Injuries. Anyone who plays roller derby understands that they’re a part of skating.
They can be as minor as a cramp, scrape, or cut. They can be as severe as a dislocation, a broken bone, or even a concussion. No doubt, you have at least one story to tell when it comes to unintentional and/or self-inflected bodily harm.
Inevitably, comparisons are made and bragging rights are fought for. “You call that a bruise? That’s a bruise!” Derby skaters take their injuries in stride, like badges of honor. As a skater myself, I can say that it comes with the territory. Big or small, we’ve all had to deal with our fair share of bumps and bruises.
But I dare anyone to say that they have had to cope with a bump bigger than mine.
This “injury” of mine didn’t happen because of a broken bone gone haywire or soft tissue swelling out of control. It’s actually a chronic medical condition called osteochondroma, and is something I’ve lived with my entire life.
Normally, bones get longer as they grow with a person. But sometimes they “spring a leak” and grow outwards in a mish-mash of boney material and hard cartilage, balling up into a benign tumor. These tumors can develop anywhere bones join together and are usually harmless things, no larger than the size of a golf ball.
Mine is the size of a cantaloupe.
The easiest way to describe my bump is to imagine that a bowling ball has been fused to your left hip. Picture what that might feel like and you may start to get a pretty good idea of what I’ve had to deal with on a daily basis for almost 30 years.
It’s not as bad as it sounds, though. A nice property of my bump is the fact that should anyone ever attempt to punch me in the left kidney, they’ll wind up with a broken hand. It’s also a great conversation starter at parties, and is guaranteed to freak out those who are brave enough to take me up on my offer of “hey, hit me right here!”
There are downsides, of course. The biggest one is that the extra inches of mass jutting out from my hip causes me to bump into things a lot. It’s worse when the thing I hit doesn’t move, because then the entire force of the impact gets concentrated onto a single point on my body, which hurts like a motherfucker.
(If you want to play the osteochondroma home game, tape a golf ball to your bare kneecap and slam it straight down into the ground. Hurts just thinking about it, yeah? Well, you can easily remove the golf ball; if the doctors tried to take out my bump, I’d have a limp for the rest of my life.)
Even with my bump inside of me, I never had any lasting pain or discomfort. It was just kind of there, like any other bone in my body. Really, I mostly forget I even have it…only to be reminded as I round a corner a bit too closely to the wall.
However, recent circumstances have changed my condition from minor to serious…and wouldn’t you know, it has everything to do with roller derby.
So if you’ll allow me, I’m going share with you the story of me, my bump, and how skating and roller derby has affected me on a personal level. I figure, if I’m going to be running my mouth off about wanting to help derby get an outside perspective on itself, it’s only fair that roller derby gets an inside perspective on me.
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I was five years old when I got my first pair of roller skates. I instantly fell in love with skating, though up through my tweens I didn’t have the time to dedicate to it that I would have liked. I was a two-sport kid back then, so skating never crossed my mind as something I could “play” in the same way that I was playing soccer and basketball.
It wasn’t until the mid 90’s that I was able to find time to go skating regularly. Thanks to the aftereffects of The Trade, ice skating rinks were popping up all over Southern California. Happily, one of them was within walking distance of my house. I took advantage, going ice skating a few times a month. However, I constantly struggled to keep my balance on the skinny ice blades.
Despite that, I had caught the skating bug again. It was something I knew I wanted to keep doing, and for real this time. Hockey had crossed my mind, but the Californian in me didn’t like forgoing warm, sunny weather to skate inside of a drab refrigerator for hours on end. Still, I wanted to get better at ice skating and skating in general, but without having to deal with the cold.
In my mind, there was only one way to go.
The first pair of inlines I bought are the only pair of inlines I’ve ever owned. I still skate on them to this very day.
It took me a few months of practice to break them in properly, but once I got going, I got going. Man, was I having a blast rolling over sidewalks and down hills, and around corners.
I was having such a good time, I decided it would be cool (that’s 1990’s cool) to skate to school in them. For years my precious inlines carried me four miles a day over sidewalks, streets, river pathways and hills filled with plenty of fun spots…and deadly hazards.
I learned much of what I know about skating today in the streets, and I still prefer to skate outside rather than inside for that reason. My skates and I went through a lot during my time in middle school and high school.
I had some memorable incidents that helped me learn the ropes very, very quickly. For instance, not long after I broke my skates in, I thought it would be a good idea to go to the top of a long, steep hill and see how quickly I could speed to the bottom. They were doing it on TV and made it look easy. How hard could it be?
I do not need to say that veering straight down a steep hill on a very windy day with no protective gear is an adventure. But it became an extra-special adventure when a tree branch suddenly fell into my path, giving me one second to learn how to do a high jump at speed. Correcting a speed wobble at 30mph was also a lesson learned that day. Had I not learned these important skills on the fly, I probably would have died—or worse, been made fun of at school.
On another day just as I was leaving home, I found myself lying down in middle of the street, wondering how I got there all of a sudden. The blood pouring down my face was the first clue. When the throbbing pain started, I deduced that my feet got tripped up on a reflector bump in the middle of the street. Gravity did most of the work; the coarse asphalt I face-planted into did the rest.
Painting the town red, I scampered home for medical assistance. Arriving just in time to see my parents leaving for work, I was forced to fend for myself. I stopped the bleeding and bandaged the giant hole in my forehead in short order. Then, I put my skates back on (!!) and scurried to school. I only missed two class periods that day. (I also began to consider the advantages of wearing a helmet.)
