How I Roller-Skated My Way To A New Beginning


Ding-dong ding-dong, ding-ding-ding-ding-dong.

It’s 7 a.m. My iPhone proudly displays the cheerful white numerals, chiming in on my REM cycle. Ding-dong ding-dong.

I wake in corpse pose. I try to remember where I am. Brooklyn. What did I do last night? Can’t remember. I blearily shut off the alarm. I roll over to the edge of the mattress. Water, I need water. I find a bottle sitting on the floor, and drink. That’s better, but I need to get out of here, and fast.

First, clothes: a tank top and leggings. Pulling them on, I grab my heavy tote bag and trainers in the living room. Wait, no, one last to-do before I can leave. Heading back into the bedroom, I appraise the person I spent the night with. I scootch next to him in bed. His hair, swept forward, covers one eye.

I push the hair back with one hand. I gently lay the other on his arm. His eyes blink open; in those post-awakening milliseconds, he recognizes my face and smiles. I bend down and peck him on the lips. In a sleep-steeped mumble, my boyfriend wishes me a good practice.

And I’m out the door, into the Saturday morning sunshine. It’s time for roller derby.

~ ~ ~

A year ago, I’d never seen roller derby. Said boyfriend brings me to a game, and I’m blown away. Derby skaters are badass women who know how to give and take a hit. They work together quickly, flawlessly, violently, blocking their opponents while their scoring players rack up points. The passion these women feel for their sport is matched by hundreds of supporters in attendance. I’m smitten. I’m not doing anything outside of work, and work is increasingly soul-crushing. I decide right there and then. I would skate, even if it killed me.

Two years ago, if you searched “hot mess” in the dictionary, you’d see a photo of me next to it. My lifelong battle with anxiety and low self-esteem means I use alcohol to compensate for my lack of self-belief and social awkwardness. Booze-fueled nights are followed by burrito-filled, hungover mornings that keep me overweight. Single and living alone, I have zero responsibility to myself or others, and barely any memory of my late-night antics. I see no reason to change my lifestyle.

Twenty-nine years ago, I was born. Six pounds, six ounces. A healthy baby girl, said the doctors. My heart isn’t fully formed, but that’s normal for some newborns. For some of these newborns, their hearts close up soon after birth. Except mine doesn’t, and I have open-heart surgery at 10 months old. The surgery fixes me, but my lack of stamina is the exception. Growing up, I have a hard time keeping pace in gym class. It’s noticeable to my peers, who abuse me in dodgeball and ridicule me for 15-minute-plus mile runs. I spend a lot of time avoiding exercise, and a lot of time eating. My weight ballooned, and this cycle maintains its viciousness through adulthood.

Four months ago, I joined the roller derby league. During my first practice, I fell. Probably a good 10 times. Doing simple things, like lifting one foot over another while standing on skates. My legs, weakened by a military “warmup,” shake throughout the two-hour practice. Around me are women of all body types, ages and backgrounds. Collectively, we’re a team of unstable baby giraffes, attempting to take our first few strides into this eight-wheeled world. But I get up every time I fall, and I keep going back, and I keep improving, increment by increment, week over week.

~ ~ ~

My story doesn’t end with my becoming the best skater and winning the championship. Rather, it’s a new beginning. The roller derby motto is “by the skaters, for the skaters.” My inclusion into this community of women exemplifies it. League members are the most loving, helpful and encouraging people I’ve met in my lifetime. Quick to help, to smile, to share knowledge, equipment, food, rides, pretty much anything. It’s a cyclical, pay-it-forward method, but the best of its kind, a continuous give and take, with no end in sight. The only sighted end is my hot mess past, an era I’m relieved to leave in my skate dust.

And the future?

It’s said a single journey comprises a thousand steps. This one consists of a thousand skating sessions. And officiating scrimmages, and working home games, and helping out the junior league, and keeping up with email chains. And I’m still in training, still “Fresh Meat,” still a long way to go before I’m placed on a team. I’m never not anxious, and I never don’t doubt myself, but I’ve come so far in four months. More and more, my anxiety and low self-esteem are like friends you drift apart from as time progresses, because you have less in common. I wave hello if they show up trackside, but I can ignore them now.

I’ve got skating to do.