FILED IN: House & Home

Hell on 8 Wheels

Photo: Tshirt by Debbie Lee

I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. And surprisingly my two and four-year-old aren’t to blame.

I’ve been lying in bed thinking of taglines for the Memphis Roller Derby logo, rink names for some of my new skater friends, and drills to try out at our next practice. Sometimes I just lie there and imagine myself jamming through a row of blockers while the announcer screams, “Smashimi scores again!”

A few short months ago, I didn’t even know what roller derby was. My husband, Warren, called me from his dig in Missouri and said, “Hey check out ‘Rollergirls’ on A&E.” “Rollergirls” is a reality show that follows the Texas Lonestar Rollergirls throughout their bouting season. The Lonestar Rollergirls play the game in short skirts and striped socks, focusing more on athleticism than staged drama. (Although there is a lot of drama in the show.) Warren and his fellow archaeologists had been watching it in their motel room and he (rightly) thought I might like it.

I basically grew up at the roller rink. I had no idea that grown women could skate AND make it look cool. After watching one episode, I called Warren back and said, “We have to move to Austin immediately!”

“Uh, okay,” he said, unsurely. He had been trying (in vain) to get me out of Memphis for years.

“Or, maybe I should just start a derby here,” I said. The Texas Lonestar Rollergirls and other leagues like theirs were grassroots—skater owned an operated. There was no reason why I couldn’t really do it.

If I had time, that is.

“Why don’t we just take the kids skating this weekend?” Warren very pragmatically suggested.

Skating is a lot like riding a bike. Once I laced up my Skateland rentals (something my inner hood was mortified by), I was speeding around the rink just like I did in the 80s (but now for much shorter periods of time with much more perspiration). My four-year-old cheered as I whizzed past him. He was impressed with my skating abilities and was determined to keep up with me. My two-year-old wasn’t so interested, but agreed to wear skates as long as he could hang out by the video games and concession stand. Warren and I raced each other and even spun ourselves around in circles until we felt like puking. I told everyone I knew how much fun we had skating, and before I knew it, we had pretty much populated the rink with friends and family.

The more I skated, the more I thought about starting a derby in Memphis. I still had my moves, but I didn’t know if a “Mom” could really be a rockin’ rollergirl. I went online in search of a role model. I found Eight Track, the mother/step-mother of six children ages 5-12 who is the best blocker and most feared skater in the Texas Rollergirls Flat Track Derby Association in Austin, Texas (the sister league of the one featured on A&E).

When I asked Eight Track what she thought about a mom starting a roller derby, she advised me to go for it. “It’s the greatest hobby, “ she said. “Where else can you just wake up one morning with 50 or so best friends who will be there to support you through anything that comes along? Where else can you get good cardio and physical activity that is ever changing and revolves around nothing but women? It’s exciting, fun, diverse, and for a couple hours every month, you get to be someone completely different if you want to. Derby allows you to schedule around home, family and work. We all face the same issues so we’ve designed the entire sport to accommodate all of those issues.”

I was definitely encouraged by her words, but in the back of my mind I thought, My kids are so little. They need me. I couldn’t possibly do this. I asked Eight Track if she knew a derby girl with younger kids that I could talk to. It turned out that Tinkerhell, the mother of a five and an almost three-year-old was just who I was looking for. She agreed that derby is an amazing way to exercise, have your own life, be with adults and gain a great group of friends. But she warned me that a skater has to have a lot of time. 

“In order to be a skater who really contributes to the league (meetings, events, committees, practices, games) you have to have at least three times a week set aside and be online often. It has to be something your family wants, not just what you want. Many marriages/relationships have dissolved over the years because someone committed themselves to more than all parties wanted,” Tinkerhell said.

I knew that I could count on Warren and the boys to support me, but I didn’t know if I would be able to actually allow myself so much time to, well, myself. Kit-N-Ass, a jammer and blocker for the TC Rollers in Minnesota told me that making time for herself made her a better mom. “I know I lost my identity for a while when I was only a mom and a wife. I put my loved ones before myself for so long that I forgot who I was.” Kit-N-Ass added, “It’s so important to be able to redefine who you are and have fun with it. With Roller Derby, you meet so many other women in your same shoes—it’s great!”

Hmm…this was starting to sound good. Good exercise, good friends…why not? Unfortunately, I could think of several reasons—two very demanding children, a demanding full-time job, and a husband with a demanding full-time job that often sent him out of town for several weeks at a time.

Tinkerhell confided, “I often envy the girls who can practice whenever they want, go to all the events and parties, and make all the committee meetings. My skating is not at the level it would be if I could go to 4 or 5 practices a week like some girls do.”

I wasn’t sure I was ready to start a derby, but I had an insatiable desire to skate as much as possible. I decided to get some outdoor skates and try skating on my own a few times a week to see if that would keep me satisfied. I started thinking like a teenage boy with a skateboard—I was eyeing parking lots and pathways all over town. Before the UPS man could deliver my skates, I found out that three other women in Memphis had already decided to start a roller derby! I was thrilled.

