What constitutes “old” in roller derby?
Posted on August 3, 2012
Last weekend I turned 35. I’ll try not to bore you with any platitudes about aging, but it’s hard not to give in to the temptation of reflection on your birthday. I started playing roller derby at age 32, more than three years after watching my first bout and practice. At the time, I was writing a feature story as a capstone for a class called “Sports and Society” while wrapping up my masters’ degree in journalism. I was 29. I didn’t see myself as a player, either literally or figuratively. I was an observer, a sociologist, an investigator, a writer. This was in 2006, when roller derby was considered more fringe-y than it is now. My professor, Lester Munson — who wrote on legal issues for Sports Illustrated at the time and now writes for ESPN — encouraged my interest in in the fledgling sport. He was familiar with it because his friend and colleague, Frank Deford, had covered the original roller derby and wrote the seminal book, “Five Strides on the Banked Track,” which he was kind enough to lend me for my research (it’s out of print) on the sport’s history. I got an “A” on my story. Professor Munson was really tickled by the resurgence of the sport and I think I managed to convey some of the derby zeitgeist of the moment without resorting to many cliches. Right from the start, I loved derby’s DIY ethic, its punk-rock attitude. I loved that women were driving the revival. Still, I didn’t picture myself a player. It didn’t even occur to me.
Do I wish I had started derby earlier? In some ways I did. Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes about 10 years to become really good at something. If I’d started in 2006, I’d be six years into this adventure. My body would have been younger at the outset, maybe more elastic and pliable, I imagine. I could have enjoyed sooner all the wonderful things that derby has brought to my life. But my career trajectory didn’t really allow me to join derby until I actually did. I moved around a lot after journalism school, had jobs with odd hours. Attending practice would have been a challenge or perhaps impossible.
How would regret benefit my current experience anyway? I only have this body and these chances right now. And fortunately derby offers opportunities for many ages. We are not spent at age 20, like we might be in some sports. One of my league’s star jammers joined us right out of a junior derby and still isn’t old enough to attend our after parties. Other of our members have children nearly her age. And we all play together. How cool is that? Sometimes I worry a bit that the evolution of derby may skew it toward the younger girls with more traditional sports backgrounds, edging out opportunities for the older, less athletically experienced aspirants. But right now it allows chances for those of us who didn’t see ourselves as players all our lives, for those who are just discovering our athletic abilities. It brings together women and men of many ages. It makes 35 seem pretty awesome and full of possibility.