Women & Sport: Fionn Dempsey, Transition and Street Roller Skating
Where did you learn to skate and how old were you?
I think I've tried almost every kind of skating and riding at some point in my life, from either BMX or roller-skates round the age of 3 or 4, then skateboard (thanks to my childhood idols of Bart Simpson and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), mountain bikes, ice skating, rollerblading and roller hockey (the Mighty Ducks, obvs), and BMXing in my early 20s again before roller-skates came into my life in a big way at the age of 28 when I found roller derby. It was a game changer. I didn't just find something I enjoyed doing, I found a culture I saw a place for myself in, for I would say probably the first time in my life. I think a lot of people struggle to find spaces like that. I've had a lot of comments from people about my 'new fads' and expecting them not to last, so some folks were surprised when skating stuck.
I didn't realise how much I was missing out on until I found skating, and realised all the mental and physical health benefits, and the simple joy of skating. There is a physical reaction in the brain to the sensation of lateral movement including skating that creates a positive emotional reaction for humans, which I learned about in a documentary about a man called Slomo, a neurologist who quit his job and now rollerblades every day in Pacific Beach, California
There's science to back it why skating feels good, basically, but I think anyone who has experienced that feeling knows that already, which is why so many people have fond memories of skating, blading and biking from when they were younger.
What types of skating do you do?I haven’t played derby in years and since coming to Aus in Oct 2015 I’ve started skating mainly on transition (ramps, skate parks, etc.) and street (basically anything with a surface that my wheels can roll on!). These are the places where I feel most challenged and push myself to learn and create. I also have a skateboard, which I use it to get around on, it's much easier to jump on and off a board than a pair of skates!
Eventually I’ll try skateboarding on ramps, I'm keen to get my first drop in on a board done soon!
When you don't drive, skates/skate gear and a skateboard is a lot to carry, so mostly it's roller-skating when I go to a park!
Where do you skate?
Fitzy bowl in Edinburgh Gardens in Fitzroy! Haha, well it's part of my insta bio that 'sometimes I skate places other than Fitzy', because I do skate other places, but I spend a lot of time there.
It's a really good bowl for learning, not just because of the bowl design but also because of the community around it. Most of the people who hang out there are encouraging, and understand how difficult it can be to feel comfortable in that environment. It’s a lot easier to show up and try new things when you feel like you're welcome in the culture. Everyone struggles at the beginning I think, but there are particular problems with accessibility in skate culture for anyone who isn't (cis) male, white, straight, or able-bodied, amongst other things, in large part due to the fact that those demographics are already well-represented in the overall skate culture population, and others aren't represented much at all. It is changing, but we haven't reached a tipping point yet where diversity is a normal thing to see at a skate park. It's very difficult to show up in an environment where you don't feel like one of the crowd for any reason, and the more reasons, the harder it is. It's hard to be what you can't see, after all. I'm female, queer, autistic and have a really confusing accent, so I've had some difficulties in feeling accepted and understood. I've also found some of the most amazing people in my life, so it definitely worked out and was worth persevering through the tougher times! Even being on roller-skates comes with challenges. People have been skating transition/bowls on roller-skates since the beginning of that scene, in fact the first skateboards were made from roller-skate parts, but the popularity of roller-skating faded, and all but a few stopped using them. As skateboarding developed and progressed, and other forms of riding/skating came into the mix, roller-skating was mostly forgotten. A lot of people look confused when they see skates now, but most are also pretty positive, and some people talk about wanting to try it or take it up again, or try any kind of riding, and I always try to help them do it! Come by Fitzy any day and say hi, I'm 'often' around ;)
Skating is appearing more and more in the media and culture generally lately, why do you think this is?The resurgence in popularity in recent years I believe is massively due to the revival and development of roller derby as a sport and a culture. But roller derby isn't for everyone, competition isn't for everyone, the level of time, energy and monetary commitment isn't possible for everyone. When I found transition skating I knew it was for me, right from the start. It's independent, creative, doesn't cost anything, and it's supported by the culture where there's so much room to experiment, progress and just be yourself. Not everyone sees it that way, but when you find people who do, you know you've found a place where you fit. I can't really put into words how much impact that had on me, except to say that skating saved my life, and that's no exaggeration. Without it to help me cope with the very difficult last few years that I've had, I don't know how I would have survived. It gave me a creative outlet, physical challenges and all the associated mental health benefits of that, and a place where I felt understood and accepted. It hasn't always been easy, and there have been difficulties even within that culture as I mentioned, but throughout it all skating was there, whatever way or wherever I could do it. I would love for anyone who could find the self-acceptance and passion that I have to do so. Which is why I'm starting a skate education not for profit project, to give everyone the chance to try, and to improve the issues with sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and gendered violence that can make it hard to access these spaces. It's a big project, and it will take time, but I can't think of anything I'd rather do than share this thing I love with the world and anyone who might love it too, and make it possible and safer for them to give it a try. It won't be for everyone, but no one should miss out on it just because they never got the chance to give it a go. Those are the people I'm trying to reach.