First published in This Land Press, Five on Five and Lead Jammer
Go Fast, Turn Left
removed my contacts, washed off all the makeup, unbraided my hair, took off the
bandages, slid the fishnets down my legs to the floor, unhooked my athletic
bra, peeled the Tiger Balm patches from my back and stepped into a cold shower.
was home from a roller derby bout.
from top to bottom, my name is Clara; my skater name is Cat Owta Hell. I’m a
very serious, solitary, snobby, bookish type and if anyone had told me a year
ago that I would be madly in love with roller derby, I would’ve sneered him
into oblivion, after first asking, what is roller derby?
will not bore you with roller derby’s unsavory and seamy history and all its reincarnations.
But like the mythical phoenix from the ashes: derby is back, bigger and better.
Women’s flat track roller derby is exploding worldwide. There are at least ten
teams in Oklahoma and according to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association,
our governing body (wftda.org), there are 98 sanctioned leagues and 53
apprentice leagues with more teams in Australia, Canada and the UK.
We have our own magazine, Five on Five, our own movie, Whip It, our own books, Going in Circles, Rollergirl, Down and
Derby, among others, our own DVDs: Blood
on the Flat Track, our own television series: Rollergirls, our own live sports news site: DNN.com (derby news network), our own Dionysian convention in Las
Vegas every year called Rollercon,
and dozens of suppliers for everything a derby girl could want, such as derbylove.net, dolledupderby.com, wickedskatewear.com, derbyordie.com, to name
only a few.
an authentic American sport in which anyone can to achieve the derby dream.
Young, old, fat, thin, gay, straight, clumsy or graceful, it doesn’t matter.
Because if you work hard, you will get there, no experience necessary.
Some basics: the games are
called bouts and each bout is made up of two ½ hour halves and each half is
divided into two minute segments called jams. During the jams, each team has
five players on the track: four blockers and one jammer.
am a blocker. My job is to prevent the other team’s blockers from hitting my
jammer and to hit them out of my jammer’s way so she can score points. That is
also what the other team is doing to us.
are called Quads because they have four wheels and are of traditional design to
differentiate from inline skates. High-quality skates are very expensive, but
that isn’t necessary just to start. In the first five minutes of practice when
I knew I was hooked, I just bought the standard Riedell R3 rookie package and that
was absolutely fine. As I improved, I learned what I needed, and after six
months, I bought my Sirens, which are the most expensive footwear I will ever
own. Second are my cycling shoes and third are my garden boots, so obviously, I
won’t get cast in Sex and the City 8.
equipment is also a helmet, a mouth guard and wrist, knee and elbow pads. The
sparkly whipping belt, animal print duct tape, black fishnets and red lace tutu
the independent loner that I am, favoring solitary sports like yoga, cycling
and weight-lifting, I have never participated in a team sport, thinking teams
are for obsequious fools without enough sense to go it alone. People who are
social animals with a canine devotion to being one of a constant pack would be the
sorts of co-dependent twits who needed a team sport.
hubris! To humbly admit I was wrong will have to be my apology. When I attended
my first practice with Tulsa Derby Brigade, I came home exhilarated and filled
with an ineffable joy that is only to be obtained from tying the laces on my
skates and soaring across the sparkling wooden floor.
those of you who never thought roller skating was cool and it was only a place
for the tweens to play pinball, eat nachos and flirt, you’re right. There’s something
unavoidably retrograde about the rinks. But that’s also part of the appeal. You
get to go back in time to your imaginary childhood and revel in the environment
that time forgot. Have a sour pickle and wax nostalgic over your first crush.
returning to the rink is a little like going to visit your elementary school
cafeteria, with the unforgettable smells and tastes, then joining a roller
derby team is exactly like 7th grade gym class.
the first few months, before I left the house for practice, my anxiety level
would start as a vibration and gradually rise until I felt like a
panic-stricken Chihuahua and once at the rink, as I rolled timidly around the
rink prior to beginning, I would shudder with chills and think, ‘what the fuck
am I doing here? It’s not too late to flee.’ But there I was, standing with the
rest of the derby chicks, padded and helmeted, waiting my turn in line to do
drills while everyone, including the coaches and any civilian spectators we had
on the sidelines, watched.
