Chapters
Lifestyles

A crash course in roller derby

Focused on skating into the turn, I didn’t know she was behind me until it was too late.

She shoved my back and skated past as my wheels flew out from underneath me. Sailing through the air, I landed on my rear on the concrete floor with a thud. The impact forced the air from my lungs.

“How rude!” I thought — but only for a heartbeat.

Then I remembered: This was roller derby, and I was fresh meat.

There are no apologies in roller derby.

Fresh Meat

Meeting Mischief

The journey to my unceremonial one-point landing began two months earlier at the Hazel Dell Parade of Bands. I was watching the parade when a derby skater with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus tattooed on her upper arm skated up to me.

“That looks like fun!” I said, pointing to her skates. “I’m a dragon boat paddler.”

“I used to paddle dragon boats, too!” she said. “You should try derby!”

She handed me a flier: “Fresh meat tryouts. Storm City Roller Girls.”

If the Minister of Mischief personally invited you to join in the “fresh meat” roller derby tryouts, wouldn’t you give it your best shot?

Still, I’d have to overcome a few minor obstacles.

First, I hadn’t roller skated in years. Decades, actually. Could I find my roller-skating mojo again — 50 years after adjusting my first metal skates with a key?

Paddling Her Own Canoe
Read more about Susan Parrish’s adventures on her personal blog: paddlingherowncanoe.blogspot.com

Second, was I too old to try out for roller derby? Since turning 50, I’ve fearlessly tried new adventures: dragon boat paddling, kayaking, skiing, zip lining, backpacking, archery, belly dancing and swing dancing. But roller derby? Really?

Third, was I tough enough to endure fresh meat tryouts? Although I’m a seasoned dragon boat paddler, other paddlers aren’t trying to beat me to a pulp.

Still, the Minister of Mischief assured me tryouts were non-contact. No one would touch me. How scary could it be?

I was determined to find out.

Lacing up

Enlarge

378936-roller-derby-132271
Columbian reporter straps on her skates for meeting with ‘Mischief’

Photo by Steven Lane

In order to practice, I bought an old pair of rental skates from Golden Skate, which was going out of business.

“How long since you’ve been on skates?” owner John Wainwright asked as he fitted me for skates.

The last time I recall skating was at Pattison’s North in Spokane, the skating rink of my youth. It was 1980 and mullets were in fashion. Had it really been that long? Frankly, I never was better than a mediocre skater. (Here’s an even scarier fact: Mullets are still sported in Spokane.)

“1980. Thirty-five years,” I said.

Wainwright rolled what looked like a walker on wheels toward me. “Use this,” he said. “Take some turns around the rink.”

Tightly gripping the wheeled walker, I lurched onto the wooden floor, lost my balance and kicked one foot in the air. I grabbed the walker to keep from falling.

Holding the walker in a death grip, I kicked off, skating so slowly that the other skaters lapped me. More than once. The only other skater using a walker was a kindergarten-age boy who slammed to the floor and erupted into tears in front of me.

“Please don’t let that happen to me,” I thought as two adults lifted the crying boy from the floor.

I was positive there was no crying in roller derby.

After a dozen laps, my death grip on the wheeled walker loosened to lightly touching it with my fingertips.

I hadn’t fallen once, but would I be ready for fresh meat tryouts?

‘Dragon Diva’

Enlarge

378936-roller-derby-2
The skates of Columbian reporter Susan Parrish, Dragon Diva are painted with purple dragons breathing fire. She bought the used rental skates from Golden Skate before it closed.

Photo by Susan Parrish

For my derby name, I wanted “Dragon Diva” as a nod toward my passion for dragon boating and my dragon tattoo on my right shoulder. My artist friend, Kirby, painted purple she-dragons breathing fire on the sides of my drab skates.

What’s your derby name?
• See 40,000 registered derby skater names at www.twoevils.org/rollergirls
• Create your own derby name at rumandmonkey.com/widgets/toys/namegen/10568#.VaVcD_lVhBe

When I posted a photo of my Dragon Diva skates on Facebook, friends called me adventurous, brave and even crazy. A fine line separates “brave” and “crazy,” and I may have crossed over. Possibilities abounded as to what I could bruise: my tailbone, my hamstrings and, most certainly, my ego.