The first informational roller derby meeting was on a Sunday afternoon at the same time that I usually took the boys skating. Already I was conflicted. Sunday afternoons at Skateland with my family had become the highlight of my week, and I didn’t want anything—not even the roller derby—to mess that up. I emailed the derby organizers and told them I was interested, but that I wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting.

On that Sunday, we went skating as usual. I was a little mad at myself for chickening out. I knew that I was letting my shyness get the best of me, and that I was using my kids as an excuse to mask my fear of change. While I helped my four-year-old around the rink, Warren noticed two women come in to talk to Skateland’s owner. He skated over to me and said, “Hey look, I bet those women are with the derby.”

They weren’t in short skirts or striped tights, but they definitely looked the part. “I bet you’re right,” I said, as I took a deep breath and skated over to them.

“Are you with the roller derby?” I asked the taller woman with dyed red streaks in her hair.

“Yeah, I’m Elle Tempered,” she said.

“I wanted to come to the meeting today, but I always bring my kids skating on Sundays,” I said.

“That’s cool,” she said. “I’m a mom, too. You can sign this sheet. Our first practice is in two weeks.”

A mom! I cheered in my head as I added my name to the long list—several of which were familiar to me. Suddenly, all of my earlier hesitation was gone and I knew that I was meant to be a rollergirl.

As I talked to Elle Tempered some more, I discovered that we had a lot in common. We both grew up skating almost every weekend—she in Raleigh, me at East End—and we had both been inspired by the A&E show. Elle told me that after seeing it, she immediately got on the Internet and started looking for more information. “I ended up on the Tuscon, Arizona website and saw that they were having try-outs. I said to my boss, ‘I’m just going to have to go to Tuscon and try out.’”

Luckily for me (and the rest of the derby girls), Elle decided to recruit two other women, both mothers of young children, to help her start the Memphis Roller Derby instead.

Before our first practice we were all asked to sign the following waiver: The risk of injuries from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular rules, equipment and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious injury, including death, remains.

Elle and the other derby organizers assured us that we would be required to wear protective gear—knee & elbow pads, wrist & mouth guards, and a helmet—at all times and that we would be trained to fall without breaking anything. I had ended my soccer career ten years earlier with reconstructive knee surgery and had done everything I could (i.e. quit drinking and smoking) to remove myself from harm’s way since becoming a mother. The thought of a serious injury did not appeal to me.

The fact that Elle, one of our better skaters, broke her arm at the first practice after losing her balance didn’t ease my tensions. I asked her about her injury and how it affected her feelings about doing the derby.

“I wanted the derby to be an outside fun thing that I did that was personal. You know, I wanted to have a double life almost,” Elle said. “I didn’t want [my ten-year-old daughter] Ramona’s teachers to think that I was an idiot. You know, I like for them to see me as responsible. Then I went and immediately broke my arm! The last field trip I went on, the other moms gave me funny looks, but I’m pretty much ignoring them because I can already see that the derby is changing me for the better. It’s really good for Ramona to see me happy and feeling strong.”

It may seem strange that one can simultaneously have a broken arm and feel strong, but I knew exactly where she was coming from. It’s important for our kids to see their moms doing something they enjoy, even if it does involve a little risk. Tinkerhell said that her kids sometimes get concerned when they see her fall during bouts, but they understand that it is part of the game. “If I come home with injuries they think it’s tough. They wrap Ace bandages around themselves and pretend to have derby injuries too,” she said. “It kinda comes in handy when they actually hurt themselves because they don’t view it as such a big deal.”

I signed my waiver and I’ve accepted the fact that I might get hurt. However, I do everything I can to avoid it. I try to be aware of my surroundings at all times and I have made practicing my jumps and weaving a priority. I feel strong and capable.

For some, the hardest part of being in the derby is not how to take a hit, but how to give them out. The Memphis Roller Derby is still focusing on basic skills, so I haven’t had to put the hurt on anyone yet. A friend of mine, Di O’Bolic, plays in the newly formed Gem City Roller Girls in Ohio. She told me that she was a monster at volleyball in high school, but that now she was having trouble reclaiming that part of herself. “It’s been hard to get there again,” she said.  “The seven years of motherhood I’ve had, nurturing my kids and trying to be peaceful and nonviolent with them has definitely made me somewhat of a pussy!”

I used to be pretty tough on the soccer field, and having two boys has also helped elevate my “Hey, that’s too rough!” threshold, but I’m afraid that I, too, am a pussy. Mommacherry, a blocker for Seattle’s Rat City Rollergirls, told me that early on she had trouble hitting the other girls but she eventually got over it. “I had some maternal roadblock against violence!” she said. “Even when I hit someone, I wanted to go back and help them up. My team would yell at me to keep going, so I would. Things just clicked one day and it became fun to hit people. There’s a thrill now, in hitting and in being hit! I love taking someone out and I love falling down and getting back up.”

