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My Cinematic Year, Part 3: The obligatory montage.

If I knew how we got from there to here, I think I really would write a book about it. But as time has passed, the nights at the rink, the hours of board meetings, the legal paperwork, the radio interviews, and the photo shoots have mushed into a frenetic blur interspersed with beeps from my stopwatch.

I had never worked so hard in my life, I can tell you that. I doubt any of them had, either. I didn’t do any of this myself, of course; this is just my story.

Most people, even those who hit the gym regularly, have no idea what their bodies are really capable of. It takes a coach or a personal trainer to help you understand just how easy you’ve been on yourself and just how much work goes into that killer set of abs that is always going to elude you if you log your twenty minutes on the elliptical machine and call it a day. People don’t realize what they can do. Women, especially, don’t realize what they can do in an arena of life that didn’t make much of a place for them until Title IX showed up in 1972.

And as someone who has suffered mightily as both a long-distance runner and a rollergirl, I can vouch for the fact that it really, really hurts to find out.

In roller derby, thirty minutes of jogging is not exercise. Thirty minutes of jogging is a warmup. The three hours after that is exercise.

A lot of skaters dropped out, of course. On their way out the door, none of them said, “You want me to do how many jump burpees? ON SKATES? Bitch, you crazy,” but several of them were quite obviously thinking it. The exhausted, stubborn remainder of them gritted their teeth and stayed with me through jogging intervals, sprint laps, push-ups, wall sits, and endless other tortures. They would sing through the drills, or they would scream at each other to keep going.

One woman puked at every practice and still refused to quit. Two skaters broke their ankles, one shattering it so badly that the doctor couldn’t believe she hadn’t been skydiving.

But hey, it’s roller derby. You get your x-rays, you post them proudly on your Facebook profile, you let us pimp your walker for you, and you come back as soon as you can.

Meanwhile, I learned to build a derby track out of painter’s tape. I helped draft attendance policies, and disciplinary policies, and policies about how often we were allowed to change all of our other policies. I chased off creeps who wanted to hang out at the rink and leer at us. I spent hours on the phone talking individual players down off the ledge. I scrambled to come up with hurdles as quickly as my skaters managed to jump over the last one I had put in front of them. I sat up at night, coming up with drills and tests and rewards to keep people motivated, the most popular one being this magnet:

One of these would later be abducted, though we all still received updates from the stolen unicorn’s Facebook page until November of 2010, when the trail went ominously cold.

Along the way, those skaters, the ones who wore their mouthguards upside-down and their toe stops backward, learned to fall. Then they learned to skate. Then they learned to skate harder and faster and farther. They learned how to skate in packs until they could skate close enough to click wheels occasionally, all without kicking one another in the shins or reflexively grabbing one another’s shirts when they stumbled.

Then they learned to hit.

We lost a few skaters at that stage, but the rest of them? I couldn’t have talked them out of it by then.

We built it up, piece by piece. One on one. Two on two. Two on two with one jammer. Three on three with one jammer. Three on three with two jammers. Eventually, so predictably and yet so impossibly, the day came when we were ready to try four on four with two jammers …

… or, as it is more commonly known, roller derby.

They pulled on their pristine, sparkly helmet covers, which had just arrived in the mail and thus did not yet smell of sweat and fear. They lined up on the line, and I said “beep!” (we were not yet advanced enough to have a ref staff armed with real whistles), and off they went, around the track: game on.

Just like that, they were playing roller derby. They were rollergirls.

Don’t ask me what I expected. I imagine that people who spend months and months gestating a baby can relate. When it finally falls out into someone’s hands and screams for the first time in its life, I’m willing to bet that most people don’t think, Well, of course. Instead, I’d put my money on Holy shit, it’s a BABY!

I was no less astonished. Holy shit, it’s a derby league!

I can’t tell you how strange it has been to watch those lumbering, timid skaters develop to the point that any one of them could totally kick my ass. This must be what it’s like for parents whose children grow taller than they are, richer than they are, smarter than they are. It’s this strange mix of wistful jealousy and all-consuming pride, but mostly the latter.

If I had a wallet, it would be full of dozens of pictures like these (taken by the amazing David Vernon and used with permission), and I would point at each of them in turn while bragging about all of them to anyone who could listen, including innocent grocery-store patrons and anyone unlucky enough to share an airplane with me.

When we booked our first home game, we weren’t sure whether anyone would come. As coach of the entire league (which had split into teams), I couldn’t sit on one bench or the other, so I signed on as announcer, being the only person not already playing or reffing that night who understood the rules.

The night before the game, we hammered our sport floor into place with rubber mallets until two in the morning. The day of the game, our scoreboard broke, we couldn’t find the key to the venue’s bathrooms, we bought way too many concessions, the track we had laid down wouldn’t stick to the floor, and I carried my toothbrush around in one hand for forty-five minutes as a barrage of questions kept me from managing to stop talking for long enough to actually use it. (You will be relieved to hear that I did get to use it eventually, even if I was interrupted by a few nervous dry-heavers.)

Right before the doors were scheduled to open to the public, I decided to steal a peek outside to see whether any brand-new roller derby fans had lined up yet.

When I stuck my head out the door, my ex-husband (who had not only shown up to support me, but had gotten one of the first spots in line) was hugging me before I had managed to close my gaping mouth. The line behind him wrapped all the way around the building and out of sight.

My hometown, that place I had originally dismissed as being too small to offer me anything of interest in my life, had completely sold out its first roller-derby bout.

Way far away, a hundred people back, a tiny squeaky person was waving her arms and jumping up and down. It was my mother, and I’m sure the surrounding crowd was amused at the sight of their microphone-clutching announcer jogging along the line to get a hug from her mommy.

“Can you believe this? Can you believe this?” she just kept saying as we danced around. I really couldn’t. I kind of still can’t.

Holy shit, you guys. It’s a derby league.


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