering Charm City Roller Girls as a jammer, but still managed to make the majority of line-ups throughout 2013. The most exciting adventure I’ve had with Charm City Roller Girls was joining them at WFTDA D1 Playoffs in Salem, Oregon. I was not listed to skate until the day prior to leaving for Oregon but was coming to support my team anyway. We have quite a deep jammer capability within our team so it was thrilling to be called upon at the last minute to play. I was so proud of my performance across the weekend and jammed solidly throughout three games – in the end, my stats were within the top bracket of jammers at the tournament.
OC: The London Rollergirls were so welcoming! Slice Andice kept in touch via email and when I arrived she let me crash at her house and took me to training. I remember when we arrived everyone was outside sunning themselves (sunlight is still a bit of a novelty for Brits so we make the most of it). The hall was tiny – enough for a track with no buffer. I was so unfit and had to sit out during some of the drills and it was a real wakeup call that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. This was at a time when no one cross trained and people still smoked socially. I was lucky to join them at a time when I was skilled enough to make the main league but I knew I had a lot of work to do.
Gore: London Roller Girls has a huge number of people in the league and we get a lot of visitors and transfers, so it’s hard to tell who is there to stay and who is passing through. The training style is also very different to a lot of other leagues. When we train, we train: there is much less mucking around and social time. I wasn’t really used to all this so I actually found London Roller Girls a pretty unfriendly league to join. It was pretty hard for me to make friends, and making friends is one of my special skills. As well as that, there are literally some of the best derby players in the world there, and it can be pretty intimidating. In fact, I almost transferred to the other London league, the Rock N Rollers. I understand now why I got that unfriendly impression at first and now I always try to make new people feel welcome. I am really glad I didn’t transfer in the end.
As I move up the ranks, so to speak, I get that feeling of pressure to prove myself more and more. I am on the charter for London Brawling, who are currently ranked #3 in the world. We have a re-draft every 3 months but the league is so competitive, so full of amazing skaters, and everyone is pushing themselves and improving every day. The coaches and captains are always watching, so the need to prove yourself is strong. Not a lot of people know that the London Roller Girls’ B team “Brawl Saints” are actually the top team in Europe after Brawling. They have only ever lost one game to a team that they have since beaten (Tiger Bay Brawlers). This means that there is a whole team, a whole REALLY good team, biting at your heels. If you don’t work hard enough, there is someone else ready to take your spot.
KDC: Moving BACK to your old league is probably an even weirder experience. It was great, because I already knew a lot of people. But also it was weird because there were people I had never met before who were established players. It had actually been three years that I had been away. A LOT had happened without me; shared collective experiences that I had no part of. I felt like London Roller Girls was still my league but I still had to get to know it afresh. Everyone was super supportive and nice though. I started with a bunch of other transfers (Jen Sykes and Sarah Oates from Glasgow), so we went through the process together of being part of the C Team (anyone not in the A or B team is on the C Team) until the first travel team draft. I was a bit nervous to be honest, going from being a Coach and Captain within VRDL, to then wondering how I stacked up against a Play-Offs standard team. I did worry that perhaps I wouldn’t have shown the selectors enough to be put on the charter straight away. Turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about, and got a place at the first draft. The experience did really make me focus on improving my weaknesses but also my strengths, and every training session is a challenge.
HJ: I moved to Terminal City with the skills I had built up in New Zealand and no idea of what it takes to compete internationally. I turned up to Terminal the week of their all-star tryouts, so not only did I have to try and work with new people that thought I sounded a bit funny, I also had to cope with the increase in competition. I made the all-star reserve program and served out the rest of the season learning from this great bunch of skaters and improving my skill set. When I transferred to Rose City in February, it was like history repeating. I once again found myself heading into travel team tryouts really swiftly, and had to adapt to the higher level of play. Moving from WFTDA #37 to WFTDA #4 was a big jump – on my first day of tryouts, someone plowed so hard and fast that their butt bruised my quad, and stopping Rose’s jammers felt like trying to stop a group of very agile, very aggressive skyscrapers. I was very grateful to make the Rose City travel team – alongside my best friend and Auckland Roller Derby league founder Elicia Nisbet-Smith – and we both now skate for the B-team, the Axles of Annihilation. [Editor’s Note: Jennings now skates for the Wheels of Justice, not the Axles of Annihilation.] Axles and the Wheels of Justice practice together, which has meant that my skills have had to adapt, change and grow… and I’ve had to get over the fear of being flattened by one of those skyscrapers! But all in all, I’ve felt welcomed by the leagues that have taken me in, even if they don’t understand some of the words I say from time to time.