performance anxiety was excruciating, but the lure of derby persisted, beneath
all the frustration and failure, night after night, month after month. With each
practice, I loved it more. The obsession with derby held me tight even through
those many evenings I returned home crying because I had never worked at
anything so hard and for so long and failed so miserably. Even when I felt the
sting of cliques being formed and the disappointment of not being one of the superstars,
I still craved it. Even when practices went late and I had to get up at 5
o’clock the next morning and practically slept through my day job; even when I
got injured and had more bruises than I could count and had to limp stiffly
through the office, derby was in my blood.
was very slow, both on skates and in my understanding of the sport. Neither
speed nor comprehension has come quickly or completely. I work at it. After a
year, I can finally keep up with the pace line, even passing a few and I have a
rudimentary knowledge of positions and strategy. At last, derby is more fun
than fear and I actually relax and enjoy my time on the track.
typical practice is first untangling the many Velcro straps that hold on the
pads, tying the skate laces just so and getting out on the floor. Then, the
delicious pain really starts. When Coach smiles and says, “Endurance night!” We
all groan. He has invented many diabolical endurance drills, in between which
we are to do pushups, crunches, and squats to failure. Then he puts us through
races and juking drills. If he’s been unhappy with our performances, then he
might have us do endless falls and explosive starting drills, and that’s just
the first hour of a three-hour practice twice a week.
when I’m panting, perspiring and muscles burning, I’m convinced I don’t have
any more to give, Coach calls out, “thirty more seconds!” and I scream inside
and do it and swear his watch is broken, that it’s been five minutes and he
says, “ten more seconds!” and I do that too until he finally blows that whistle
signaling brief rest. When practice is over, we all stagger like Night of the Living Dead zombies out to
our cars to go home to cold showers and excruciating pain the next couple of
problem I had was my mind going “bout blank.” I could be instructed to “hold
the line,”, “waterfall,” or do a “three-girl wall” and I would nod and agree
like a normal person and then once the whistle blew, my mind went as blank as
an Etch a Sketch. I had to learn to focus on only one thing at a time and
struggle to remember that. Once I mastered one thing, I added a second. And so
the summer practice, the heat was so intense that several skaters, including
me, suffered from heat exhaustion. One fainted dead away right in the middle of
scrimmaging. To prevent that, instead of not
attending practice as a civilian would do, I wore a Ziploc bag packed with
ice under my helmet well into September. And the ice was always melted to a bag
of lukewarm water halfway through the night.
knew I had really arrived as a derby girl the night I felt sick overexertion
and I vomited into my hands, wiped them on my jersey and kept skating. My
coaches never knew. They just said, “Let’s roll,” and in perfect synchronization,
we all put in our mouth guards and took off.
saw how life surprised me and I laughed at myself and my new thoughts, such as,
can my skates fit into my airline carryon bag? Will my insurance cover visits
to the podiatrist? This “Fight Club in Fishnets” has taught me more about
myself in the past year than I could’ve imagined. There is nothing I won’t do
for the team. For example, selling is anathema to me. But for The Brigade, I
have chased people down and made promises of every nature to sell tickets and
sponsorships; I have prowled the streets handing out flyers and hanging
posters; I have skated in many parades, waving and passing out candy; I have
alienated most of my friends with my relentless recruiting; and I have put
people into polite comas with derby anecdotes..
after months of failing at almost everything, I passed Minimum Skills. I made
the team! Then, when I got picked to be on the roster for my first bout, I
grappled with the conflicting emotions of pride and panic. I didn’t sleep well
and as the day drew closer, I had knee-knocking, stomach-churning, mind-blowing
terror. What I learned was once I start skating, all that ebbs away and it’s me
and my skates and my derby sisters. Fear eventually evaporates and is replaced
with training memory.
would anyone do this? And my honest answer is, I don’t know. It would seem that
after all the intense training and monthly bouts, I could explain the bone-deep
addiction, but I can’t. It’s like trying to explain why I love blood in my veins
or oxygen in my lungs. I’m too close to it. My recommendation: try it for a
month and if it doesn’t have you, then no words would make it clear and if it
gets you, then no words are necessary.
not a sport for sissies, so if you’re a whiny, delicate flower crybaby, don’t
waste your time. But if you’re brave enough, it is so easy to begin! Just pass
by the tough girls who are outside the rink smoking; (and don’t be nervous,
they’re really sweethearts who will slam girls into orbit to protect you); and if
you can accept being really scared most of the time, if you can face failure
frequently, you will be rewarded with one of the richest and most thrilling
experiences of your life.
