Go Fast, Turn Left

by Clara Nipper


First published in This Land Press, Five on Five and Lead Jammer 

Go Fast, Turn Left

            I 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.

            I was home from a roller derby bout.

            Reading 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?

            I 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.

            It’s 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.

            I 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.

            Skates 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.

            Required 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 are optional.

            Being 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.

            What 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.

            To 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.

            If 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.

            For 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.

            The 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.

            I 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.

            A 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.

            And 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 days.

            Another 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 on.

            During 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.

            I 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.

            I 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..

            Then 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.

            Why 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.

            It’s 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 polished wood.

            You 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.

            Your 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.

            Derby 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.

            But 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.

            My 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.

Let’s roll.