By Cindy McKendall
I have no idea what I’m doing here. I am wearing borrowed roller skates, helmet, and safety gear, and I’m standing on what used to be the swimming pool at the old McKinley YMCA facility in Champaign. I have just joined the Twin City Derby Girls, and this is my first practice.
This is the first time I’ve skated in months, and the skates feel weird. They’re different from the ones at Skateland. The floor feels different too, more smooth and slick. I move forward a little bit, and I’m as clumsy as a newborn deer. I fall on my rear as soon as I try to stop.
I had decided, earlier that day, on a whim, to join the team. I am now part of what’s called the Doppel Gang. The Doppels are all trainees, and we’re not allowed to compete until we pass a skills test. Then we can move on to the next level and compete in a roller derby bout. I am pretty sure that I have no chance of passing the test. What have I done?
The group of skaters is a mixture of newbies and derby veterans. The other new skaters have been coming to practice for three weeks, and since this is my first practice, I’m already behind. The coach calls us over to start our first drill, which is the proper way to fall down. Some of the vets demonstrate different types of falls, and we start skating to practice the first one.
We’re supposed to fall on one knee, get up, and keep skating. It looks easy enough, but I can’t do it. Mentally, I can’t make myself fall, even though I’m wearing giant knee pads to protect my knees. One of the vets sees me struggling and reassures me that I can do it. The group moves on to the next drill. I still haven’t gotten myself to fall.
I’m sure that I’m the oldest of the trainees. I’m 41, my hair is mostly grey, and I have wrinkles. The other trainees look at least a decade, or maybe two decades, younger than me, but it’s hard to tell under all the protective gear. I don’t know if anyone else has kids. Nobody talks about having kids, and I don’t mention mine.
Slowly, as we move on to other drills, I get more comfortable with the skating. We practice skating in a pack, skating uncomfortably close to other people. We work on different maneuvers, moving around orange cones. The coach is positive and encouraging, and I can feel my confidence growing. One of the last drills we try is jumping. It’s hard, and I fall on my rear again when I lose my balance. There is no protective gear for that part of my body, and it hurts. But I get back up and keep trying. When I manage to get my skates a tiny bit off the floor, I’m elated. I can jump!
At the end, we practice falls again. This time, I hesitantly go down on one knee. I fall, and it’s OK. I get back up.
After practice is over, I’m surprised to see that I’ve been there for more than three hours. I am exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure. I’m happy that my fitness level was up to a three-hour-plus workout, and I’m relieved that I didn’t make a fool of myself or get injured. I know I will be sore, but I’m excited to come back the next week to skate again.
Are you interested in trying roller derby? If you can skate, the Derby Girls can train you. Training is ongoing. Send an email to email@example.com for more information.
Cindy McKendall grew up in the Chicago suburbs, came to the University of Illinois, and ended up becoming a townie after graduation. She has lived in Chambana since 1997 with her husband, Sean, and their two daughters.