I want to try and capture the weird place I am in with skating roller derby. I’ll call it ‘The Intermediate Skater’, not yet on the team, but skating with the team, desperately trying to keep up. It was a huge step for me just signing up for the first “fresh meat” class where I learned to skate in June. Now I find myself in the middle of a sport that is so much more than a sport. It is a culture. It is a sisterhood. It becomes part of who you are and what you do every day even when you’re not on the track. Some days it is like falling in love – amazing, empowering, fulfilling. Other days it is like drowning – frustrating, desparaging, defeating. Either way – an obsession.
The women who skate are shockingly diverse but from what I can see so far, all share the same desire for the rush of power and strength that come with derby skating; speed, blocking, falling, pushing, hitting, partnering, water-falling, tiptoeing, jumping, screaming, juking, and never ever giving up.
For me, practice starts with the drive to “the bunker”. 50 minutes of listening to Disturbed, Strapping Young Lad, and Rage Against the Machine to try and rile up that one molecule of tough braveness that is buried deep under the layers of self doubt and fear. Dig. Dig deep. Drink water. Eat the horrible protein energy bar. Drink more water. Carry the 800 pound bag of gear in. I won’t list all the gear but worth mentioning are the 4 t-shirts. Black, red, pink, white.
I may need one or more of these to match the line I play with for scrimmaging. It changes every practice because I’m not on the team yet, and sometimes it changes halfway through scrimmaging and I have trouble remembering who my friendlies are. I show up to practice in a green shirt. In my head, it’s “loser green” because green is the fresh meat color. I’m pretty sure when meat rots it turns green, doesn’t it? I try to shake off that feeling and remind myself how far I’ve come. I’m here, I’m not injured, I get to skate with the team. I am lucky. Lucky green. That’s right. Turn it around. Don’t give up.
At the bunker as I gear up quickly (see Coach, “quickly”!), we try to have a bit of conversation before we get serious and I am always amazed at the women that surround me. Teachers. Moms. Accountants. Lawyers. Nurses. Massage therapists. Business owners. Respectable and respectful. And people call us all “Derby Girls”. I still can’t figure out what that means. Not everyone wears fishnets and not everyone has tattoos and piercings. It seems like almost half the team is married with children. “Derby Girls”? For me that means power and strength and never giving up. Ever. I put my mouth guard in and skate warm up laps. Work on something. Watch behind. Pretend to block. Lateral cuts. Work out all the kinks and sore muscles and feel the wheels under your feet. Stretch.
Drills. Endurance. Another lesson in never ever giving up. 10 laps, push ups and crunches, 9 laps, push ups and crunches, 8 laps, keep going. Sometimes it’s a 30 second lap and 30 seconds to do the push ups and crunches, over and over and over. The scar tissue from a botched gall bladder removal and displaced floating rib in my right side scream. They scream, “You can’t breathe!” so loudly I am sure everyone around me can hear it. I am prepared for this. I started running again to practice how to deal with the pain how to move and breathe to work through it. It’s not bad when the drills have the break for push ups and crunches.
25 laps in a row? Problem. So much of derby is a mental exercise as well as physical. A war of the inner voices. “What lap is this?” (Yeah, I know, believe it or not, counting can be a bit of a problem, usually when I get to about 12 or 13) My inner coach tries to help me, “Stay low. Abs engaged. Push through every cross over.” The inner coach soon gets replaced by Chicken Little, “Someone is going to bump you and you’ll fall!”, “OMG your wheels are sliding out from under and you are going to fall!”, “Don’t go too fast or you WILL FALL and trip someone else who will hate you forever for being a clumsy idiot!”. Luckily, that voice makes me angry and the anger gets me through the next 12 laps.
Scrimmaging. My worst nightmare. The part of practice that always puts me in the “drowning” state of derby. Strategy is great when you’re watching, but another beast entirely when you’re trying to skate surrounded by other skaters. And the fear. There are not words to describe the fear. I know I am not as strong as the other skaters. I am not as big as most of the skaters. I am the least experienced skater there. Weak + small + inexperienced = disaster. I am a liability to whichever line I get assigned to. Not only do they have to tell me where to be and when, but frequently have to push me into position because I’m so busy being terrified that I can’t think.
I don’t look behind often enough, I don’t stop quickly enough, I don’t maneuver fast enough. Block the opposing jammer, if that jammer gets by, hit someone from the other team, stay with your partner, keep looking back. Will I ever be able to think on skates? I am seriously doubting it at this point. And then it gets worse. Now the team puts me in to jam. The slowest, most inexperienced, most likely to fall down for no apparent reason, weakest skater. What was mind-numbing fear becomes so much bigger. Bigger than I can describe.
I looked up “fear” in an online thesaurus. A few choice entries are “chickenheartedness”, “faintheartedness”, and “nightmare”. They don’t even begin to touch what it feels like to have 5 people out to get you when you’re skating. The 4 skaters trying to help me attempt to force me through, pushing and screaming. I still fail. People tell me I’ll get it. They appreciate the fact that I am trying. So many of them have tried to help me. This makes the failure worse because even with the most experienced skaters who are amazing teachers helping me, I can’t execute. Disappointing myself is one thing, disappointing the people I admire is…unbearable. And yet, I keep showing up. I keep coming back for more. That might be the only thing I have in common with these amazing warriors. Inexplicable stubbornness.
Sometimes at the end of practice there is one last drill for endurance, but usually after scrimmaging we just cool down. I have to confess, I relish the chance for one last endurance drill at the end. Even when I can barely pick my feet up because my skates feel like they weigh 50 pounds, it’s a chance to redeem myself. To not fall down. To not fail. To go home feeling like I can keep up. I remind myself that more than 80% of the skaters are 5-10 years younger than me. I remind myself that I am lucky I have no injuries that keep me from flying around that track – and bumping into the other skaters trying to block – and falling down shouting – and getting up laughing.
I drive home. Sometimes crying, always thinking about what I should’ve done differently, and occasionally…there is the rare and beautiful night where I am in that state of falling in love – looking at the moon – amazed, empowered, fulfilled – holding on to the tiniest shred of hope that someday, I’ll be a Derby Girl.
by Riot of the Valkyrie
( “Fresh Meat Files: Derby Girl” was originally published in Derbylife.com on March 28th, 2012)