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.
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 a phoenix from its 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.
Listen to coverage of Oklahoma’s sports news and history in this episode of This Land Radio:
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 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.
It began when I found a half-crumpled recruitment flier in the break room at work. It intrigued me enough to make me attend my first roller derby bout. I had no inkling that from that moment on, my life would be divided between Before Derby and After Derby. During the bout, I saw the hits, the falls, the euphoric laps skated by the victorious jammer; the graceful ease of the skaters, the bravery and utter comfort of doing everything on wheels. I shocked myself by thinking, ‘I want this.’
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. Returning to the rink is like visiting your elementary school cafeteria, with the unforgettable smells and tastes.
I met Court Collier, the head coach of Tulsa Derby Brigade and a National and International award winning skater with two decades of trophies behind him, and he was apathetic of my tremulous excitement and brand-new starry-eyed infatuation with derby. I was desperate to join the team, more than that, I wanted to ingest this sport. And Court, for all his talent, skill and passion for coaching, didn’t even learn my name for the first three months in spite of my showing up early, never missing a practice and wearing the threadbare t-shirt with my regular name and hopeful derby names written in felt tip marker on the front. I was perpetually, “the Fresh Meat.” Or, “Filet O’Tard.”
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. 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 bones.
There’s a Minimum Skills test that all skaters must be able to master. I would not be allowed to play in a bout or join the team until I had passed. I fearfully pored over the pages. Would I ever be able to do twenty-five laps in five minutes? Could I learn crossovers and hopping and how to avoid unexpected obstacles and braking?
As a former gymnast, I stayed active. I had done a lot of bicycling, roller blading, weight-lifting and yoga prior to derby, but those activities didn’t require exams or performing in front of screaming fans or answering to team mates or perpetually apologizing to the coach. And as such, I had found leisure and sleeping late to be so much more enjoyable and appealing than forcing myself to do a twenty-mile ride or an Ashtanga vinyasa.
Some basics: the games are called bouts and each bout is made up of two half- hour halves. 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).
Helmets, mouth guards and wrist, knee and elbow pads are required; the sparkly whipping belt, animal print duct tape, black fishnets and red lace tutu are optional.
Being the independent loner that I am, I have never participated in a team sport, thinking teams are for obsequious fools without enough sense to go it alone. But 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 wood floor.
A typical practice first involves 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 and perspiring with my muscles burning, and I’m convinced that 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. Then 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 for 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 last summer’s practice, the heat was so intense that several skaters, including me, suffered from heat exhaustion. One fainted in the middle of scrimmaging. To prevent that, instead of not attending practice as a civilian might, 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 from 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.
After months of failing at almost everything during practice, I passed Minimum Skills. Shaking in my skates, I tried out for the team and made it! 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. Once I started skating, it all ebbed away. Now it’s me, my skates and my derby sisters. Fear eventually evaporates and is replaced with training memory.
Now, after a year, I have been in eight bouts and two exhausting tournaments. I can finally keep up with the pace line, even passing a few, and I have a rudimentary knowledge of positions and strategy. And when I see all the Fresh Meat showing up for practice, I have a true perspective of how far I have come, and I didn’t even know it. At last, derby is more fun than fear, and I actually relax and enjoy my time on the track.
Life surprised me and I laughed at myself and my new thoughts: Can my skates fit into my airline carry-on 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 have 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 fliers and hanging posters; I have skated in 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.
Why would anyone do this? My honest answer is: I don’t know. It’s like trying to explain why I love blood in my veins or oxygen in my lungs. I’m too close to it. When you hip check their jammer into the crowd or send a blocker flying with a shoulder hit, and you get high-fives from all your sisters and your coach is jumping for joy and cheering, it triggers the euphoria of being part of a team-and we all need teams, sacred or secular, to give us connection and support. To play is what matters.
Clara Nipper is a writer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is the author of Femme Noir and Kiss of Noir.