On a wickedly hot Friday night, I went to orientation at Storm City Roller Girls’ practice space, a cavernous concrete warehouse in the St. Johns neighborhood in Vancouver. Mischief and other skaters greeted me and about three dozen other women contemplating roller derby. They represented various ages, sizes, body types and fitness levels. Some brought their daughters, although skaters must be 18 until a junior league is started. We listened as JabHer Jaw, Mischief and others introduce us to the sharp-elbowed art of roller derby.

Despite a heavy emphasis on safety, all of the veterans admitted they had been injured multiple times, from concussions to broken bones. They stay in derby because they love the sport, the hard work, the camaraderie of the other skaters.

“These are amazing women,” Mischief said, looking around.

Mischief fitted me for knee, elbow and wrist pads so I could practice. Some skaters invested in a skateboard or hockey helmet, but I opted for my bicycle helmet. I bought a cheap mouth guard, dropped it into hot water, crammed it into my mouth, molded it around my top teeth and sucked in as it formed to my bite.

With only two days until tryouts, I needed practice without a walker for balance. On my driveway, I skated slow laps and practiced my crossovers on the turns. Picking up a little speed, my arms flailed and I nearly fell. But I didn’t.

“If you really want to be good, you live in your skates. Cook dinner in your skates,” Mischief had told me.

But I live in 600 square feet. The floor in my kitchen measures about four-by-four feet. There’s no room for skating. Driveway skating over the weekend would have to be enough.

Why hadn’t I practiced for a month? Or six months? Would I be ready to be fresh meat?

Grueling tryout

Enlarge

378936-roller-derby-132908
Columbian reporter Susan Parrish, left, takes a water break with the Minister of Mischief during the fresh meat tryouts for Storm City Roller Girls.

Photo by Steven Lane

On the sweltering night of tryouts, I arrived at the warehouse an hour early to practice and get pointers from Mischief. First, she taught me to skate in a squatting position, with my knees bent. She learned this lesson the hard way.

“I was scrimmaging and I stood up instead of squatting,” Mischief recalled. “Fornisk8ter hit me with a sternum buster.”

The result? A concussion. Not her first, and not likely her last.

Next, Mischief taught me to fall without hurting myself.

“Drop to your right knee and slide — but don’t touch your hands to the floor!”

I dropped to my right knee and slid, but my hands instinctively reached down for balance. That’s a surefire way to have another skater accidentally roll over your hands.

I tried again and kept my hands off the floor, but then I used my hands to push myself back up. That was a no-no, too. Mischief taught me to instead push myself up from the floor with my hands on my thigh. It took brute strength, but I did it.

Next, I practiced falling and sliding on my left knee. After several practice falls, sweat stung my eyes and poured in rivulets down my back. We’d been practicing only 20 minutes.

The benchmark for advancing from fresh meat status to be eligible to be drafted onto a team is being able to skate 27 laps in five minutes. That’s 11 seconds per lap. I couldn’t imagine skating that fast. Yet, every derby skater who has risen above fresh meat status has done it.

After 30 minutes, my legs felt as wobbly as rubber bands. This was a much more intense leg workout than dragon boating.

That was just pre-practice. The actual tryout hadn’t started yet.

More women had joined us. I searched the faces of the other skaters. Many of them appeared to be in their 20s and 30s. Several were in their 40s. I am 55. Was I the oldest skater here?

Dawn n’ Dirty, the fresh meat coach, wrote a large “5” on my arms. A derby skater would be evaluating my every move and taking detailed notes.

Dawn put us through a series of rigorous drills. First, we skated around the rink and did crossovers on the turns. I wasn’t fast, but I could do it.

Then as a whistle blew again and again, we practiced sliding on one knee, then both knees, and standing quickly — without touching hands to the floor.

Respect grows

Enlarge

378936-roller-derby-132821
Columbian reporter Susan Parrish, center, concentrates on making a crossover turn during fresh meat tryouts for Storm City Roller Girls.