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to try skating/riding, particularly people who are feeling unsure if they can or if it's for them?TRY! I know it's intimidating, I know it can be difficult for a whole host of reasons, but seriously, if you can get a board or skates or a bike or anything and just find a flat surface somewhere (and pads if you feel you need them) just give it a shot. I went to a sports hall with 2 friends one night in Belfast back in 2012, with no idea what to expect but absolutely terrified of looking ridiculous or hurting myself. I did both of those things and simply didn't care, because I knew I'd found something special, for me. If you're feeling apprehensive about doing it alone, get friends or family to try with you, find a local network of skaters or riders (there are lots!), make a date of it, hire skates, find a board for sale second hand, borrow from someone you know, or just show up at a skate park and get talking to people to see if anyone can loan you something, and give it a shot. It could be the best decision you ever make, it was for me!
It is definitely tough to show up in an environment where everyone else seems experienced, talented and confident and just have to SUCK at what you're doing in front of those people, but everyone started in the same place and we all had to go through it. After spending enough time in skate parks, I started to realise that everyone at every level is working on something that is difficult for them, and when others realise you're doing the same thing and you're there for the same reasons, they will respect you being there, in almost all cases. Plus being around other people who are killing it can feed your passion and learning, if you view it as positive. And it's just rad to watch! But more importantly, pushing through those early stages where everything is hard and you fall over a lot really teaches you what learning is. It's trying, knowing you might fail, and doing it anyway because whatever is on the other side of that risk is worth it. I've been called 'crazy', brave, idiotic, and various other words from people who just don't understand what we do. But all I know is, I want to do this, and it's worth all the risks, and the pain. It's risky, it's fun, it scares me, and it is my favourite thing to do.
What would you say to anyone who is already in the skate community, or any other community, about how they can help to make their world more accessible to others?Get curious about why it isn't accessible already. If there are few or no POC, people with disabilities, queer people, trans, non-binary, gender-fluid people, women or girls, or any other groups you notice, generally if most people you see in your culture look a lot like you, start asking questions. What makes the space feel challenging, or even unwelcoming, to other groups? Do the jokes people make likely to make someone else feel uncomfortable or unsafe? Does harassment or cat-calling happen? Do people in your community talk to newcomers and make a little effort to make them feel welcome? And if you start to figure out the likely challenges, try to change things. The smallest actions can have very positive effects. Call out harassment if you see it. Don't laugh at a joke which is sexist or racist ablest or homophobic. Do what you can to influence the culture so that others would feel welcome. Say hi when someone new shows up, which can be daunting, but it's probably more intimidating for them, cos they're new! I think a lot of people are afraid to say or do anything they're not totally sure about in the 'call-out culture' of 2017, but I think if your intentions are good that's the most important thing. Just do for someone what you would have needed to make you feel welcome, be willing to leave them to it if they don't seem interested in talking (they may be shy, socially anxious, autistic, and those are just my personal experiences, there could be lots of other reasons!). But they will probably remember that you tried, and that will help. Making people feel included is really very easy, it can just take a bit of practice to get comfortable doing it regularly. And if you're not sure how to go about it yourself, look for organisations that are trying to help and invite them to get involved in your community.
If you were only starting skating today, what would you want someone to say to you? Maybe something that would have helped if you'd known it sooner?
Never let anyone else make you feel like something you want isn't for you, if you want it. Try. Take risks. And believe in yourself even when no one else understands. Also, maybe don't skate home that day I broke my hand, but then I wouldn't have come to live with you Jen, so maybe everything happens for a reason! Or at least, it works out in the end hey? ;)
Any last words?
Go skate! Or ride! Try new things! And don't be afraid to fail, because it's normal and totally necessary to learn….plus bail videos and the noises people make doing them are the funniest part of skating! There's something good for the soul about having your mates laugh at you when you fall over, knowing you laugh with them and sometimes at them!
Fionn can be reached for Curiosity Skate Inc via Facebook or Instagram