The first time we practiced falling at practice it was kind of a rush. Thanks to our extra-tough skateboarding kneepads, it really didn’t hurt. And it definitely made me feel strong to be able to get right back up. Eight Track told me that she loves the physical side of the game. “My favorite aspect of flat track derby is the truly up close and personal interaction with die hard fans," she told me. “It’s always great fun to take out an opposing skater but nothing beats taking out an opposing skater, five fans, three beers, two hotdogs, one slice of pizza and snagging some lady’s purse on your wheels as you return to the track.”

I’ve been amazed by all of the cool women I’ve met, a lot of whom are also mothers. We often joke about what things will be like once “we start beating each other up in November,” but as the weeks pass and I get to really know the other skaters through practices, committee & league meetings, and at social events, I know that competing in bouts will only make our friendships stronger.

When I became a mom, I met and became friends with a lot of other mothers by default at the playground or at school. I knew them as “Lucian’s mommy” before ever knowing her real name. In derby, I’m getting to know women by their rink names before ever discovering they have kids. Instead of talking about poop or sleep schedules, we discuss marketing strategies for the league, the best place to buy kneepads, or how to get affordable medical coverage. It’s a whole new world—one where I meet women with similar interests rather than just meeting women with kids of similar ages. Not only that, the derby allows me to involve my kids in my interests instead of vice versa.

People who think of roller derby as “wrestling on wheels” might question whether involving kids in the league is a good idea, but I don’t. I want my boys to have a lot of strong female role models. Mommacherry says her daughter has been raised by roller derby. “Thea was four when I started and I had no choice but to take her along to practices. She has become friends with the girls in our league and I’ve watched her become more assertive and more outgoing. Her social skills have really been advanced by all the friendships she’s formed with powerful adult women.”

Eight Track also credits roller derby as a positive influence on her children. “My kids attend meetings, events, and do volunteer work with us, and they get a really up close and personal view of how a business works. All of these things will end up benefiting them as adults,” she says.

Kids can also contribute to the success of the league. Kim Possible, trainer and captain of the Queen B’s in Minnesota, says one of her teenage sons helps new recruits learn how to skate and the other acts as an announcer for a local TV show featuring the TC Rollers.

With roller derby leagues sprouting up all across the country—and with mothers comprising anywhere from 15-75% of the skaters—it is clear that roller derby needs mamas as much as mamas need the roller derby. Tinkerhell says, “Parenting skills often come in handy when dealing with 40+ plus strong-minded women,” and I have to agree. This isn’t to say that the women need to be treated like children, but that there is a lot of work involved in getting a derby started and keeping it running. Being open-minded, flexible, and willing to negotiate—skills inherent in parenting—are extremely beneficial to the league.

Despite the derby’s rough reputation, I have also had many occasions to incorporate my nurturing skills as well. Each skater has a “Derby Wife,” someone they rely on to sort out tough issues or to share in the good times. My derby wife is a new skater and I have spent a lot of time encouraging her and offering her advice. And I have also turned to my wife and several other skaters for encouragement and advice when I needed it.

Recently, for reasons beyond our control, we had to move to a new rink and reschedule our practices. It was a difficult move for me since I have a pretty tight juggling act going with my work and family schedules. If just one ball got out of sync, I feared dropping them all. The thought of not having the derby in my life was extremely depressing. I felt a little like the boy in the Oscar Meyer wiener commercial. “Please, don’t take my roller derby away!”

It has been challenging for me to relinquish control in some situations and think of the league of as a whole, but I believe it is helping me become a better player, a stronger woman and a more present mother. Now, if I could just get those derby girls out of my head while I’m trying to sleep…

“Smashimi” t-shirt by Debbie Lee

Top Ten Reasons Mothers Should Join the Roller Derby

10. Mothers have quick reflexes. Catching a toddler from falling off of the
playground ladder is just one degree away from suddenly jumping over a downed
rollergirl in front of you.

9. Mothers get on the job training. Toddlers constantly demonstrate proper
hair pulling, smacking, biting, wrestling, and eye-poking techniques.

8. Mothers deserve to have an appropriate time and place for their own temper

7. Mothers have good balance. Balancing on four wheels is a hell of a lot easier
than balancing a baby on your back, a toddler on your hip, three sacks of groceries
and a bulging diaper bag in your left hand and a smoothie in your right.

6. Mothers have high pain thresholds. Bruises, strawberries, and abrasions
just don’t compare to labor and delivery.

5. Mothers are used to getting yelled at. “Smashimi scores again!”
is a welcome change from “I.Said.I.Want.A.Juicebox.NOW!”

4. Mothers were born to multitask. Checking email while doing laundry and talking
on the phone is basic training for doing crossovers while looking over your
shoulder and plotting your next tactical move.

3. Mothers are expert negotiators. If you can convince your toddler to eating
broccoli without alternating bites of ice cream, you can convince your team
to kick ass.

2. Mothers like to play dress up too. Short skirts and striped tights are a
welcome change to spit-up covered velour sweatsuits.

1. Mothers know how to stick to a schedule. If you can get your kid to sleep
through the night and know exactly what s/he ate in the last 24 hours as well
as what it looked like coming out, you’ll have no problem fitting 2 practices
and a committee meeting into your life each week