DL: What’s the most notable differences between derby from where you’re from, and where you are now?
SP: When I left Australia, the most notable difference was that NRDL had a really definitive group of skaters who were travel team capable. I honestly felt safe in my position on the team. The skill level across the board is extremely high in the US. I find myself being compared to skaters who have been speed skating since they were 6 years old or who began playing derby 10 years ago.
One of the biggest game-play differences is that every manoeuvre is quicker, sharper and more precise. It’s like comparing playing pinball drunk at a bar to rocking up at the pinball world champs knowing exactly how you’re going to win. It’s really hard to compare the two worlds of roller derby without feeling derogatory but it’s a marked step up.
OC: I feel like derby in New Zealand moves a lot slower. European teams which were founded 3/4 years ago are now beating Division 2 teams in the US. I’d like to see more New Zealand leagues make steps towards joining WFTDA and getting ranked because their is some crazy talented skaters back home. For London our goals were simple – to play at the most competitive level possible, to be the first non North American WFTDA league, and to make playoffs (back then it was still called Regionals.) We’re currently ranked #3 in the world thanks to changes in the ranking calculator and some big wins against Division one teams at our Anarchy in the UK Tournament. Being isolated from every other Division 1 team in the world makes it really hard for us to get high level games, but our isolation has also helped us because I think people underestimated us in the beginning. I really respect teams like VRDL in Melbourne who haven’t let their isolation slow them down.
Gore: When I was with Richter City Roller Derby there was only a handful of leagues we could play at a competitive level. Our goal for a long time was to beat the Pirate City Rollers in Auckland, who are a good team, but are just one team and with a very specific style. I think a variety of competition leads to more dynamic growth within a team. Being challenged by many styles of play allows for that team to learn from those styles, absorb them and inevitably develop. A good example of this is London Roller Girls vs Pirate City Rollers. Both leagues started at almost exactly the same time, yet on the world stage, LRG shines and PCR is almost completely off the radar. I think it is just really hard to keep up being so far away. (Newzealandisstillthebestplaceonearth)
KDC: The sporting culture is different in the UK. ‘Women playing a contact sport’ is still a ‘thing’ here. Though I have to say, playing for LRG you are in a bit of a bubble, and even more so in Brawling, because everyone is so super focused individually to excel. Though it was very similar with the All Stars in VRDL too, we were really driven to do whatever it took to reach the next level.
I also started bench coaching and coaching the men’s team Southern Discomfort as my husband had started playing with them. Getting involved in mens derby was a really different aspect as it didn’t exist in Oz when I left. It was so great to be able to use my experience to help a really young but very talented team and see them become a fully fledged legit team, and as they have improved, it has been great to skate against them. It has definitely improved my game.
HJ: Derby in New Zealand is on the right track. My league back home is really passionate about staying up to date with what’s happening internationally, so we always took up opportunities to be coached by international coaches. While I feel that New Zealand teams will have to travel to North America more to test and grow their skills, I think leagues that choose to be proactive about their learning and progression can go a long way to bridging the gaps between us and them.
DL: Has playing derby overseas changed how you play? Are you taking on new positions, has your skill level and commitment increased? What’s been your biggest “I made the right move” moment?
SP: I feel like I retained a lot of the ‘serpentine’ skating style I developed back in Australia and bolstered that with stronger leg positioning. I picked up a whole bunch of tips and tricks, mostly from I.M. Pain and Holly Gohardly about where to be on the track and how to move my feet.
