Inspired By "Whip It": This 65 Year-Old Derby Ref Won't Give Up

4 years ago
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Sweat dripping down my face, I pulled off my helmet and sat down on the ref bench next to Creepy Taco. Pinky Bruiser, Jet Blaster, Buster Chassis and Molly Misdemeanor were among those who waved their thanks and wished us a good holiday and left with shouts of, “Thanks, refs, see you next year!”

Image: Masonite Burn

In roller derby, real names are checked at the door. It’s part of the derby subculture. Normally calm, responsible teachers, parents, doctors, students and unemployed couch surfers transform themselves into warriors on wheels when they hit the rink. Some people spend more time selecting their derby name than they do the protective padding they are required to wear.

I'm a former therapist, not that that matter. Derby skaters don’t care what you do for a living, what car you drive, what your body shape looks like, what race or gender you are. They’re there to skate hard while — unique to the game — playing offense and defense at the same time, and to score points. And I love every one of them. But I was struggling with a bad roommate who wanted to ruin derby for me — my own mind.

I turned to the head ref, Justin Bibe. “Justin,” I said, “by the start of next season, I’ll have the speed transitions nailed, I promise. I’ll use the holiday break time to practice.” “Enjoy the break,” he said. “And no reffing. You all need the break so you don’t burn out.” “Ha!” said the irascible voice in my head, as if I could enjoy the time off. I’d been a ref in training since the start of the season, hoping to earn my official stripes. And it was just the stupid transitions holding me back. I turned to Creepy Taco as I pulled off my final piece of equipment and stuffed my gear into my bag. “Stay out of trouble," I said and gave him a hug. "You too!," he said and laughed.

But I was in big trouble. By the time I got to my car, I was having an internal dialogue with myself about why I had wanted to play roller derby in the first place.

To me, 90 is old, but if you’re young, I must seem ancient at 65. Title IX didn’t even exist when I was growing up; the best I could do was play punch ball with the boys, and only when they let me. It was Drew Barrymore’s film "Whip It" that made me say, “I want to do that.” The film is about a girl whose mother wants her to win beauty pageants and all she wants to do is play roller derby.

Maybe it resonated with me because I grew up in a family that didn’t want to let me be myself. When you grow up with Holocaust parents, it’s all about being safe. And being quiet. And good. I always walked a thin line between being that girl and breaking away completely. But I never could. Guilt and responsibility are heritable traits. So I went to school, got married — once to get out of the house and once for love. I worked, raised my kids and got old on the outside. There was nothing stopping me now from going after the brass ring. My husband knew me well enough to be supportive.

When I told people I wanted to join the roller derby, nearly everyone told me I’d get hurt, I was too old or I wasn’t in good enough shape. What they really meant was that I was going to get killed. In fairness, I have never been a graceful, agile, quick-on-my-feet kind of girl. I told the naysayers that the worst that could happen would be a bunch of bruises and some broken bones. But the bottom line was – I really didn't care. I didn't care because I wanted more in my life. I wanted to do something just for me. Derby was as much for my soul as for my body.

And yet there I was sitting in the car beating myself up, telling myself that I can’t. I was struggling with the one skill — speeding backward on my toe stops — that I still needed to earn my zebra suit. The other new refs were former hockey players in their twenties or 40-year-old former ice-skating pros who could do that move in their sleep. What was I thinking?

Back when I was a therapist, I would have told someone in my position to make a list of the pros and cons. Why continue to push myself? Why quit? Is it about my age? Or the fact that I don’t like not being the best? Is it better to live with regret or risk failure?

The wheels in my head want to stop the wheels on my feet, but I won't let that happen. I love the sport and my unique derby family way too much to give up. And anyway, I practiced 342 transitions yesterday. The coach once told me after a thousand of them, I’d have it nailed. I’m a believer.

Originally posted on Purple Clover

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