I have always been a skater.
Skating was one of the few things in my life where I felt like I didn’t have to struggle, it just came naturally. That’s not to say I was supremely talented at it, only that the act of skating felt natural, like an extension of myself. The smooth rink beneath my skates flew past with little resistance or uncertainty, the wind in my hair giving me a sense of confidence I rarely felt. It was freeing, both in the comfort I felt on skates and the rush that I was doing something slightly dangerous, at least for me.
In the early years, it was roller skating at the rink, with disco lights and Kool & The Gang. My father’s work in construction meant I often got vast concrete, soon-to-be-stores or office spaces where I could skate while he worked, just me and Belinda Carlisle on my Pocket Rocker. When rollerblades hit the scene, I immediately got a pair and hit the pavement. When Kristi Yamaguchi won Olympic gold and helped open our mutual hometown’s first ice rink, I fell in love with gliding in a perpetual winter wonderland.
The rest of my life had a notably less carefree vibe. I worked hard in school, spending the majority of my free time with my nose in a book, for both leisure and studies. There were no sports teams in my asthmatic, uncoordinated youth and no partying. I played by the rules. With an overprotective mother, it was unsurprising that I came to self-regulate my risk-taking, a trait that persisted well into adulthood.
University life and then work overshadowed the endeavors of my youth, stress and the highly competitive San Francisco Bay area greedily snatching all of my energy. Years slipped by and I found myself giving in to the pull of couch-bound DVR catch-up on the weekends more, and those things that fed my soul less.
When my then-new husband and I decided to take an uncharacteristic risk and move overseas for his work, it should have been the jolt of excitement I’d needed in my life. The reality was, I’d never felt less fulfilled. I slept 10-12 hours every night, yet still awoke exhausted. Moderate physical exertion meant I needed a nap to recharge. Recalling anything from memory was like feeling around in the dark, knowing it was there but not quite finding it. Communication was a struggle, as my thoughts seemed to float away before ever making their way to my lips. Once a voracious reader, I let books sit on my nightstand for months on end, never more than a couple to be finished each year. My ice skates remained untouched in their bag.
It wasn’t until several months after another move, this time to Berlin, that my listless existence hit rock bottom. A week-long hospitalization, complete with infusions of blood and iron - not to mention a constant stream of doctors with bewildered expressions - provided only temporary improvement but few answers. It wasn’t until many months and many specialists later that I was finally diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and my life changed, almost overnight. A drastic change in diet put me on an immediate path to recovery and a few months in, I started to feel better than I had in, well, ever.
While the haze that clouded my body and spirit for so long began to lift, my body gained abilities I never thought possible. I joined a gym for the first time. For perhaps the first time in my life, my body and mind were starting to align, a feeling that was completely alien to me. As I got stronger, so did my need to challenge myself. Could I even run a marathon? My body was feeling like my own again and now that I had a positive association with exercise, I finally understood the desire.
Several months later, a serendipitous opportunity presented itself.
A friend of a friend I follow on social media Tweeted about a local roller derby league and it was like a palm slap to the forehead. Why had I never considered it before? Like most people of my generation, I didn’t know much about derby until Ellen Page brought it mainstream with 2009’s Whip It, a few years after modern roller derby’s real-life comeback in Austin. It felt tough, but within my reach. My skating background gave me the confidence for something I probably never would have otherwise attempted, and the newly invigorated me felt up for the challenge.
My reintroduction to quad skates hit me hard, quite literally, in the form of unforgiving pavement. I fell so spectacularly on my tailbone my first day out, I resembled a cartoon, my feet flying up over my head before I even realized what was happening. I ended up with a minor concussion and so much pain, I couldn’t walk for days. I had moments sitting with ice packs on my back, thinking that I must be crazy. Admittedly apprehensive my next several times on skates, I pushed through the fear and the lingering pain, knowing that getting hurt would be part of the deal. I had to balance my expectations somewhere between the carefree skater of my youth with the seriously steep learning curve for derby skating in front of me.
While I waited for the next newbie class to begin, I anxiously threw myself into roller derby life. I went to team meetings and learned the game as a non-skating official at scrimmages. I watched them play in complete awe, marvelling at how tough and yet feminine these skaters looked on the track, jammers evading walls of blockers with ballerina-like footwork - or barrelling into them like fullbacks. As hard as they work, it’s a different kind of competition than the ones I shied away from as a kid. There are no ulterior motives like college transcripts or brand endorsements to work for, it’s all about the love of the game. It felt like just the right place for someone like me.
Then my training finally began. That high I received after my workouts was diminished by the sobering realization that all that time spent at the gym didn’t make me an athlete, but merely brought my basic physical abilities up to where I should have been all along. Those unknown muscles that screamed in pain for days after each four-hour session threatened to take away the confidence I had going into this. When I looked around at my fellow newbies after drills, I swore I was breathing heavier than they were. The horrible, arthritic sound my knees began to make every time they bent brought out an even bigger fear: Perhaps my body was just too old for this.
Clearly struggling with these new physical demands I was putting on myself coupled with the tip shared by our coach - a good skater does not equal a good derby player - I pushed these doubts aside and jumped into attending the intermediate team’s practices as well in an effort to advance my skills. This meant moments in drills, my brain screaming “holy crap, I don’t know if I can even do what they’re asking!” to my body surprising me that it could. In that new and often scary place, I’ve stumbled and made mistakes, but ultimately managed to keep up - and I am much stronger because of it. In roller derby, the lesson of falling and getting back up is both metaphorical and very, very literal.
For me, there is a passion I’ve found in roller derby that not all people understand. There is a rush when someone slams me to the ground, a certain pride when looking at the resulting bruises, referred to as “derby kisses” because they are badges of honor. It means I can do this. It means I can take a hit and keep going back for more. It’s pushing my body to see what it’s capable of, which is pretty empowering considering where I was just a few years ago.
There are times I wish I had found this sport when I was in my teens or twenties, but I have always been a late bloomer, so roller derby for me is no exception. I remember looking around with such envy at those first games I attended, so wanting to be one of those cool girls, tattooed with rainbow hair, looking like a tough, graceful, amazing badass. Now when I look in the mirror, I see that I am well on my way. In my late thirties, I’ve finally found a place where I belong. In a way, I was going back to the beginning, back the person I aways was, or at least, the person I was always meant to be.
About The Author
Born and raised in the SF Bay area, Kate grew up hosting birthday parties with roller skating and reading time, which needless to say, meant she never ran with the cool kids. She still enjoys those activities, only now she has found friends who appreciate the same things. A freelance writer and marketing specialist, Kate is a foodie who’s got to keep it gluten-free, spending her downtime baking, playing roller derby and making friends with as many dogs as possible until their owners get weirded out. She lives in Berlin, Germany with her husband. This is her first contribution to Do It Well, CO.