A Love Letter to Roller Derby

"We ruin our bodies to save our souls and for some reason that makes perfect sense."  
- Bonnie D. Stroir 

I played roller derby for just over four years.

Like a lot of skaters, I found women's flat track roller derby in a very difficult part of my life. I was coming out of a long period of isolation and depression and finally finding myself after years of floundering. It was the perfect time to try something new, to push myself, and surround myself with some really strong, diverse, and generally amazing people. I trained my body to do things I never thought were possible for me. I made real, lasting friendships. It was the perfect stress outlet for the intense MFA program I was in and my art got better because I was stronger, more connected to my body, and more confident. Roller derby got me through a break up, a master's degree, and moving across the country. Roller derby brought me to my wife.

But in the last year or so, derby hasn't been so kind to me. Shortly after transferring to the Nashville Rollergirls in the fall of 2015, I had a nasty spill at practice that resulted in a concussion which put me off skates for two months. 2016 was a constant stream of minor injuries from derby, sprinkled with a hefty dose of asthma attacks, and some pretty serious whiplash from a car accident in April of that year.

I desperately wanted to go back and make 2017 my best year of derby yet. I felt so strong. But you can't train physical limitations away with sheer force of will. I ignored the warning signs at practice. Increased asthma trouble. Longer recovery periods. Weird penalties because fatigue made me a sloppy and dangerous player. And then I had a nasty asthma attack during our first game of the year. I sat out, in tears, most of the game. It was so frustrating because when I could breathe, I was scoring points and playing well! But then so much of the time I couldn't breathe.

It was a serious wake up call. I took a leave of absence from the league, intending to go back when I got on some new medication and could get everything under control. As time passed, though, I realized that "under control" was always going to be relative. If I went from eight asthma attacks per practice to five would that be enough? Would getting it down to two be enough? Could I safely play at all knowing that when I can't breathe I get sloppy and dangerous to myself and other people on the track? Did I need derby badly enough that the risk to my lungs and limbs was still worth it?

It was a bitter pill to swallow that the only thing holding me back was something I had no control over. But, in time, I swallowed it. Because being able to breath is pretty essential.

In the time since I retired I've discovered something that eases the betrayal of my own body. It turns out that I'm okay without derby. I am okay without derby. The person I was four years ago needed derby so badly that she skated through mental health issues, a two year long battle with various stomach problems, and an intensive MFA program. She left her grad student studio to go to practice and came back afterward, sweaty and exhausted but so content, and worked until 3 am to make up the time. She was dedicated. And she slowly healed and grew so strong because derby taught her she could.

I wouldn't be where I am now without the sacrifices that version of me made. Because of her, because of derby, because of me, I am able to build a life and happiness I couldn't quite imagine before. At some point the belief in my own power internalized and it doesn't need to be fed by skates and sweat and hip checks anymore. It's just part of me now. It's okay that derby doesn't fit into my life anymore, because I am okay without it.

So I suppose roller derby really did save my soul. And now that it has, maybe it's time to give my body a rest.

From my first game, in February of 2013, with the State College Area Roller Derby Pennsyltucky Punishers: 
Photo by Chuck Fong

From my last game, in February of 2017, with the Nashville Rollergirls Brawl Stars: 
Photo by Daniel Whitaker


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