It's been nearly a year since I wrote an installment in the Roller Derby Makes Me Brave series. (You can read and comment on the original blog posts here, or you can read the saga straight through here.) Last fall I prepared an onstage story about roller derby to share at the Soulsisters Conference in Portland, Oregon. I wish I had a video of me telling that story, but alas, I didn't think to record it. Instead, I present a written version of it here.
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When I saw my first roller derby bout, I had no idea what was happening.
This was in the spring of 2010, and the movie "Whip It" had come out the year before. I hadn't seen the movie yet, but it had put the concept of roller derby in the periphery of my consciousness. The sport seemed funky and interesting, so when I discovered that there was a derby league in Pittsburgh, about an hour from my house, I decided to check it out.
Derby isn't the easiest sport to follow the first time you see it. Teams play offense and defense at the same time, and things move fast. So I had no idea what was going on during that bout, but I was fascinated. Here were these grown women on old school roller skates, wearing all sorts of protective gear – helmets, mouthguards, knee and elbow pads, wristguards – all skating around in a pack, shouting at each other and knocking each other down. It was crazy. The women had skater names such as Hurricane Heather and S'not Rocket Science. There were women of all shapes and sizes: tall and willowy, short and curvy. Women who were built like brick houses or more like pixies. Women with athletic bodies and others with bellies and booties that resembled my own well-rounded assets. But all of them were so confident, so fierce, so athletic.
I was so quiet while taking all of this that my husband turned to me at one point and asked, "Are you bored?"
"No," I said.
I paused for a moment and then said, very quietly, "I'm going to do this some day."
As soon as I heard those words leave my mouth, they felt equal parts impossible and undeniable. Impossible because I hadn't roller skated in 20 years. I was out of shape, had never played a sport, hated to sweat, and was supremely uncomfortable doing physical activity in front of people. Just the idea of going to the gym had been known to give me panic attacks. I didn't even like to go to the local walking track. But I couldn't deny that I'd said it – and that I'd meant it.
So when I tell you that I had no idea what was going on during that first bout, I mean it in several ways.
Consciously, I was trying to wrap my head around the rules of the game. But on a deeper level, my whole concept of who I was and what was possible was being dismantled and rearranged.
Fast forward two years to the spring of 2012. By this time, I'd seen the movie "Whip It" (which is, in hindsight, not the most accurate depiction of the sport), and had attended just one more bout. I did briefly consider trying to join that league in Pittsburgh, but they practiced and played more than hour from my house, and I wasn't willing to commit to that kind of commute just yet. Besides, I was 36 years old, out of shape, had weak ankles, and, let's face it: Who was I kidding? I wasn't the roller derby type.
But then I saw a flyer at my local coffee shop, announcing that roller derby was coming to my neck of the woods. A new league was forming a few towns over from me, and they were recruiting skaters of all skill levels – including my particular level of no skill whatsoever.
I tore off one of the flyer's little strips with contact info. I emailed for details. And then I waited two more months before getting on skates. All during those two months, I kept telling people that I was going to try roller derby. I kept saying it until I finally realized that I either had to stop saying it or ante up and do it.
First I tried skating on my own in a pair of rental skates and with no protective gear. This landed me a bruised or broken tailbone. After letting that heal for a few weeks, I was finally ready to attend my first official practice. It was the day after April Fool's Day, which struck me as fitting. This whole idea of me playing roller derby seemed like a weird practical joke I was playing on myself. Everyone else had trouble believing it, too. In fact, when I told my own mother, a supportive and kind woman, that I was going to a roller derby practice, she asked, "To watch?"
I said, "No, I'm going to try to play."
And my mother – my sweet, kind, and supportive mother – laughed.
"Oh, okay!" she said. "Right!"
She truly thought I was joking. And here's the thing: I wasn't even offended. I knew how absurd it sounded coming from me. I laughed, too.
But I went to that first practice. And then I went to another and another. I surprised myself and kept going. I went when I was scared (which was most of the time), when I was tired, when I was convinced people would laugh at me behind my back. I learned how to be in my body. I learned how to skate. I learned how to sweat. I learned how to fall down and how to get back up again. The first time I skated in a practice bout I had no idea what was going on. But over the past two years I've learned the rules of the game. I've learned how to pretend that I'm fierce and confident, even when I'm terrified. I've learned the magic of practice. I've learned what's possible.
Fast forward another two years to 2014: I put on my old school roller skates, my helmet, my knee-pads. I put on my team shirt with my derby name on the back (Punchberry Jam) and I skate around in a pack. I shout to my teammates. I use my body (and my booty) to block opposing skaters. I knock people down. I fall, and I get back up again.
Now, when I tell people that I play roller derby, many of them laugh and say that I can't believe it. I just smile and say "Neither can I."