The coolest thing, and one of my dream roles within the league, was to be a WFTDA Rep. I love the whole concept of the association and was always pushing for my Australian league and other leagues to become WFTDA Members so that eventually we could have our own region (back when regions were a thing!). I currently look after Vendor relations for our bouts as well as being the WFTDA Rep.
Playing at WFTDA D1 Playoffs was a huge “this is awesome” moment. I imagine the feeling of joining Team Australia at Blood & Thunder World Cup 2014 will feel just as epic.
OC: It’s changed my life! As a skater and a person I’ve grown a lot. It makes me really proud to skate for a team which defies all the odds and continues to get better. We also have some of the best coaches in the world – shout out to Stefanie Mainey, Kamikaze Kitten and Ballistic Whistle who have been instrumental to our success.
My level of commitment has increased ten fold. It’s made me think about how I can get stronger, faster and fitter. Right now I’m skating 3 times a week, and cross training 7 times a week to improve my skating and prevent injury. I’m still a blocker, I’ve dabbled with jamming but I don’t have the footwork or strength for it. I jam occasionally to test out my agility at scrimmage but I focus on blocking which I love more and to make sure I keep my spot on the roster.
It still blows my mind that I got to compete at WFTDA Regionals in 2011 and subsequent playoffs and Champs. I’m so grateful for everything that this sport has given me. I even met my wife through roller derby. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this when I miss home and I’m cycling in the rain to training, my whole body aches, I’m sleep deprived and I want to just be back to Aotearoa and lying on the beach.
Gore: I skate for London Brawling, the current WFTDA #3., and also for England, who are number 2 after USA. That means I can say quite confidently that I am pretty good at roller derby. When people ask me how London Roller Girls got so good, I always say the same thing: we have a handful of AH-Mazing coaches who are so are committed, talented, hard working, smart and utterly inspiring (shout out to Kamikaze Kitten, Stefanie Mainey, Kitty Decapitate, Juke Boxx, Olivia Coupe, and Ballistic Whistle). Being at the learning end of these coaches 8 hours a week is like being at the best bootcamp of your life ALL the time. I never take this for granted. This level of coaching has turned me into a dynamic, smart, strong, active player. I would say I am now around 700% better at roller derby than I was before I started training with LRG.
We have three on-skates training sessions a week, each between 2-4 hours. Then we have a two-hour off-skates session with a group called Dynamic Sports Academy who work with specialized sports conditioning. We also have a free skate session on Friday evenings where you can go and practice stuff on your own, which I usually attend. On top of that I try to go to to the gym or do some sort of work out four-five days a week. It sounds like a lot, but the league is so competitive that this is not uncommon. In fact, I often feel like I am not doing enough.
However, even though on paper I must be a good skater, I pretty much always feel like I am not good enough. For example,when I made the Team England squad, my pride was minimal because 18 of my team mates also made it. If I learn something new, or improve at something, my initial feeling is often “why am I only learning this now” rather than feeling proud of myself. The more I move up in derby, the more my confidence drops. A while ago I went to a boot camp with two of my Brawling team mates, and none of us were certain whether or not we should go in the advanced group or the intermediate group. (The answer from the coach was “Advanced. You’re a bunch of idiots”).
KDC: I no longer jam for Travel Team games, which is different, but a direction I had wanted to take for a while. My commitment has increased. My schedule is: Monday night team strength and conditioning, Tuesday skating, Thursday skating, Friday I go to a derby open skate session where I get to practice stuff over and over in my own time, Saturday I train with or coach the men’s team Southern Discomfort, Sunday is scrimmage day, and I work in another 2 strength and conditioning sessions somewhere in there too. Plus I own a skate shop with fellow ex-pat Goregasm.
I suppose being part of the first non-American team to make it to Champs was pretty epic. Also I think opening my shop. For a long time I knew I wanted to get out of hairdressing, and so everything falling into place when I moved back here, and being able to have that change, definitely confirmed it for me.
