Flat-track faith: a slow conversion to derby evangelist
Posted on May 13, 2012
So everyone in derby seems to have some story about how the sport changed her (or his) life. It seems to come on something like a tsunami. Suddenly you have a million friends. You start celebrating milestones like skating 25 laps in five minutes without barfing. That thing you hated about your body your whole life miraculously fails to matter anymore and, in fact, you’re cavorting around in public in glittery panties, unashamed. Your friends, coworkers, strangers even, give you approving nods of respect when you mention you play roller derby. Ta da! Life transformed. It wasn’t like that for me.
I became a fan of roller derby after seeing my first bout between the Windy City Rollers’ home teams at the Cicero Stadium in 2006. After I joined my league in the fall of 2009, I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t sure if I even liked playing roller derby for a long time. I had to drag myself to practice. League events brought out a crippling social anxiety. I failed to enjoy the things I think newbies quickly latch onto — picking out cute shorts, tights and socks. It felt like a chore. Gear perplexed me. After passing my WFTDA skills, a brief sense of accomplishment was quickly replaced by the terrifying realization that my coaches now expected me to scrimmage. At that point my league also permitted me to register my derby name and get my photo taken for our website. I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t a roller girl, I was a shy journalist a who skated a couple of times a week because her hatred for going to the gym outweighed her discomfort with the derby scene. The whole enterprise felt more awkward than empowering.
For whatever reason, I didn’t quit. This despite the fact that avoidance of awkwardness and discomfort and feeling like a failure have long been supremely motivating factors in my life. I can only attribute my persistence to being in my early 30s and wanting to get in some kind of shape for the first time in my life and alternatives like buying a gym membership or, yuck, running failed to appeal. There was also some kind of weird personal pressure just not to quit. I felt like no one in my league would notice if I just stopped attending practice, which was simultaneously depressing and comforting —I felt kind of invisible. The cloak of invisibility gave me space to suck at T-stops and laterals and everything else. And in the background of all my anxiety and self-criticism, I was developing some kind of faith — the kind I attribute to the religious and folks in 12-step programs — that somehow down the line, things will improve if you keep coming back. That faith seemed contrary to the experience I was having on the surface, but perhaps it was related to that roller derby magic that seems to immediately inoculate everyone else who joins.
Two and a half years later, I can wax poetic with the best of them about how much derby changed my life. The transformation was gradual, but I can truly say things have improved in remarkable ways since I began playing derby. A calm, self-acceptance and optimism gradually replaced the anxiety, self-criticism and pessimistic thinking that plagued my pre-derby years. I wish it had been as easy as passing WFTDA or donning a pair of glittery shorts or suddenly having a hundred new derby friends on Facebook whose real names I barely knew, but it was worth the wait.