Determination. Commitment. Passion. When I asked members of the local Sintral Valley Derby Girls roller derby team what it takes to be a 'derby girl', these were three of the qualities I was told. As a spectator at their practice I could see that they loved the sport, but it was not until I literally stepped into their shoes —or skates rather — that my interest in roller derby became more of a fascination.
It all started when my colleague and I conceived of the idea to "derby-fie" me — as we have coined it at the Turlock Journal — for a segment of our Studio 209 biweekly web series. I would lace up some skates, hit the rink and learn some moves from the Sintral Valley Derby Girls. Simple enough, right? In theory, the idea sounded fun. We would get a little footage of me futzing around, everyone would have a good laugh and we would be able to showcase a niche group about which many community members may not know. However, after conducting several interviews with a variety of different derby girls prior to hitting the rink, I could feel an interesting change take shape in my mind.
It hit me that the women I would be learning from weren’t here just to play a sport. They were here to empower one another, challenge and push each other physically and mentally. With each interview it became clear that this sport is as much an emotional outlet for these women — these teachers, lawyers, homemakers, students — as it is a physical competition. One woman looked me in the eye and said that in roller derby, "You can be your own hero." Wow. In a world where it is so easy to feel inadequate or left out, especially with the advent of social media, I realized that roller derby practice was like a special space where women could collectively unite and build each other up by physically pushing each other down. It is kind of an oxymoron, really, and I don't mean to wax poetic about roller derby — it is a seriously rough sport. But it is an electric sport charged by female empowerment.
After interviewing nearly 10 roller derby girls, I started to ask myself if I could compete with these ladies. This sport meant so much to each of them and I wanted to respect that, not make a mockery of it by falling on my face (I fell on my rear instead). But I suited up and after about 15 minutes was finally ready for battle in my kneepads, elbow pads, wrist guards, a helmet — just getting dressed for this sport was exhausting!
While I was eager to put my hair in pig tails and throw on some skates, the sport proved more technical than I imagined and I had troubling handling the basics. I learned roller derby lesson number one very quickly: Rollerblades are not roller skates. There is a difference. A big difference. However, I was able to bounce off of walls and wheel my way towards the makeshift rink in the E2 building of the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds, and thus my initiation into roller derby culture began. I learned one knee falls, two knee falls, superman falls, how to stop, how to skate (properly, without using the person next to you for balance) … the basics.
While I was only given primary training with the beginner group and not being roughed up too much by the veteran derby girls, I began to see the physical strength and endurance it takes to just master the basics. As the time rolled on beads of sweat began to roll down the side of my face and I realized this sport was so much more than short shorts and fishnets as it is often perceived. These women are proactive and protective, speedy but systematic. Roller derby is physical, it is fast and it requires you to be fearless.
While the women gave me a hard time and scolded me for saying sorry when I got in the way — Roller Derby Rule Number Two: No apologizing. I can honestly say this was one of the most enjoyable segments I've worked on while at the Turlock Journal. Not only was I graciously welcomed, I was invited back! These women were like lionesses who welcomed me to their den, and while I am not sure I will become one of their own, I walked away from the Sintral Valley Derby Girls finally understanding the addictive quality of this sport. You can see for yourself the embarrassingly comical footage on our website and YouTube channel on Thursday by going to www.youtube.com/user/turlockjournal.