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Emerging From Complete Obscurity, Saigon Roller Derby Storms the Rink

It’s a Tuesday night in Binh Quoi, and a group is lacing up their skates at a skating rink next to a football pitch.

This is no rollerblading joy ride, or anything of the like — in fact, you won’t see this anywhere else in Vietnam. It’s roller derby, a sport with no history in the country that even the group’s leaders admit is niche even by niche standards.

Even in the United States, where roller derby was invented and most of the world’s teams are based, the sport has something of a cult status. But Claire Stableford, one of the founders of Saigon Roller Derby, can’t imagine life without it.

“It started when Angie [the other-co founder] and I moved here in September together,” she said. “We’re both quite experienced roller derby players — we’ve played for internationally ranked teams and national teams — and there was no team here, so we decided to start one.”

A brief primer on roller derby: two teams square off, with each featuring a "jammer" and several "blockers." The jammer is who scores points for a team, and a match is broken into action-packed "jams.’" Points are scored when the jammer breaks through the opposing team’s blockers, completes a lap of the track and then continues to pass opponent blockers.

The first challenge was finding a venue; a common problem in a megacity that doesn’t always provide enough space for artistic or athletic activities. They settled on GOX, and then set about finding players.

“We found two coaches who had played in the United States but hadn’t played recently, almost straight away, and they helped us set up,” Stableford shared. “There’s been a fair bit of interest from both foreigners and locals, and we’ve been working really hard to recruit locals.”

Ngọc is one of those players. She heard about the group from her brother, who had been invited by a friend to check it out. "I didn’t know the sport existed before that, and at first I was hesitant," she said. "Out of curiosity, I decided to volunteer and spectate a scrimmage between the team...and after witnessing the incredible skills and cheerful energy, I decided that these are the kind of people that I want to be around."

“It took a lot of work, and a lot of it fell to me and a couple of other people since we have experience,” Stableford explained. “It’s not just skaters, you need help with referees, people to track time, the score, and penalties. It’s a lot of organization, but it happened and we’re proud of it.”

The group is open to all genders and and people of any level, though roller derby in the US is generally dominated by all-female teams. They gather every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, with the weekday sessions intended for more advanced skaters and full-contact play, while the weekend is reserved for everyone and doesn’t involve contact. “We’ve had people who have never even skated, but it doesn’t take long to get those skills up,” Stableford said.

Heather McClellan is one of the more experienced players, and she was coaching group members through skating drills during our visit. She played for a team in Cleveland, Ohio before moving to Hanoi, where she wanted to start a club but couldn’t find gear or a venue.

“I scrimmaged in parks with a few skaters, but then I saw Claire post in an international roller derby Facebook group, and joined when I moved to Saigon,” she said. McClellan added the Saigon club has become something of a little sister to the roller derby club in Bangkok, which is older and more established.

“We also got some old gear for beginners, or for people who can’t afford it and just want to try, from a group called Derby Without Borders,” she said. “There’s a really supportive global community, and I can’t wait for the pandemic to end so that we can do workshops and games.”

This is a major goal for Stableford as well, who is in touch with groups elsewhere in Asia.

“We’ve reached out to a lot of teams and shared coaching plans from the national coaches we’ve played with,” she said. “When the borders open we want to go play these teams, and we want them to be at a high level so that they will give us a good challenge.”

While she is used to a world-class level of play, Stableford has enjoyed the challenges of building the sport in a place where it never existed before: “It’s really rewarding because we can focus on these new skaters that have no experience and lifting them up.”

Ngọc’s initial skepticism, meanwhile, has morphed into love.

“So far everything has been both great and challenging,” she said “I know that falling is a learning opportunity, and the more I fall, the better I will get. The feeling of accomplishment after a fall, knowing that I tried to surpass my limits, it keeps me going. I’m now able to enjoy the present instead of stressing about what’s ahead and not being able to do anything about it.”

She also shared a memory from a practice a few weeks ago when, for the first time, she managed to knock a more advanced player out of the track: “I felt bad, but behind that are feelings of great accomplishment as the coaches cheer me on.”

In just six months, roller derby has gone from unknown in Saigon, to the club featuring two house teams while planning for a second scrimmage. That was supposed to take place this Friday, but has been postponed due to the latest COVID-19 wave.

“We’re open to anyone joining the team,” Stableford said. “Roller derby is typically a female sport, but we want to introduce it to as many people as we can in Vietnam.”

Given the evident enthusiasm during a weekday evening session, they have certainly made an impact already.

Contact Saigon Roller Derby via their Facebook page for more information about the sport and how to join.