Photo by Steven Lane

My sweating in pre-practice was nothing compared to the free-flowing river of perspiration that dripped from my body as I pushed myself through the drills in the sweltering warehouse. I gasped for breath. When I wondered whether I could push myself up from one more fall, Dawn gave us a water break.

After that, the drills were tougher. Dawn asked us to skate on one foot and go halfway around the rink. Some skaters performed this flawlessly, but others struggled. As I wobbled around the warehouse, my foot kept touching down and kicking off. This was much harder than the falling drill.

Even more challenging was standing in place and holding one skate off the floor. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Teetering back and forth on one foot, I fell to the concrete floor. Again.

Next, we did a footwork segment to show off agility on skates. It reminded me of Jazzercise in the ’80s.

I imagined Richard Simmons in his short-shorts yelling encouragement to me: “You go, girl! You’re Dragon Diva!”

One of the last drills was slowing our speed by skating in what I realized was similar to the snowplow technique in skiing. This time, I joined the skating virgins in the center of the rink to get more detailed instruction.

Thankfully, we didn’t learn hip checks or sternum busters. I was not ready for contact with other skaters. I was getting plenty of contact with the floor.

My thighs burning and my throat parched, I pushed myself to skate as fast as I could.

“Hey! Look at me! I’m Dragon Diva! I’m trying out for roller derby!” I thought as I started turning into the corner.

But I was going too fast. I didn’t make the turn. Instead, I flew toward the concrete wall. Instinctively, I held up arms and buffered my impact with my arm pads as I slammed into the wall.

Ouch! It hurt, but I was fine. I pushed myself away from the wall, turned on my skates and sped down the straightaway. I was determined to make that next turn.

As I skated around the warehouse, I looked at the strong women sharing this moment with me. My respect for tough derby women had multiplied tenfold.

I was proud of myself for taking a shot at being a derby girl. Even so, I’m much more agile on the water, and I think I’ll stick to dragon boating.

But I’m keeping my skates.

10 things about roller derby

After fresh meat tryouts, I sat down with the Minister of Mischief of Storm City Roller Girls to talk about derby — its reputation, its physicality and its appeal.

1. How long has Storm City been in Vancouver?

Enlarge

378936-roller-derby-132503
Two skaters prepare for fresh meat tryouts for Storm City Roller Girls.

Photo by Steven Lane

Storm City’s first bout was May 24, 2014. It has a travel team and two home teams, Misfits of Mutiny and Shock Treatment, plus a fresh meat program to recruit new skaters.

Teams practice at a warehouse in Vancouver’s St. Johns area. Bouts are at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.

Like most derby teams, Storm City skates on a flat track rather than a banked track. A flat track fits in a rectangle measuring 88 feet long by 55 feet wide.

2. Is the bad-girl image a myth?

Enlarge

378936-roller-derby-132854
Two Storm City Roller Girls, including the Minister of Mischief, right, evaluate skaters going through drills during fresh meat tryouts for the Storm City Roller Girls.

Photo by Steven Lane

“Not all of us wear fishnets and booty shorts to the bouts. A lot of us dress in athletic gear. We’re really athletes when it comes down to it,” the Minister of Mischief said.

Derby skaters represent various ages, economic levels and professions. Storm City’s skaters are nurses, college math professors, chefs, accountants, hairdressers, college students, ministers and bartenders. Many are mothers, and some have grown children.

When she isn’t skating derby, Mischief, 36, is Jennifer Smith of Hockinson. She’s a wife, mother of five kids ages 5 to 20, accountant and student at Marylhurst University in Oregon. Her eventual goal is to earn a master’s degree in divinity in order to be a hospice chaplain. She also is a death midwife.

3. Why did you join derby?

Mischief was a union sheet metal worker until an injury and arthritis caused her to be retrained as an accountant, a job that involves too much sitting.