HJ: Not really. I am still a keen communicator and narrator on the track, and I still block very similarly to how I did at home – I just have more weapons in my arsenal now that I play with people who are at a higher level than me. My skill level has definitely increased but my league work commitment level seems to be levelling off to a more healthy level – my volunteer hour quota has definitely shrunk! Back home in my small league of 30 people, 20+ hours a week was pretty standard, whereas here, there are 500 people to share the load and I put in more like 20 hours per month.
Every day I wake up next to the person who (for reasons I can’t even explain) loved me enough to help me move here – who challenges me to get better and levels with me when I get frustrated or disappointed in my training trajectory. And four times a week, I get to walk into a place that I used to watch on TV, and play roller derby with the world class skaters from inside my TV. Every damn day I know I made the right move.
DL: If you were to move home, would you keep playing roller derby or would it be too different for you?
SP: If I moved back to Australia there’s a very slim chance I’d move back to Newcastle. Besides amazing coffee, my parents and knowing every person I walk past in the street, Newcastle isn’t somewhere that I really want to move back to. Who knows where we’d end up – maybe Brisbane or Melbourne. I’d almost certainly keep playing roller derby and if I was unable to, I’d be coaching or officiating.
OC: I’ve neglected my career to focus on skating so I think when we move back to New Zealand it will be the first steps of retirement and a chance for me to focus on my job and family more. But never say never.
Gore: I won’t move home until I am done playing derby at a competitive level.
KDC: won’t be moving back to Melbourne any time soon. If I did, yes, I would continue playing. VRDL are on such a great upward trajectory also, that it really wouldn’t be too different….just further to travel to play international teams! BLURGH!
HJ: Oh derby, you better believe that I’m not moving back to the land of free healthcare until the WFTDA has ruined me and my wife’s knees and hips for good. Dad, you were right!
DL: Does anyone back home say to you “I wish I could move like you have”? What advice would you give about moving overseas for derby?
SP: Every so often I get a message in my inbox asking me about which visas I came to the US on and all these questions about my experiences. A few people have already made the big step, for derby or for love. Or maybe both! I have Southern Hemisphere friends playing for Rose City, Terminal City and Boston right now who sure as hell aren’t going home any time soon!
I say, go for it. If you lost your job at home, you’d just find another one. If you needed to move apartments, you’d just find another one. If you break a bone, use the travel insurance you should have bought before you left! If you don’t like it anymore, go home or go somewhere else. The world is a really massive place but there are friendly roller derby people EVERYWHERE.
OC: To anyone in New Zealand considering moving overseas and continuing to play derby – DO IT! I love travel more than I love roller derby (which is a lot). Living in other countries opens your mind to new ideas, new people and new experiences. Playing roller derby means you already have a huge network of people to help you settle in. It helps massively if you already have and EU or US passport and if you don’t – go before you are 30 as most youth visas have a cut off age.
Gore: Be ready to commit. And be ready to get your ass kicked.
KDC: I would always tell people to do it, but that’s because I favour change over stagnation in life in general. If you want to do something, do it. We are pretty lucky in London, people do move here all the time because it is such a central European hub. We have had many transfers who have moved to London with derby being their top priority. I would say that if you are planning on moving to a top level team, you need to be prepared for what that might mean….you may be an A Team player in your league, but moving to a well established team, you may have to try-out, you may have to join the Rec League, you may not make the A Team. So be mentally prepared for that and be prepared to meet that challenge.
HJ: I don’t think I’ve had anyone saying that they wish they could do the same, because at the end of the day, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you truly want to be a crazy person that moves 10,000 miles away from home to play an amateur sport, you can do it! All you need is the desire to do it, money to move and enough smarts to understand the legal processes behind immigration. My only piece of advice to people wanting to emigrate is – do it right the first time. Get the right visa, save enough money, and make sure you leave your home league amicably and cleanly (you’ll need their letter of recommendation, after all!)