Every skater has an origin story. I fell in love with roller derby a little over a year ago, when I went with a friend to see Assault City play in a local bout. Even though the venue and audience were small, the game was electric to watch. The leaping and dodging, the teammates who flung one another across the track, the strange and exciting sight of women’s bodies smashing into one another at high speeds—it clicked with me in a fundamental, primal way.
“Maybe I’ll try out,” I said, half-joking, on the car ride back.
“You should!” he said.
I laughed. It seemed inconceivable that there was a place for me in derby beyond the sidelines. I’d never played a sport. In fact, I traveled in social circles where lack of physical ability was lauded. My people spoke about skipping meals, never exercising, and drinking back-to-back espresso beverages with the feverish intensity of the productivity monsters that all of us were.
And yet the idea took root. Since moving to Syracuse the previous summer for graduate school, I’d been subject to fits of loneliness and inactivity that stretched for days at a time. Now I began to consider the benefits of knowing people outside of my program—especially older women, whom I’d always looked to for advice and guidance, and who were now virtually absent from my life. A couple of weeks after the bout, I spotted a flyer advertising an open house for new derby recruits. No Skating Experience Necessary! it proclaimed in reassuring block text. That was the prompt I needed. I wasn’t athletic, but I could learn.
“Time!” called out Wrex, one of the trainers for Assault City’s latest class of recruits. I skidded to a wobbly stop at the curve of the track, breathing hard. There was no air conditioning in the Vault—what we called our practice space, a gym tucked behind the food court of a ghost town mall—and the heat, along with the powdered rosin that we put on the rickety floor to add traction, made the air feel thick in my lungs. In front of me, Mallory stooped to adjust her kneepads. She’d lapped me more times than I could count. I’d been coming to the new recruits’ practice for just a few weeks, and I was already used to the call of “On your inside!” and the sight of Mallory or Sarah or Megan flashing past me when we were doing sprints.
I half-skated, half-stepped to the inside of the track, where Wrex waited with a timer in one hand and a clipboard in the other. The other girls circled her, puffing and red-faced and swigging water from industrial-sized bottles. I spat my mouth guard into my palm and listened as they each told Wrex how many laps they’d been able to do in the five minutes we were allotted. Twenty-three. Twenty-five. Twenty-one and a half.
When Wrex looked toward me, pen poised at her clipboard, I didn’t meet her eyes.
“Sixteen,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said cheerily. “You’re consistent!”
“Uh-huh,” I said, without enthusiasm.
Corpse, another trainer, skated to my side. “Hey,” she said. “I noticed that when you reach the straightaways, you straighten up and drift to the outside of the track. Maybe you can work on staying in derby position all the way around. And really using your left foot to push off when you’re doing crossovers.”
“I’ll try that,” I mumbled, stuffing my mouth guard back in.
These conversations were a staple of my early derby days. For every tactic taught to us, I learned a new way that my physical prowess sucked. One-eighty transitions showed that my lower-body strength equaled nil. T-stops revealed the flimsiness of my ankles. When we practiced hip taps, I discovered that my ability to maneuver my torso while moving was shockingly limited. Over and over, I sailed past Andrea without making contact at all.
Whenever I stayed late after newbie training to watch the veteran skaters hit the rink, I studied their motions obsessively. They were in control of themselves in the way that eluded me. They had balance and momentum and grace. I wanted to be one of them with a fierceness that made my stomach ache.
Some people take to roller derby like they were born with wheels soldered to the soles of their feet. I am not of their kin. I’m not even a midrange learner. I’m slow, and I need to try new things a billion times before I can get them right.
After the first few practices, I bit back any stray daydream about becoming an overnight derby sensation and set to perfecting the baby skills that seemed to come naturally to everyone else. I learned to run on my toe stops, jump over a foam pool noodle, hold a plank for over a minute. I drank more water and ate more food than I had ever before in my life. More than once, I stood before my bathroom mirror with a body riddled with bruises and repeated, “You are not Ellen Page in Whip It. You are not Ellen Page in Whip It.”
No victory has been small for me. Every single thing I can do on skates is something that took me hours of careful rehearsal. My teammates and coaches have been there for me all the way through it—correcting my posture and positioning, demonstrating the proper way to execute hits, cheering me on when I finally passed my skills test and was able to join Assault City as a team skater. Their support is why I believe that roller derby is as close to magical as any sport can be.
Recently, when I was telling some classmates about my derby experience, I said, “I’m all about just barely making it, you know?”
There will come a day when someone else is new and struggling. I’ll be equipped to help them get to the point of just barely making it. Till then, I’m going to savor my slow journey upward.
Words By Vi