Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mid-derby Identity Crisis

Hearing a lot of buzz about the Oly Rollers this past season, I was looking forward to seeing them skate this past weekend at Nationals, but nothing prepared me for the actual outcome of Nationals and how that would affect our community of skaters and leagues after the last bout on Sunday.

Two jams into the Oly/Gotham game, I turned to my teammate Holly Gohardley and said, “Should we just get up and head to the Marriott gym now? Cause I don’t know if we have enough time to prepare to play Oly in April.” Like everyone else in Philly or watching from home, we were stunned and astounded by Oly’s sheer athleticism.

I don’t claim to know much about the Oly Rollers as a league, but I’ve gathered from their website and from other people in the derby community who claim to know what’s what that they are a small league comprised of two traveling teams – an A team and a B team – whose home base is a roller rink in Olympia, Washington. It makes me think back to CCRG’s days at Skateland. The disconnect that arises in my thought process next is that I, for one, had always made the assumption that we would not rise to become a national contender until we had a larger/better venue. It sounds silly now having just typed that out. Why would the size, location, or facilities of the venue where we held bouts even matter when it comes to game play? Along those same lines, what does a high-quality website, sponsors, a professionally-designed program, or a vast media outreach have to do with becoming better skaters? Maybe it doesn’t – but is that still derby?

Like many leagues out there, Charm City faced a crossroads of sorts several years ago when we decided to align ourselves and our goals with becoming a more athletically-minded league – a more competitive league. The decision angered and greatly discouraged some of our skaters who were more in love with the idea of being a group of rollergirls (with the names, the uniforms, and the WWF-mentality) than our league’s idea of being a group of athletes who just-so-happened to be rollergirls. We spent years reconditioning the media in and around Baltimore to stop writing so many “Librarian by day” stories and write more stories about derby as a sport. We focused more on building our Charm City All Stars. We completely redesigned our skater training program. So you might see from this description of our metamorphosis to become athletes that I was rather taken back when a league mate of mine who claimed to know the bare-bones, nothing fancy, just-there-for-the skating mentality of Oly told me that “that’s not roller derby.”

All the while we were growing our skaters back in Charm City, we were also improving our league’s operations as a whole. We moved to a new amazing venue, we landed strategic sponsors, we crafted better merch, and we developed the now exceptionally-high standard we have set for anything artistic that represents our league (website, posters, programs). We’re all really proud of this, like many other leagues who have also worked hard to grow these elements in their leagues that have absolutely nothing to do with athleticism. Or do they?

Modern-day roller derby remains an institution that although we are committed to the idea of “by the skaters, for the skaters”, we are also committed to using the structure that we’ve built to keep the sport going, to grow the sport, and to hopefully finally leave a respectable legacy of derby for generations to come. The structure I’m referring to is all that other stuff that “has nothing to do with athleticism” but that puts butts in seats. By keeping fans coming back, we can finance our dream – a dream that if you had asked any of us would have included and still includes athleticism and love of the sport at the top of the list. Yet there seems to be an undefined definition or an unseen line that marks and explains how the majority of us envision roller derby and how we don’t envision roller derby.

What should roller derby be? We say we want athleticism, but we chose to dedicate at least a portion of our time spent on “derby” to the derby admin that enables all those other things to happen that frame the sport for our audience. If we REALLY wanted this to be about pure athleticism, wouldn’t we say “screw it” to the production and instead spend that extra time practicing?

It’s odd that as a community I have no knowledge of us ever having really considered NOT being as “big” as we are. Several years ago while still growing WFTDA, we were somewhat consumed by not allowing outsiders to step in and make our sport “so commercial”. We live and breathe by this value of being our own owners, yet we’ve never really considered making things easier on ourselves by reducing the fanfare associated with derby. Why?

Now, I know I seem to be going down this road that implies we all say “fuck it” and stop trying so hard to make our leagues and our sport successful in the minds of the public and “shut up and skate,” but you’re wrong. My answer to this is that like everything else in life balance is needed. I don’t think we have to choose between either pure athleticism or derby as most of us know it.

After this weekend there seems to be a slight panic in our community that there’s no way we’ll be able to both keep the spectacle going AND excel in our athleticism, yet without improving upon both at the same time, our sport’s popularity and growth could plateau and our dream could be shattered. I think that by going “big” and not resigning ourselves to flag-football-esque derby, we’re keeping the dream alive and we’re not compromising our values or desires, which may be a longer road to “having it all” – a place where retired-skater admins perpetuate the bigness of our sport and active skaters CAN spend more time focusing on being athletes – but that long road is worth it (in fact, I think it’s the only way we can fulfill our dream), and I think we’re close.

Let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t be playing this sport if it were another attempt at pure spectacle, just like most of us wouldn’t be playing this sport if bouts between really great skaters took place on Wednesday evenings in a church gym. Where derby’s concerned, sport and spectacle are not mutually exclusive – one simply cannot exist without the other, and modern-day roller derby wouldn’t exist without both.

I think we should use the panic as motivation to taking the next step in modern-day roller derby, just like I think I should use the panic to get my ass to the gym more and kick it up a notch, so I don’t have my ass handed to me by someone twice my size in April. This sport’s growing faster than we can keep up with it, and some of us are growing faster than we even realize. I dare say our dream has already come true, but like any athlete, I also know there’s always room for improvement. Who’s ready to do this?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Declaration of Derby: GO!

In case you need a formal justification to go hang out with your friends and drink beer while watching really good derby this weekend at the WFTDA National Championship in Philly, I’m here to give it to you: watching really good roller derby will make you a better roller derby player. Consider it part of your training program – just like practicing and going to the gym.

According to a November 10th article in the Scientific American, people imitate that which they see (and hear), and if a person watches someone else doing something similar to what he or she already does, his or her network of “mirror” neurons show significantly greater activity than if the person were to watch, say, hockey instead of roller derby – there are strategic similarities, but we play derby, not hockey. So what does this mean, you ask? It means super scientists are really freaking close to being able to tell us for sure that if you want to excel at something, viewing others who already excel will help you imitate the actions that contribute to excelling. And after all, that IS what you want to do, isn’t it?!

When I was a young derby player I could give a rat’s ass about watching other people play roller derby. While my teammates were traveling every-other weekend to go see bouts held by other leagues up and down the East coast, I was doing derby admin and god-knows-what. As time went on, my teammates seemed to get better at playing derby, while I was completely and utterly stagnant. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of factors that played into my stagnacity (yeah, I made that up!), but certainly on that list was my almost refusal to watch other people play. After all, I already spent a huge chunk of my life practicing and playing and another huge chunk building our league and derby in general around the country. I thought I already knew derby, therefore I should be becoming a better player. Wrong. I knew derby the business, not derby the sport.

In a way, suffering sequential shoulder injuries last year was almost a blessing. It caused me to slow down and gave me the opportunity to accidentally see a lot of really good derby that ignited my desire to not only NOT fall behind the skill set of my peers, but also to consciously challenge myself to excel as a derby player – to BECOME a derby player, not just a “rollergirl”.

Watching other people do what you want to do better is fucking exciting, especially if you can personally relate to someone who has those qualities you so desperately want. Many times we make excuses for why we can’t do something, because it’s easier than actually trying. During the time I was frustrated that all my teammates were getting better and I wasn’t, I decided that I was merely too fat to compete – that I would need to lose weight to play derby.

Buddha bless those girls who somehow get past their insecurities faster than the rest of us do, because they serve as our role models in derby and in turn help the rest of us get over ourselves. This weekend I guarantee that you will see someone you can relate to. Maybe she’s way taller than all her teammates, maybe she’s way shorter. Maybe she’s a slight blocker, maybe she’s a bulky jammer. Maybe she’s only 19, or maybe she’s in her 40s. Watching someone else who shares your perceived “flaw” do something amazing is sure to help you shake your excuse and go for the gold.

For the more advanced skaters who aren’t skating this weekend, or who maybe get knocked out early, watching really good derby will give you ideas about how you can improve your game play. Let’s face it, you watch your own team and league skate ALL THE TIME. Because of this, you have limited examples of alternative ways to do things. If you’re lucky, you get to play against or watch your travel team play against other leagues’ teams who are more than likely in your same geographical area. Nationals, however, brings together teams and styles from all over the country. By attending Nationals, you get to see a variety of other proven ways to do things. Some will reinforce why you shouldn’t do something a certain way, while others may give you ideas about new things to try when you get back home.

“Well, I’m not going,” you say, “but I will be watching the bouts over the internet.” Watching bout footage is great, but just like there’s no substitute for watching your favorite band perform in person, there’s also no substitute for watching really amazing derby in person. For one, you’re likely to see your new derby crush in the stands several hours after she’s just played “the best game you’ve ever saw,” and if you have the guts you just might be able to ask her something about her game play. Can you do that from home? No. No, you can’t. Secondly, if you’re viewing from home you’re totally missing out on the vibe from the crowd, and that’s just a bummer. Third, well, I’ll be there. C’mon, it’s Philly – you know I wouldn’t miss this being only 2 hours away! Seriously, if you’re there and you see me, say “hi” and give me some feedback on the direction you’d like to see me take this blog. I’ve got a couple of ideas for 2010, but they require audience participation. And, if you buy me a beer (or four), I might just turn into my evil, touchy twin: Cindy Grope-her. Not everyone likes Cindy Grope-her, but most people do. Just know that by purchasing me a beer you are agreeing to not hold me liable for any touching or fondling that may ensue. Beer purchase is not a guarantee of touching; if you are creepy, you will not be touched.

On that note, I’m off to do some laundry for this weekend – I can’t wait to see all of you in Philly!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cats aren’t the Only Ones with 9 Lives

In everyday life, most of us learn from our mistakes. We do something resulting in an unfavorable outcome, and we learn quickly to not do that thing again – unless, of course, that thing is an injury resulting from derby.

I have family and friends who look at me with awe and amazement when they hear of yet another derby or athletic-related injury. What they say is usually something to the effect of, “Wow, you really are dedicated,” but I know what they’re really thinking is more along the lines of, “Wow, you really are fucking crazy.”

I’ve always been accident prone, and I’ve never quite done the smartest of things. When I was about 8 I had a series of foot injuries due to wearing jelly shoes while riding my bike. When I panicked, I wouldn’t use the bike brakes for some reason – I would use my feet like Fred Flintstone – and I panicked quite often going by the house of my friend whose hot brother made me, well, panic. Slamming my feet to the ground, I would tear right through a pair of jelly shoes as if they were big pink erasers disintegrating on mistake-ridden spelling homework. I would come home with the nastiest foot wounds and repeatedly tear open the thin skin on the inside of the ball of my foot – just below my big toe. I played soccer then too, and I remember my dad trying everything to keep the scabs from turning to a layer of yellow puss that would rip off during each practice or game, making me start from scratch with the healing process. I don’t know how I played like that, and I have no recollection of it hurting or keeping me from playing, but I digress (as usual).

Speaking of feet, two months is an appropriate amount of time for a rollergirl to lose all her carefully crafted calluses. Last night was my first night back in skates since September 6, and my candy-coated exterior was nowhere to be found (boo!). But that’s not the point here. The point is that I GOT BACK ON SKATES!

My physical therapist has been telling me for the past week that I may be ready to try out skating again, but I’ve been understandably doubtful that I really am ready. I know she’s seen derby before, but I don’t think she knows just how much the ankle is involved in cutting and other quick moves. Regardless, I’ve been bored as hell at home, so I decided that I’d show up and just noodle around. Then, at least, I’d have a good idea about where I am with regards to being able to skate again. I made it through an hour and a half of skating (and about 20 minutes of warm-up time on my own before the actual practice started). I didn’t jump, and I didn’t do any contact (coming off injury, I have to do 2 practices no contact, 2 contact, and then I can scrimmage again), but as time went on, I could actually feel my ankle joint loosen up, which was a good feeling. Then, I did something stupid on the carpet, trying to show a fresh meat skater an exercise she could do at home to mimic the intensity of sprawls and falls, and it was all over for the night, which was actually fine because I didn’t really know what the outcome would be anyway.

I cannot tell you how good it felt just to be out there on the hardwood with two of my teammates, Holly and Terror, warming up and bullshitting before practice started. THAT is a big part of what I have missed: telling Holly she’s an asshole and listening to Terror bitch that she hasn’t been on skates in a week (I’m only talking about Holly being an asshole here out of pure love, because I know she reads this. Hi, Holly!). Being there felt good – really good. At one point, I stopped and thought about what I’ve been doing during this time while healing at home. My goal was to use practice time to write several large articles I’ve been planning and submit them to some magazines, but instead I sit on the sofa with the dog and watch crappy network television by myself. “I could be here instead,” I thought, “There’s really no other place I’d like to be.”

I guess I really have found my thing. I joke with Lady Quebeaum that we’re “lifers” – no matter what we do or how burnt out we get, we can’t stay away from derby. I’m beginning to think there’s some real truth in my jest. I’ve been injured significantly enough (albeit not all from derby) that I’ve been off-skates now 5 times during my 5-year derby career: PCL tear, right AC joint, left AC joint, herniated disk in my neck, and sprained ankle. And this list doesn’t include the other minor injuries that haven’t kept me off skates, like a tailbone break, rib fracture, cartilage tear between my ribs, pulled hamstring, pulled groin, various foot and back pains and cramps, and that insane knot on my lower leg that still hasn’t gone away and that the doc said after viewing my ankle X ray looks like a now-healed hairline fracture that I skated on all last season.

Even the most seasoned skaters might ask me, “Isn’t that enough?” I guess not. I’ve come to terms with my inability to plan any sort of “retirement” from derby. Each year I think it could be my last, but then I’m just not ready to leave, so I don’t. Bottom line: I’m going to continue to skate as long as I want to skate, and I’m not done yet.

This morning I woke up, expecting to be greeted by a swollen, sore ankle, but instead the usual morning stiffness I experience was nowhere to be found – neither was the swelling. I’ve been having problems getting the fluid cleared from the joint, and I’m wondering if skating last night didn’t actually help it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no position right now to jump back in head first – I can’t make quick maneuvers and I’m scared to lock wheels with anyone because my ligaments are still in pain – but I think I’m on the road to recovery.

There’s a white board at my office on which someone wrote “Interesting facts”. One of the facts was: cats have nine lives. Standing a little taller and walking with a somewhat larger stride this morning, I grabbed a marker and added my own fact: Rollergirls ALSO have 9 lives. By my count, I’m on my 6th, and I have a feeling number 6 is going to be a good one!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Great Expectations

We all experience times if life where we’re met with the unexpected.

I grow anxious relying on other people, because there’s just no guarantee that things are going to happen the way I’d like them to happen, yet over this past year I’ve been trying to make amends with my intense need to control everything around me. I’ve been relying more on others to carry the load and make decisions that once consumed my time, knowing that things might not always get done the way I would do them, but they will get done nonetheless. The results of this in my professional life have been pretty good. My time has been largely freed up so that I can manage the big picture, while leaving the details and the mechanism with which we arrive at attaining our overall goals to people with whom I work (I’m a Project Manager). Derby? That’s another story entirely.

Sometimes (okay, many, many times) I get frustrated that my natural abilities lie more with things like building budgets than with being an excellent derby player. I mention budgeting only because it’s something I just finished doing that I did incredibly fast and well. When my boss complimented my mad budgeting skills, I was thrilled, but then my thoughts immediately turned to longing for that same type of praise with my performance as a skater. It just doesn’t come natural to me.

Much like I take being able to build a budget for granted, I’m sure many skaters out there who have natural skating and athletic ability take their position on a roster for granted. Not me. It’s an anxiety-ridden nightmare in the weeks leading up to roster selection for an All Star bout. I get sick to my stomach each month, hoping and praying that I’m playing well enough to stay at the bottom of the roster. It seems no matter how hard I try, I’m just mediocre, so I follow the rules of being rostered prior to each game, hoping the skill I’ve shown at practice and my attendance and attitude will win me a spot on the roster. The days leading up to our captains’ selection are filled with my constant comparison of myself to other skaters in a similar position as me. Did they make attendance? How are they playing? What could they have over me that would make them rostered and me not? Then, once the roster comes out or the plane tickets are purchased, I breathe a sigh of relief and can then just focus on playing derby instead of competing for a spot to play derby.

But the “rules” of being rostered, as I know them and as I alluded to above, are not always followed. After really good performance at home against Philly, I was totally amped to travel to Chicago and play Windy City – a team I’ve wanted a piece of for a while. I had been feeling good about my ability and comfortable in my position for the first time all season. Now, with one game left I could get out on the track and just do my thing with my ladies. Or maybe not. Completely blindsided, I was told 15 minutes before we left for the venue that I wouldn’t be playing in the game. Confused as hell, because I thought I was just starting to excel, I was told that with this being our last game before regionals, our captains needed to be able to see if several other skaters were prepared for the level of game play we would face at regionals. It wasn’t because I was sucking – it was because they were confident that I could play at that level after watching me play against Philly. After a period of disbelief in this reasoning, I got really upset. I followed the rules, I worked hard, and the reward for that is being rostered – getting to play. Only this time it wasn’t. I felt completely jipped! And if I wasn’t going to play, why the hell did they bring me to Chicago?! What was a really great trip instantly turned to shit, and if I could have afforded to buy another plane ticket fly home right then, you better believe that I would have.

Then there’s the perception of others… I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t care what other people think about me in derby. I do. And everyone else knows the unwritten rules of being rostered just as well as I do, which means assumptions would be made, and I’m sure they were made.

Back to natural talent. If I had natural skating ability like many women I know, I wouldn’t have ever been placed in this situation. The same can’t be said for budgeting. If you’re not a natural at budgeting, there is no horrible consequence that evokes a strong emotional reaction. Sure, maybe you have to spend more time redoing the budget, but it’s not like there’s a chance you don’t get paid because someone else in another department can budget better than you. And work doesn’t make me emotional. Derby, on the other hand, makes me incredibly emotional. Why? I actually think I’d enjoy derby a hell of a lot more if I cared a whole lot less about it, but therein lies the catch 22: I’m simply not naturally talented enough to care about it less and still be able to play well. My emotional health could be good, but I’d never get rostered.

I train out of fear. I try out of fear. Sure, I want to get better, but my biggest derby motivator is fear, and I don’t know how to change that. Thing is, I’m so freaking tired of living in fear of not being rostered each month – SO TIRED. What do I do to change this? How do I find some sort of balance that makes me less crazy in the head yet still in the running for a roster spot? If anyone out there knows, this girl would love to be hit over the head with a hint.

I’ve evolved a lot over the last three seasons. I went from the really fucked up mindset of “I’ve been here since the beginning, so I deserve a spot on the roster” and completely not giving derby my all to knowing it’s not about who you are or how long you’ve played – it’s about how good you are, and if you want to compete, you have to be good enough to compete, so now I do give it my all. I suppose I can’t be all that upset – I did accomplish many of my personal goals I set for last season: I made the All Stars and played in bouts against top-ranked teams. I still just want to be better so I can get out from under the stress associated with being at the bottom of the roster.

It’s difficult not to go into anything without expectations, and it’s especially difficult not to have expectations for something you’ve been involved with for so long, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned this past season, it’s that it’s foolish to have expectations that allow you to be set up for misery. Loving derby in the long term is like loving a long-term partner who always keeps you on your toes. After a while you grow to expect things to be a certain way, but they aren’t always like that. Turns out you need your partner more than your partner needs you. At times it can be a shitty relationship to be in, but you keep going back to derby because the allure is like nothing you’ve ever experienced, and although you often get hurt by it, you still can’t imagine you life without it. At least that’s how I feel.