“The first time I saw derby, I thought it was the coolest thing on the planet.” She added, “It’s very cathartic. Going fast on the track. Hip-checking. … I have five kids, a husband and three jobs, and I’m going to school. I need something that’s mine, and I need to be physical. It sounds really strange, but my favorite part of derby is when people hit me. When I get knocked on my butt. I love that! It just releases tension. It’s a time when life doesn’t happen anymore and I can just be in the game.”

Meet Storm City Roller Girls

• Event: Human-scale beer pong at Vancouver Brewfest
• When and where: Aug. 7, 8 and 9 at Esther Short Park, Sixth and Esther streets in downtown Vancouver
• Why: “It’s your chance to hip-check a derby girl!” Mischief said.
• Cost: $15 in advance for Brewfest, $20 at the gate
• Details at beerfests.com/events/vancouver-brewfest

4. How do skaters come up with derby names?

Skaters are given derby names that often are puns reflecting a skater’s personality. The Minister of Mischief goes by “Mischief,” a nod to her geeky passion for Harry Potter.

Other Storm City skaters are JabHer Jaw, Fornisk8er, Splatsy Cline, Headsecutioner, Figure Slayer, Kicky Longstocking and Dawn n’ Dirty.

5. Is derby violent?

Although derby skaters wear helmets and pads, the sport’s moves include hip checks and sternum busters. Legal contact zones are above the knee, below the neck and not between the bra straps, Mischief said.

Players who don’t follow the rules are sent to the penalty box. Skaters who get seven penalties are kicked out of a bout.

“We try to play clean. Not every team does,” Mischief said.

Her first bout was against Spo-Carnage, “a very scary team” from Spokane. “They’re not afraid to elbow you in the face. They play dirty. It was terrifying.”

With only two minutes left, the Storm City team was very far behind and “I came out kicking and screaming and punching,” Mischief said. ‘‘Later a Spo-Carnage player told me I’d played really well that last two minutes.”

6. Are there injuries?

When skaters are hip-checking and elbowing while skating at high speed, injuries happen. Thankfully, three Storm City skaters are nurses.

“It’s not if you will get hurt. It’s when you will get hurt,” said Mischief, who has had two concussions. “We call bruises derby kisses.”

Dawn n’ Dirty tore her anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. Liberty Belle broke her ankle. Gnarly Davidson tore her hamstring while accidentally doing the splits on skates and needed six weeks of physical therapy.

Storm City Roller Girls
• What: Clark County’s flat-track roller derby league committed to promoting the empowerment of women of all races, national origins, religious beliefs, sexual orientations and body types by creating positive athletic role models and a community-based sport for those of all skill levels.
• Teams: Two home teams, the Misfits of Mutiny and Shock Treatment, and a fresh meat team for newbies.
• Facebook: www.facebook.com/StormCityRollerGirls
• Web: stormcityrollergirls.com
• Next Fresh Meat tryouts: September. No date determined yet.
• Next bout: Misfits of Mutiny vs. Shanghaied Roller Dolls on Oct. 24 at Astoria Armory, 407 17th St. , Astoria, Ore.

7. How are points scored?

Each team has five skaters on the floor. Four blockers form the pack. The jammer, identified by a star on her helmet, is the only player who can score points by skating past the other team’s pack. After making the first lap, the jammer scores a point each time she passes a blocker from the opposing team.

8. Are derby families supportive?

Mischief’s family attends her bouts, and her daughters volunteer selling tickets at the door. For her birthday, her husband bought Mischief special wheels for her skates.

“My mom is a little concerned, but she thinks it’s pretty cool,” Mischief said. “My sister watched a bout. I’m still fairly new and was on the ground a lot. She was concerned, but said it looked like I was having fun.”

9. What’s the cost to participate in derby?

Skaters must purchase Women’s Flat Track Derby Association insurance for $65 annually. They also pay $50 a month dues to Storm City to pay rent for practice and bout space.

Pads and helmets are another expense. Derby skates can cost up to $600, but Mischief started with a $25 pair of used skates. When they broke, she spent $70 on another pair of used skates, which also broke. Now she’s borrowing skates from Born Villain, who broke her leg skating.

10. When are the next fresh meat tryouts?

The next tryouts are in September. Contact Storm City through their Facebook page to learn more.

read more: