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Skating backwards

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I grab the hips of Thimbleberry Slam and achieve her velocity as I pull past her, through the pack, past two of the other players and it’s me and Luna Stormborn. I approach the 112 on her back as she flails her forearm into the bridge of my nose. My knees falter as I check to see whether I have to exit the track (no blood, no play); nothing but snot and sweat. The pack comes to a halt as I hear wheels creak to harsh plough stops behind me. I’m good, I yell as I barrel past her. I leave her I’m sorry behind as I remind myself, yes, I can take a hit. And I’m going to take the next one. And, yes, I’m going to score. I approach the pack – there’s a pre-formed wall of opponents for me to push through and my teammates are in front of them using their bodies to help make a path for me. Attempts to slide and wedge myself between my opponents are futile until I see a familiar color slide to the other side of the track, creating a split-second, small-opening for me to pump through. I’ve made it, I say, this is mine.

Constantly moving, we make our way around the track; some get ahead, some are sent to the penalty box. We lock hands to support each other, triumphantly falling hard, pressing our toe stops to the ground, and giving applause to those who pick themselves up or keep pushing. We make our way around the track knowing our bodies and ourselves, and trusting others to push us forward as we pump our legs and define our stances. We straddle the boundaries and give it our all.

-x-

So, I started roller derby in September. I’ve never really skated before; when I was young, I only went to three ice skating kiddie parties and I clutched onto the wall each time.

When I heard the Keweenaw offered roller derby amongst its many treasures, I was beyond excited. In the “birthplace of professional hockey,” I honestly should have figured there would be a roller derby team but I was surprised. And intrigued. Skating and survival seem to be the trademarks of this town, and maybe the UP in general.

As a Michigan Tech grad student from Queens, New York, it’s been a strange and difficult transition to say the least. It has taken me two years to get over the fact that there is no Chinese food restaurant that delivers. I find consolation in the fact that at least the sun’s out more this winter so far. And it’s only 77 days until I graduate. But, I digress –

I come from a rugby background. There’s something about contact sports that I’ve always loved and as a rugby player, I’ve been both a forward (defense) and a back (offense). Before I started rugby, my identity as a theater kid and not an athlete seemed pretty much set in stone but, with rugby, I could embody both. It’s a wonderful sport. On my teams, I’ve been called “Steamroller” because I was known for laying on the ground to ensure that plays could proceed (even if I was in the way) and “Heisenberg” because Walter White is my hero. Or maybe Bryan Cranston is. [1]

Roller derby presented a series of similar challenges that I confronted when I started rugby six years ago: I’d never done it before, it looked really tough and confusing, I had to get another mouthguard, my mother would probably cry, and “holy crap what if I break something?” But I emailed the group, went to my first practice, and was welcomed by a woman with crimson hair, a warm smile, and a thick Yooper accent; she told me I could call her “Mistik, or Misty” but made a point of telling me her derby name: Mistik Mayhem. My biggest accomplishment my first day of practice was barely standing on a pair of skates Misty let me borrow and I fell ten times. Because of Misty and how much fun I had falling down, I was pumped for the next practice, and it became the highlight of my week.

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Roller derby helped me find a home here. I grew to appreciate the Keweenaw and the kickass, strong women that are here. It made me have pride in myself and gave me hope. And even though I still look like Bambi on ice whilst skating, I remind myself I’ve been on a pair of Riedells for a total of three months and I just have to keep practicing in order to improve. But I’m also a graduate student and I’ve got to be realistic.

I’m leaving on May 2nd and I need to finish my Master’s project[2]. So, I have to put a harsh plough stop on roller derby, and I won’t get to bout with the awesome teammates who introduced me to the sport (yes, it’s a sport) that I’ve grown to fall rapidly in love with. Which, as you can imagine, is very anticlimactic and really fucking sucks.

I had the privilege of starting a short (unfinished) documentary about roller derby and what it’s doing for women in the Keweenaw. The hours of footage that my film partner and I’ve gathered and the hours I’ve spent practicing with the incredible women of the Keweenaw Roller Girls have been so incredibly well-spent. And the second that my first draft of my Master’s Project is submitted, I’ll be back at practice, trying to skate 27 laps in 5 minutes.

I’ve learned that for so many women, roller derby is a safe place, a place to learn how to thrive, and find comfort in skin of all ages and types. The women on the team are so supportive, and helpful, and fun – even if you don’t want to skate, you should cheer them on because they’re a force of strong women who like to help people. There are mothers, teachers, graduate students, women who name themselves “Midlife Crisis,” and like Harry Potter so much that part of their derby names are Luna or Rage’n’Claw. Some of my favorites are the local names, though; some of the girls have names that specifically have to do with the Keweenaw.

Derby made me see that the Keweenaw is also a wonderful place. And within it, there are some strong, good-hearted people who are genuinely kind. There are so many adventures to be had in this place, whether they involve learning to ski or learning to roller skate for the first time; Houghton and roller derby have taught me that the rewards are great when you do something that genuinely scares the crap out of you. It’s been twenty weeks since I stood up on skates for the first time and I’m just learning how to skate backwards (which is a lot harder than it sounds).

I’ve got the support of my teammates to pump harder, skate faster, and be better. They encourage me to cultivate the best parts of myself and be open to learning, which even as a grad student who drinks alot of caw-fee, is sometimes hard to remember. When I get frustrated with myself and say “I can’t do x,” Thimbleberry Slam will finish the sentence with “yet.” There is no adrenaline rush that compares to contributing all of your force to a shared, hard-earned victory; I have never felt more vulnerable or empowered in my life.

-x-

If you want to get involved with the Keweenaw Roller Girls, you should go check out their bouts, volunteer, learn to become a ref, or wait for the next Fresh Meat program to start to join the team! Try something new – all the opportunities are open to people who are 18+ and the bouts are family-friendly. The girls love to get to know people in the community and meet new potential teammates.

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[1] The women’s rugby team at Michigan Tech is worth checking out, too. They’ve got some really awesome women on their team.

[2] I’m designing a community course for LGBTQIA youth that analyzes digital media for issues of identity and community. Hello, Humanities.

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