Confessions of a Derby Dame

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I could hear the wheel bearings of my skates spin with each revolution as I smiled at my friends and watched them take their seats. I tried to project the appearance of calm experience and a confidence I didn’t feel. I knew enough about my competition to understand that if I showed even a hint of uncertainty, they would pick up on it, converge on me when they knew the time was right, and show no mercy.

Just a few months before, I was on the sideline, a nameless face in the crowd, part of a cheering, screaming mass that watched in awe as the women on the track dazzled us with the speed of their skating and the ferocity with which they hit. Now I was ten minutes away from my first official bout and the newest jammer on the top-ranked team in our league. My job was to score points. The only way to do that was by making my way through a group of opponents whose main priority was to stop me. Those players would try to knock me to the ground, push me out of bounds, and generally demoralize me, all while skating at breakneck speed around a track as slick as an ice rink.

The physicality that derby presented was not a concern for me because I had been involved in so many contact sports as a child. In fact, it seemed the more challenging the activity, the better I performed. The truly frightening thought, the one that I couldn’t get out of my head, was that I didn’t have the charisma to pull this off. All the skaters around me had one thing I didn’t — a larger than life derby persona. Regardless of who these women were in their homes or at work, when they got on this track, the crowd knew them as Polly Graf, Bolshe Vixen, All Night Dinah, and so on. They were the good guys, the bad guys, the girls you love to hate. I didn’t know how I would fit in to this bizarre and beautiful circus.

At that moment on the track, just minutes before the bout, I made the decision to approach roller derby like every other sport in my life. Knowing that I had done the work to prepare, I put on my game face and flipped my switch. I pushed the thoughts of performing for the crowd out of my head and floored it. It wasn’t until after the third lap that I realized my team had fallen in behind me. Not certain how long I was expected to keep the pace, I stretched out my legs and tried to keep an even, measured stride. From behind me I heard a familiar call from our captain, Deadlock Doe, “Order up!” That was my signal. I looked over my shoulder to gauge the speed of the skater headed towards me. I counted the seconds between her crossovers, and just as she broke to my right, I swung in. THWACK! The sound of our bodies smashing together could be heard across the track. A hundred pairs of eyes turned to watch as we fought to control a small slice of the track. Suddenly, the smile on my face was genuine.

Fast forward to ten years later, and I found myself a spectator again. As I watched the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) championships last November, I was filled with a bittersweet pride. I was impressed with the level of athleticism that each team displayed and the professionalism of the referees and tournament staff. This was a far cry from the dirty warehouse style venues I had played in ten years ago. There were no catfights, no cheap shots after the whistle, no penalty wheel with categories such as pillow fights or backward jams. Roller derby was now a legitimate sport, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I can admit now that my feelings of jealousy were not fleeting, and I continued to revisit that first season in my mind long after last year’s champions were crowned. I found myself looking through photographs wondering again and again, what if? What if I had stuck with it another year or two? What if I hadn’t been introduced to derby until it had worked through the awkward growing pains of an “alternative” sport? Could I have been a team USA star, helping to push my sport towards the Olympics? The answer, honestly, is no. The truth of the matter is, I never felt as passionately about derby as most of my teammates.

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It feels good to admit that openly. Even in writing these words, I have to consider whether or not this is something of which most people are aware. Two big differences separated me from many of the women I skated with. First, several of my teammates lacked experience with athletic competition in general and, more specifically, contact sports. Considering the amount of cooperative training and physical closeness that are mandatory in the game of roller derby, it was a shock to me that so many skaters had absolutely no history in traditional team sports. What was the common thread drawing all these ladies to such a demanding and little-known activity if not the familiarity of athletic competition? This question led me to the second and possibly more crucial difference — that most of the people attracted to derby were there for the lifestyle and social circles it represented, not for the actual sport. There was such a fundamental difference in the reason I wanted to participate that as I look back on my career, I’m still surprised I lasted as long as I did.

It’s important to point out that I succeed in athletics not because of a superior amount of talent or coordination, but because of a tenacity and commitment that I don’t always see in other people. I don’t know where this part of me comes from. My parents didn’t push me into sports. I was given the freedom to pursue whatever interested me as a child, whether it was reading books in my room or climbing the trees in our neighbor’s backyard. As I grew older, I found that I couldn’t really be happy if I wasn’t involved in some kind of extracurricular recreation. I loved learning and usually did well in class, but I often found myself counting the minutes left in each school day, waiting restlessly for the opportunity to run outside. It wasn’t until I had reached my teenage years that I noticed the reason for my excitement had nothing to do with who I was spending time with, but rather what I was spending time doing. I wanted to push myself and see how fast I could run and how strong I could be, and it was purely coincidence that these things usually involved others.

Roller derby, on the other hand, was all about the connections. Women were coming together because they felt left out of the everyday, traditional style activities that most adults pursued. They had rarely known the satisfaction of being on the winning team, had never been picked first for the dodge ball game, or earned an MVP award. These were the outcasts and the alternative kids, and they had finally found their place. This community would never judge them for the images inked on their bodies, their preference of lovers, or the number of piercings on their faces. Roller derby represented a physical activity that would allow them to be part of a team while still staying true to themselves and their styles of self-expression. To me, roller derby was just another physical challenge, not the end of a life-long journey to female empowerment or companionship.

Unfortunately, having so many women with strong personalities makes for some strained relationships when it comes to the business end of things. There are so many things to take into consideration when you try to get an organization off the ground. The fact that derby is, as yet, an amateur sport governed by a non-profit group adds to the complexity. You have to schedule practice times around the jobs that the players have and find coaching and training staff with knowledge of a sport similar to roller derby because we reinvented a game played in the 70s that no one had any actual experience with. Then there was the committee for game schedules, fundraising, social media, and team uniforms. We had to find and train people to referee our bouts (unpaid) and support staff (also volunteers) to run concessions and seating arrangements for the spectators that came to watch us skate. The amount of time spent just to keep a league functional is almost ridiculous, and the leagues that win championships are just nuts.

Ultimately, I found that derby draws two kinds of participants: women who want to be athletes and women who want to be popular. I know that one type of person is not inherently better or more valuable than the other. You need both competitors and politicians to make a successful production that teams and fans want to be a part of. I’m not making the argument that the two are mutually exclusive, either. Many professional sports are filled with talented performers. I was never able to change my nature and involve myself in the politics, and for that reason more than any other, I had to leave roller derby.

Many people say that if you love something, you can see past superficial problems and some personal conflicts. To me, the inevitable cliques that formed, the gossip and trumped up rivalries, and the undermining and demonizing that took place were insurmountable and fundamental issues that arose from having a large group of same-sex competitors. Taking and giving hits to one another day after day takes its toll on the players, and eventually it becomes impossible for some people to separate personal feelings from the game. I see the same thing on the rugby pitch when a dozen men let their egos take control. It’s not a problem exclusive to women’s sports, but it is a problem in a sport that’s exclusively women.

Looking back on the time and energy I invested in roller derby, I can’t say I got nothing in return. I experienced several seasons of wins and losses, the thrill of playing a game few have tried or will ever fully understand, and the pleasure of being moderately successful in my efforts. I still enjoy skating and have recruited several women to the local teams. Whether they last through the season’s physical and emotional trials remains to be seen. I never won a national title, and my name will not go down in history as a leader in the modern roller derby movement. I can, however, say this: at least I didn’t make any new friends along the way.