If you decide to become one
of us, this is what you have in store: You will be called Fresh Meat for awhile
and you will fall a lot and curse your quads, and feel as if you’ve been in a
car wreck after practice. You will learn to like Powerade and granola bars for
dinner; you’ll learn the best way to freshen your pads (each skater has her own
way), you’ll become attached to a derby name; you’ll debate the qualities of
different rink floors: concrete or wood? Is there fresh plastic? Is it a tight
or loose surface? Sticky or slick? You’ll change from despising quads and wishing
they were fast inlines to loving your skates like a part of your own body and
realizing there’s nothing sexier than the sound of your Stroker wheels on
are lifted from who you are in your regular routine and you’re someone else entirely
new in derby. You’re not the banker, teacher, attorney, salesman, realtor,
business owner, designer, mother. You’re dangerous…cool….a derby girl. Your spouse or partner will have to accept
being a widow/widower to your new passion. You will form deep bonds with
diverse and unlikely women with whom you have nothing in common and it won’t
matter. You will share skate tools and duct tape and tampons. You’ll compare
blisters and debate the best treatments. You’ll see every single roller girl
cry at least once. You’ll be yelled at by the coaches. You’ll be shamed by your
own bad performance. You’ll compare contusions, lacerations, sprains and
hematomas; you’ll find yourself arguing about strategy and penalties; your pain
and soreness from training will go on for months, your knees will quake and
your stomach will flip with every scrimmage; you’ll begin to discuss different
wheels and their merits; you’ll learn to clean and change your bearings; you
won’t want birthday gifts anymore, but will wish for a derby registry. You’ll
become as proud of your bruises as of your ass and legs as they gradually
become solid granite.
derby girls will become your familiars and you will light up when you see them.
You will know each other at your weakest and your strongest. You’ll talk derby
endlessly. You’ll laugh and argue, you’ll high-five tiny victories, you’ll love
and hate but at the end of the bout, you have each other. It is a strange,
intimate sorority, but one I’ve come to depend on in spite of myself.
will take over your life and nearly all your waking thoughts. It will become
the best unpaid part-time job you could ever hope to have. You’ll go berserk buying
skull tees, personalized shirts, team gear, helmet stickers, custom toe guards,
special skate laces, booty shorts, pantyhose of every pattern and color, frilly
panties, bandanas, the list is only as limited as your credit card.
it’s not just shopping and socializing. We skate with sprained limbs, with
cancer, with pneumonia and bronchitis, with allergies and with deep personal
griefs. Eventually, nothing matters but showing up and getting to work.
coaches’ advice: trust your skates, which for me, is a gradual and ongoing
process; my derby wife’s advice: fall small; my speed coach’s advice: turn and
burn; my advice, get the jumbo bottle of Advil and learn to love cold baths. My
favorite cocktail? Dew and Lortab. It makes every bruise, strain, sprain, and
pain more comfortable and I can keep skating. And that’s all that matters.
The style of the sport is
changing as its popularity grows. It’s not so much the lowbrow, blue collar
spectacle any more, as a serious sport with serious athletes. The best skaters
on the top teams are either former hockey players or speed skaters.
However, as someone who
looks like a boring librarian and is not punk, not Goth, not pierced, not
tattooed and who doesn’t drink, I may represent the future of derby. As the
sport becomes more professional and mainstream, it may lose the fun derby
names, face paint and wild clothes in favor of modest uniforms and a harder
focus on clean competition. With derby featured in television commercials for
Cheerios and Aleve, stories on derby in the New
York Times, and on National Public Radio, perhaps the complexion of the sport
is changing to one of mass appeal and acceptance instead of the sideshow
reputation it used to have. Either way, it’s derby. Count me in.
There is a saying, “derby
saved my soul,” which makes me gag it’s so hyperbolic, but then I reflect.
Well, hasn’t it? I live differently in the world because of derby. When there’s
an obstacle or challenge in my life, I think, I do derby, I can do this. It is a powerful secret I hide
behind my conservative clothes and big smile. I may not look it, but I’m derby.
You’re braver and stronger
than you think, so suck it up and start skating.