So, this one time, in March of 2010, I decided to return to my hometown, after residing for years in a much bigger city, to start a roller-derby league.
(Ed. note: While a technical grasp of the game isn’t required to read this post, if you’re curious, you can find a quick explanation video here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.)
“I’m shocked you moved back,” my friend Sienna wrote me upon hearing the news. By then, I had grown accustomed to such reactions. Hardly anyone was neutral on the subject. The friends I was leaving behind were deeply skeptical. My childhood best friend, who had helped talk me into coming back home to begin with, was thrilled. My parents were ecstatic.
My soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend was … deeply unenthused, for reasons that I had to admit were obvious at the time, despite how innocently I had presented the idea.
Me, I was just concerned that I had lost my mind.
Have you ever built a roller-derby league from scratch? No? Well, it’s just like building any other sports league: no big deal once you’ve found a practice venue, established an organizational committee structure, secured sponsors, set up a board of directors, built a website, handed out insurance waivers, and so on …
… oh, except for the part where absolutely no one involved has any idea how to play the sport in question.
No one except for me, of course, which was why I had chosen to sign up as the head coach of a nonexistent roller-derby league. Nevermind that I had never taught a group of people how to play roller derby in my life; after moving away, I had played it myself, in an underwhelmingly mediocre fashion, for three years.
I was far from an expert. I just knew more than they did.
So I volunteered, the way I would volunteer on an airplane if some first-aid class I had taken ten years ago made me the closest thing to a doctor anyone could find on board: I didn’t raise my hand because I was confident in my ability to jam the shaft of my hollowed-out ink pen into someone’s blocked windpipe.
I did it because there was no one else, and I did it because roller derby saves lives.
Roller derby had saved my life, anyway. It had taught me not to settle, that I could do more, be more. It had taught me that women are some of the most underestimated, most beautiful, and toughest creatures in the world. It had purged me of prejudices and doubts accumulated over years spent in a local culture that undervalues women who don’t have husbands or families or supreme beings to call their own. It had dragged me down a long, winding staircase from the heights of that stagnant, airless turret of perfectionism that so many women spend their lives rabidly clambering into, and it had bounced me off the floor, over and over again, rattling my teeth in my skull and elbowing me in the throat until I was finally willing to concede that failure is not the humiliating dead end I had been so terrified of, but a necessary catalyst for growth.
I now held so very dear this profound, counterintuitive truth: nothing is better for you than getting the shit beat out of you in public.
I wanted that for everyone I knew: I wanted them to suffer, and to learn, and to grow. I wanted derby to break them open the way I had been broken open. And for once in my life, I saw a clear opportunity to facilitate that for a group of women I had grown up alongside, and I knew that if I didn’t say yes, they might not find someone who would.
So I rented my future apartment, sight unseen, based on a few dim picture messages from my mother. I stood on my boyfriend’s deck in Los Angeles, stared out at the palm trees, pressed the phone to my ear anxiously, and wondered just how huge of a mistake I was making as my mother promised me that she had picked out the perfect apartment.
“You’ll love it,” she told me. “It’s REALLY old.”
Having committed myself to the cause, for better or worse, I jumped from flight to flight to snag available seats and make it there for their first practice, scrambling from Los Angeles to Denver to Chicago and finally, with little time to spare, to Peoria, where I threw my luggage in my parents’ basement, climbed into the car, and proceeded to get lost as I searched for a rink that, judging from its elusive address, was surely located far from anything resembling a main road, in some sort of large barn that it shared with various livestock.
When I finally found it, after circling a few fields and cursing and wondering where everyone was hiding all the streetlights, I walked through the door, and I saw my skaters for the very first time.
This is where I confess something to you.
After expressing her initial shock, as related earlier, my friend Sienna had made an additional comment that stands out in my memory:
“It sounds like a movie. ‘Home is the last place she expected to find herself.’ Or some such voice-over announcement.”
Standing there in the rink, I realized with some dismay that I MYSELF had become that highly deluded voice-over announcer, having somehow erroneously decided I was the main character of some sort of feminized Mighty Ducks spinoff.
I had gotten divorced and was starting over from scratch, so this opportunity was, what, the sports team that would give me a reason to get out of bed again and put the meaning back into my life? Cue notions of myself as the grizzled character who greets the audience initially by rolling out of bed in some dingy motel and reaching for the whiskey on the nightstand, but who has redeemed herself completely by the end by resurrecting her past failures into a triumphant legacy, bringing out the best in humanity with a passion and finesse that makes the Stand and Deliver guy look like some kind of amateur.
Ooh, and let me guess, this character will also use her same old hometown as a lens through which to view the ways in which she has changed and the ways in which she remains ever the same, and then, for good measure, she’ll meet a love interest when she least expects it?
Who on earth was I kidding?
No matter how embarrassing it is to admit, I have to tell you that from the moment I had first considered the entire venture, despite my genuine anxiety at the enormity of the task, a certainty had been breeding among my less rational neurons that I was actually, deep down in my soul, Emilio Estevez circa 1992.
(You can sort of see the resemblance if you squint really hard, like “all the way” hard, while also picturing his face.)
This painfully optimistic notion had gained steam with every decision made and every mile traveled, building a momentum that had carried me here.
And as I stood there in the rink that first night, that certainty cackled at the absurdity of its own hubris and flew away, having plonked me down into uncharted territory and left me for dead.
Most of these skaters weren’t wearing helmets or any other protective gear. Some of them barely knew how to skate, hanging on to the wall as they made their way along. Their knees were bare. Their wrists were bare. They looked so strange to me, these wobbly and vulnerable apparitions, these Skaters of Shattered Patellas Future. (They flailed their arms dramatically, of course, like any self-respecting specter of my folly would.)
After I had strapped on my gear and buckled my helmet under my chin, I rolled out onto the floor. They gathered around me in a semicircle and waited for me to say something.
“Where’s your gear?” I asked them.
“In our skate bags,” one of them answered, gesturing to the benches that were piled with bags of their gear, which was presumably preventing compound fractures remotely, through the powers of inanimate telepathy.
“Well … go put it on,” was my astonished answer. No one moved.
“Go put it on now,” I clarified, at which point they offered the most lethargic human interpretation of “hustling” ever seen outside a nursing home, ambling over to their bags at a geriatric pace and swapping life stories with one another while they put their helmets on backward.
That gnawing doubt bit down even harder. I had abandoned Trader Joe’s, and so I could do what? Fail spectacularly, is what, doubt whispered around its mouthful of my poor tender limbs. And then die penniless and alone, probably.
Doubt is annoyingly prone to non sequiturs.
I breathed in, I breathed out, and I reassured myself that while I clearly was not 1992 Emilio Estevez after all, I had, at least, just figured out where to begin:
LESSON 1: Kneepads are for knees.
Hence the name.
LESSON 2: Hurry the fuck up.
You’re wearing wheels on your feet for a reason.
We started from there. Somehow, even without the benefit of a director or a script or our own team of hack writers, we started from there.