Finding My Tribe

I thumbed the blue flyer next to the register as I waited for my coffee. “Come Join Roller Derby!” it said. “We’ll teach you everything you need to know.”

Roller derby? I had a vague recollection from my childhood of people in wild costumes on a banked track putting on WWE-style performances, but didn’t really know what it was all about. A new boot camp was starting that Sunday, the flyer said, only a few days away.  The owner of the coffee shop noticed my interest and we struck up a conversation. She played on a local team, and there was a game — a “bout” — at Riverworks that evening at 7.

Photo by Sean Murphy
Photo by Sean Murphy

I went to the bout.

The place was packed, standing room only. There were hundreds of people, wearing jerseys or holdings signs. How had I not known such a popular sport existed in Buffalo? I finally found a spot to stand and tried to decipher the rules of the game. I knew from the flyer that the player with the star on her helmet was trying to make laps and that everyone else was trying to stop her, but that was about the extent of it. Watching the game, it seemed to be some strange mix of Nascar and football. The rules were a bit confusing, especially with all of the referees and penalties, but I walked away intrigued and signed up for boot camp that night.

Sunday morning I showed up at Rainbow Roller Rink, unsure of what to expect. The boot camp coaches provided everything the first day except the mouth guard. I knew how to roller blade and ice skate, but couldn’t recall if I had ever been on roller skates before.

Skating was bit harder than I expected. It’s significantly more akin to skiing than inline skating in the way you shift your weight to turn and to stop. The majority of the other women, around 25 in total, had no skating experience as well, so I was in good company.

Boot camp is intended to introduce new skaters to basic skating skills like stopping, crossovers, turns, and jumps, as well as an endurance test of 27 laps in five minutes. Until you pass a basic skill assessment, there is no contact and very little introduction to game play. The reason for this is straightforward: if you can’t control yourself on skates, you’re likely to get injured or injure others.

Photo by Brian Grinham
Photo by Brian Grinham

Boot camp was a blast. We came from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Ages ranged from college students through women in their 40s. People were single, married, freshly divorced, straight and LGBTQ. A surprisingly high number had kids, from newborns to teens. There were even a few guys hoping to be skating officials or to play for a men’s league. We were scientists, teachers, nurses, interior designers, all united by our common goal of getting through boot camp to start playing roller derby.

One of the best things about derby is how open, accepting and encouraging everyone is, from coaches, to teammates, to the seasoned veterans. As long as you’re willing to work hard and maintain a good attitude, they embrace the quirky individuality of each person. They find the positive attributes in every player and teach you how to use them. There isn’t a single body type that can’t be put to your advantage in this game. Have big hips? It’s easier to knock people out of bounds. Are you bony? Your hits are sharp and stinging. Short? You can weave through players and draw penalties. Tall? You have a long, powerful stride to get you around the track quickly. There is no assumption that you can’t play any aspect of the game because of how you look. Big girls can be wily jammers, skinny girls can be strong blockers. Dedication and athleticism are the only factors that limit you. Derby is, in short, empowering.

Photo by Brian Grinham
Photo by Brian Grinham

The first skills assessment happened around ten weeks in. I was nervous, but fairly confident that I would pass. Two skaters made the cut, but I wasn’t one of them. I was unable to weave through a line of cones quickly enough and came up just short of the 27 laps needed. After a few more weeks of hard work, repetition, and conditioning, I finally made it.

Everything ramps up once you pass your assessments. You’re eligible to attend league practice with experienced skaters, you start learning the rules of the game, and you start learning the nitty gritty skills of playing. It’s a bit intimidating, but a hell of a good time. You’ll fall down, get knocked down, and be sore and covered in bruises, but it’s worth it because every fall means you’re getting smarter and stronger for the next time.

Since leaving boot camp, I’ve skated in a number of rookie bouts, including a five-game tournament where we came in third place out of twelve teams. Our rookie Queen’s Court team has grown together, adding new boot camp graduates week by week, and with every new face I’ve realized that I’ve found my tribe. This is where I fit, with these fun-loving, hardworking women, each so different, but all with the same mettle at their core that says to get up again when you’ve been knocked down. They make me better every day.

We’re now all looking toward the draft this fall and training hard. It’ll be bittersweet when we’re split to different teams, but we’ll never lose the camaraderie we’ve formed or the skills we’ve developed together, and that will make every bout a reunion.  

~By Thunderstuck / Indiana Bones