You know that moment when you are inches away from the goals you’ve been working your whole life for when suddenly fate tears the rug out from under you and sends you hurtling into the darkness? That’s how my derby journey began, 2 years before I’d ever heard of the sport.
I was a triathlete a week out from qualifying for the world championships again when I was riding a demo bike in a bike lane. I was passing a wedding when the driver of the limo I thought was empty suddenly opened his door on me, catching my hand as I tried to turn away. My hand absorbed so much of the energy that I hit the ground softly. As I assessed my internal injuries, the driver & his co-worker left me lying there. The coworker told me the accident was my fault and as I hobbled over to the other wedding workers in search of witnesses, the workers huddled up & looked sideways at me like I was Quasimodo.
The accident left me with a crippling condition in my hand that is extremely rare. As I bounced from doctor to doctor searching for answers, the medical community gave me shrugs of “just deal with it,” or worse, “it’s all in your head.” Meanwhile, I was fighting desperately to hang on to the life I had built, believing that I could somehow tough it out and everything would go back to the way it was. Two surgeries later, I was still suffering from chronic pain and sliding into depression as I tried to accept that I could never get back to what I was.
The thing about rare conditions is that you can’t just say their name in public & people will understand what you’re going through. If doctors didn’t believe me, how could a stranger? After all, I looked perfectly normal! My social life was wrapped up in my ability to train & race which meant I wasn’t seeing my friends anymore. And where once I had worked toward grand athletic goals, I now spent my hours online, desperately hoping to find a way back to normalcy. There’s no support groups for what I have so I tried joining a para-athlete group. But when I showed up to one of their activities, unable to fully explain why I thought I might fit, I just felt like an imposter. I wasn’t disabled enough, but I wasn’t fully abled either.
Although my family continued to offer their support, the negativity seeped into my relationships with them too as my world grew smaller and I struggled to get off the couch. I forced myself to go on long walks, but that left me awash in my dark thoughts. On a whim, I dug out my old rollerblades and hit the bike paths. Finally, I’d found an activity that didn’t make my hand hurt! In fact, the wristguard actually helped a bit! But there were not enough miles of path for me and it was still a fight to make myself do it. When I wore my wheels into squares, I went to Skate Ratz and saw videos of roller derby. I didn’t know anything about it but it looked like a lot of fun and you didn’t need hands. I wanted to learn more!
I looked into FoCo Roller Derby and what really got me was the mission statement. Here, spelled out, was everything I had always believed about sport and even better, it was a women’s sport! I wouldn’t be fighting entrenched misogyny like I had in other sports all my life. Bonus!
When I showed up to the New Recruits meeting, I’ll admit I felt a bit out of place. Why would this group accept me when others had not? I didn’t fit any definition of what I thought a roller derby player was but as I watched some of the practice that night, I was mesmerized by how the skaters moved. I wanted to learn how to do that!
Finally, I had found something that forced me to clear my mind completely at every practice, no time to mope about my hand. And it was so engaging that when I was off the rink, I was watching derby videos instead of researching my condition. Instead of fearing the things I couldn’t do, I was striving to learn new things on skates.
But the best part was that I had found a community where I didn’t have to define myself as abled or disabled, just willing. My ability or inability didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was willing to get back up & try again every time I fell down. And though I’d never realized it before, deep down, that was who I have always been.
Some people think that the hardest part of roller derby is the physical aspects of the sport. I would argue that the hardest part is the dedication required to succeed. But with a team like FoCo, that comes easy!