COVID-19 Forced a Year Without Roller Derby: I'm Rolling On
In a sport that requires physical contact and provides deep social bonds, I’ve struggled to replicate the highs of roller derby in a newly isolated world.
The thrill of roller derby—and the act of skating itself—is in its incredibly minute details. It’s in the brief panic of “running for your life” to escape blockers. It’s in the crisp wheel edge that emits a dragging screech in perfect unison with teammates. It’s in the moments where your brain focuses on strategy, and shifting one’s feet and body into autopilot to accomplish action.
After nearly eight years on skates, the details of this sport and its community became the fabric of my identity. This game was different. It’s odd and complicated and still suffers from having to over-explain its focus: repeatedly trying to get your team’s “jammer” to lap and score points while prohibiting the opposition from doing the same. Roller derby redefined physical contact for me. For nine hours each week, my body co-mingled with others, intertwined into an aggressive, sometimes unrecognizable, hodge-podge of limbs and torsos. Previously, this level of intimacy was only familiar to me romantically—I had run track and attempted rowing as past athletic endeavors. Then there I was, trading sweat with others, developing a truly alluring, newfound physical strength.
I embraced exploring new ways to gain a physical upper-hand on opponents, strategizing about exactly where and how to make contact. I found an art in enlisting the optimum level of force without overextending. I evolved beyond believing the game to be solely an excuse to hit one another. Over the years, my desire to impose will through brute force lightened as I began to see there were other styles of gameplay for which my body and mind were better suited. While there was never any animosity between me and my body, there was a distinct pride I found within my ability to play a particularly physical game that I had never encountered anywhere else. From endurance to strength, roller derby reshaped my idea of physical sports.
Roller Derby Challenged Me Physically and Lifted Me Emotionally
I started playing roller derby by chance. I recognized my extra-curricular path in grad school was trending the wrong way and, in desperate hope of finding a better community, I sought out a new adventure. Could I skate? No. Did I know anything about roller derby? Virtually nothing. Did I have any gear? Also, no. But I went, and I learned.
I knew this journey would challenge me physically; I did not expect a complete transformation of who I was socially and emotionally. Up until this point, I had not thought of myself as social. I was the girl who didn’t make it into a sorority in college; the one who panicked when she had to figure out who she was going to room with each year of college; the one who, without a doubt, was the last person to ever know about a party, let alone end up attending. I struggled to craft meaningful relationships with others for so long that I was very paranoid about attending roller derby social functions the first few years.
Despite this, roller derby became the fast track to including people in my life. All I had to do was show up and skate. Wherever I went, I found practices to drop in on and new people to make friends with. Somewhere between the post-practice beers, audacious adventures on team trips, and the baseline of the sport to be able to fall back on, I found a new form of social confidence. Roller derby friends became the most solid group of closely-knit people I’d ever had around me. We weathered injuries, weddings, divorces, promotions, transitions, children, ups, downs, dry spells—and we were always there for each other. I learned how to be a better ally to my BIPOC and transgender friends. I better examined my whiteness and my cis-ness, seeing systemic racism and privilege in ways I hadn’t ever before. Through our community, I built skills around how to call people out and construct safer spaces. The sport’s strong LGTBQIA+ community welcomed me for who I was as a queer woman, instilling in me a new form of confidence. While skating three-hour practices changed my body, the community of the sport elevated my habits, my thinking, my understanding of self and understanding of others.
The Pandemic Took Away the Sport I Loved
Then, just like that, the sport that filled my life was gone.
I was optimistic during the first few months of the pandemic. I went on runs or long walks. But my skates sat ignored. I had skated to build footwork skills that would allow me to make up for my small stature. But removing the incentives of stopping other competitors turned skating into something utterly foreign to me. I had skated outdoors on trails before and somewhat enjoyed it. I just couldn’t relate to skating for the sake of skating.
Finally, one day I went trail skating. I was alarmed at how scared I felt and at what my body had forgotten. What was once second-nature left me feeling like a newborn giraffe trying to walk. I was gutted and retreated further away from skating into a cocoon of aimless depression. Every once in a while I would see a friend post about going outdoor skating and it would lure me out of my apartment and onto the pavement. But it was never as satisfying as I hoped. After one especially terrible set of about ten miles in the middle of July, I broke down crying at what I’d become. My endurance was shot and my calluses were gone. Practices had long since been canceled, as had the entire season of the sport. Our friend group no longer saw each other. Everyone’s lives had come to a halt and we struggled to make basic conversation.
On paper, nine hours of an activity each week does not immediately seem like a lot. Yet, losing it left me with a vast emptiness physically, mentally and socially. I felt I somehow lacked purpose, and didn’t fully know who I was anymore.
I struggled to find engaging exercise. I dabbled in yoga but grew bored, falling well short of establishing anything close to a practice. I took to sleeping later than I was used to without a work commute and found myself burnt out from the computer at the end of the day. In the past. I was able to compartmentalize working out—either going to practice or going to the gym to lift heavy things. It had a set place, a set commute and a set separation from everything else. The pandemic did not afford me such luxuries. For a few months, I had a good track record of doing barre workouts run online by a studio in L.A. And then I just stopped. I realized I was making a choice to ignore it, but optimistically left the monthly subscription running on my credit card.
I Want to Finish My Roller Derby Career on My Own Terms
I wish I could say that over the months I’ve filled this gaping hole in my life with something as influential as the sport itself. Not exactly.
Back in March 2020, someone told me this portion of our time would be labeled as “The Great Pause.” Perhaps this pause was a necessary challenge for me to experience and better understand life beyond roller derby. Maybe somewhere out there the universe needed me to slow down and shift my focus to something else. My career led to a new job; it moved my life across the country. It offers a plethora of benefits I never dreamed to have access to, along with a level of work-life balance completely new to me. This change led to me buying a house and throwing myself into a variety of projects thanks to my open weekends. Occasionally, I even manage to do an online workout, though somewhere along the way I seem to have lost my enjoyment of it.
I spend a lot of time staring at the objects of my roller derby past—helmets, posters, medals, skate gear. Sometimes I remind myself I can simply go skate for no reason, and I do. The battle to reconnect to the eight wheels on my feet, to reshape what meaning they hold for me, is taxing. I can go tackle a mindless 14 miles, but struggle between bouts of boredom and sheer elation the entire way. Innately, there is a portion of me still thrilled by the novelty of simply rolling along. In sharp opposition is an underlying need for a goal or purpose to my movements. The fun is not nearly enough.
So I began to explore the rest of what skating could be. In my new (warm!) climate, skate parks are plentiful, with meetup groups hopping the circuit roughly every other day for masked and socially-distanced skate sessions. And now this world includes me. Do I know what I am doing? Only in theory, though I’m not totally starting from scratch. Does anyone care that I’m new? No. Much like before, I show up and I skate. I’m reacquainting myself with falling, failing, succeeding and forcing my brain to think in new ways as it plots lines and runs. I feel lonely on this journey, grasping away at what little time on skates I can enjoy as a way to offset losing my skills completely.
I wonder what our sport will look like when it restarts. Beyond my own skills, what will other people obtain? What if I’ve grown too accustomed to life without it: Will I be able to find joy in it again? How many of my friends will return? There is a joke in the sport that retirements almost never stay permanent the first time. I wonder if that holds true for forced hiatuses. I’m not sure if I’ve still even begun to master the idea of simply existing in a life post-roller derby. Despite experiencing almost a year without it, I’m hoping I can have at least one last shot at going out on my own terms.
My mother, a woman of extreme practicality unlike any before her, would say something along the lines of: “Life continues.” And so it does. I suppose for me life will “roll on.” Somehow.