Despite these and other relatively minor events, I had a ball skating around town. I really loved it. Yet it never occurred to me that there were outlets available to apply what I knew about skating into organized sports. Though I was getting good on my skates, and had an ice skating arena a less than two miles away from me, other things were starting to take up my time.
When I made the varsity football team, I was only able to skate during the off-season. When I got my first car, the new-found independence of an $800 1975 Dodge Charger and $0.99-per-gallon gasoline gave me fewer and fewer reasons to buckle in to my skates.
Soon enough, I stopped skating with regularlity. I didn’t give it up for good, though. I’d break out the skates every once in a while to shake off the rust and have a little fun. I still had the desire to skate, but not the drive (or the time) to do it as much as I used to. Despite that, I wanted to keep my wits about me under the belief that all this stuff I learned would come in handy some day.
Ten years later, it did.
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In the summer of 2010, my BFFF (best female friend forever) was finally able to join a roller derby league. Not just any league, but a new banked track roller derby league.
I was jealous. Here I was, three years into discovering the modern roller derby revival, and nary was there a men’s derby league to be seen. Sure, the L.A. Derby Dolls have always had co-ed training programs and a rec league, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I’m a seriously competitive guy, and I wanted serious competition. None was to be found.
At least, not until the BFFF let me know that her league was also looking for guys to skate, in the hopes of starting up a men’s league.
Almost immediately, I found myself joining the Sugartown Rollergirls.
Just the fact that there was a banked track league west of the Mississippi that wanted guys to play derby on the bank just as much as the girls would have been good enough. But to have one that was less than an hour’s drive away from me was just pure gravy.
I got to know the co-founders of the league, Saturday Night Special and Mollie Tuff Cocktail. They explained how it was their dream for roller derby to be taken seriously, to be played by athletes, and to eventually go pro. They explained that the league had a no-drama policy, and violators of that policy would be dealt with swiftly. I learned about what they were planning (at the time) to do with the league, and it matched up with my own expectations about the direction in which roller derby should be heading.
I couldn’t believe it. The perfect roller derby league existed, and I was going to be skating in it. Not reffing in it, not volunteering in it—skating in it.
Of course, this meant I had to get quad skates. It was to be the first time I skated on quads in over 20 years. I knew readjusting was going to take some time, but after a few weeks of coaching, training, and extra practice time at the local roller rinks, I was starting to get back in the groove.
Coaching was one of the very first things I appreciated about Sugartown. Getting training from someone that’s been skating for their entire life is invaluable. I learned more about skating in my first six months with the league than I did in 24 years trying to figure it out on my own. The little things about technique and skating flow make all the difference.
Another thing I liked about the league was that although we were serious about our training, we weren’t afraid to have a bit of fun on the side. One day, I had a conversation with one of our coaches about Rollergames (you remember, the one with the alligator pit) and how a lot of people in the league we skated with remembered watching it on TV. As a joke, the next week I brought in some inflatable alligators.
But you know what? We just couldn’t resist playing with them on the track.
Another time, practicing a local park, we were taking turns zooming down a steep pathway. (This time, I was wearing a helmet!) This path split partway down, with one branch requiring a fairly narrow 180° turn to get through. On an attempt to take this turn as tightly and as quickly as possible, I tripped over my skates and landed ass-first in some bushes, at quite a high speed. Man, did we have a good laugh after that one.
Hands down, though, my favorite moment with Sugartown was when we finally finished our track. It was a dream come true for me—as soon as I was able to take to the bank at speed, you wouldn’t have been able to get the smile off my face with a crowbar. Just thinking about it again puts me in my happy place.
But that feeling was nothing compared to seeing our founders, Saturday and Mollie, taking the ceremonial first laps around the track. For how hard they’d worked and for everything they’ve been through—for everything we had been through—I do not exaggerate when I say that was one of the best moments of my life…to say nothing of theirs.
But that happiness was soon short-lived—the banked track training soon started.
Man, do I have respect for the Derby Dolls, the other established banked track leagues, and the flat track teams making the tri-dimensional leap that make skating on the high banks look easy. It ain’t. The banking is a lot steeper than it looks (unnecessarily steep, in my opinion) and you need to have your wits about you just to get up there. It took me longer than I expected to get comfortable on the bank.
The competitive fire in me wanted more than comfort, though.. To be blunt, I wanted nothing more than speed, speed, speed. I wanted to tear-ass around that track as fast as I possibly could, much to the chagrin of my coach. I knew I had a lot to learn before I could get to that level, and I took whatever routes I could to get there as soon as I could—I even skated a few practices on the banked track on my inlines.
(Sacrilege? Some might think so. But holy fuck, was it awesome.)
Unfortunately, the desire to bite off more than I could chew eventually caught up with me. I was starting to get some avoidable injuries: A gnarly scrape here, a jammed finger there, a tweaked ankle, too. (Alright, I admit I didn’t tweak the ankle while skating. I was doing something more hardcore.)
My street-skating mentality made me come back from moderate injuries sooner than I probably should have. This eventually caught up with me with one particular injury, which started me down a road of pain and suffering that I had never known before.
As it turned out, it was a road that I had never been down before. The longer I went down it, the more and more I realized that it when it ended, I could be faced with a life-changing reality:
That I may never be able to skate again.
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