moving up

Whenever someone from my non-derby life starts to ask me questions about my derby life, I inevitably immediately disappoint them.

Quick aside: I feel the need to explain that once you join roller derby your life splits right in two. You have the life you know, the one with your friends and family and loved ones, and then there’s this other life that your friends and family and loved ones are completely baffled by. One where you have a second set of friends and family and loved ones, but these people all spend time physically harming each other. You spend an extraordinary amount of time with these people, and sometimes you never learn their real names. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about the same questions, in the same order, that I always get from a non-derby person, one who’s familiar enough with the sport to ask me the questions they’re excited about.

1. I heard you play roller derby. Is that true?
Yes. Why are you laughing?

2. What’s your skate name?
May Q. Holla. Number Fifty Dollars.

3. What’s your team name?

It’s number three where I disappoint them. Every time.

I’m not on a team.

4. Oh. Are you new?

No. I started skating with LADD in May of ’08.

5. Yikes.

Let me explain how the LA Derby Dolls work. You have five teams. It might be confusing from only watching Whip It!, but you don’t get to walk in and just be on a team. I learned that this does happen for some of you derby girls out there, ones in smaller leagues. You show up and get to skate. I am jealous. Here you start in something called Fresh Meat. These are the rookie players. It’s about thirty to fifty girls, where twice a week you meet to learn skills, like stopping and jumping and falling. (Yes, falling is a skill. I’m very good at it.) In Fresh Meat you learn how to play the game, and you get to play in the Baby Doll Brawls, which are exhibition games to show off how you’re doing. To move up from Fresh Meat you have to try out for Subpool. Subpool is an even smaller group of skaters who are trying to prove themselves worthy of getting drafted for a team. They attend team practices and sometimes get picked to sub in bouts for players who are injured or unable to attend.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in Fresh Meat and seen a new girl start up all, “Hey, what’s this roller derby thing? It seems cool.” And then two months later she’s kicking ass all over the track and then BAM. She’s in subpool and on a team somehow before the end of the week. It can get frustrating.

These days the league is so large that now you have to tryout to get into Fresh Meat. You have to already know how to skate, how to stop, how to maneuver around the banked track before you even get to be in Fresh Meat! We started something called Derby Por Vida, classes for people who are looking to learn the basics, who are interested in either roller derby or the workout roller derby provides. You can go there just to have your gym be super hardcore, or to train yourself for the next Fresh Meat tryout date.

I was in the very last group of girls who could join Fresh Meat without having to tryout. I’m lucky that way, because I don’t think I successfully nailed a t-stop until November of ’09.

Subpool tryouts happen two or three times a year. It’s a super-aggressive, seemingly non-stop skatefest of skills. You are watched by an evaluator as you execute all of your stops, falls, jumps, blocks, hits, and endurance. There’s also a scrimmage portion where you must play every position, one jam after another, pretty much until your lungs want to pop. Afterward you sit with your evaluator, and she gives you feedback on how you’re doing as a skater. You leave, exhausted, and about half an hour later your phone rings. Then you learn: are you being asked to subpool, or are you still a Fresh Meat?

I’ve tried out for subpool before. The first time I’d barely skated with the league, and I can’t even imagine how ridiculous I must have looked out there. I remember Suzy Snakeyes being extremely kind, peppering her criticism with, “But you’re a killer, and if you keep it up, one day everybody’s going to be scared of you.”

My special derby skill is a little embarrassing, honestly. It’s that I don’t give up. No matter how much I’m losing, no matter how many times I’ve tripped and fallen in a row, no matter how far behind I am from the rest of the pack, or struggling to gain lead jammer position, or even tripping over my own skates, from day one I’ve heard the trainers say, sometimes to each other when they think I can’t hear: “That girl really doesn’t give up.”

There are times when it feels like a “special” medal. “I try my best!” It’s always, “See? Holla keeps trying. She gets back up. Look, this time it even worked out so she won!” Yes, when you never give up, sometimes someone else does, and then you win. It’s true. Sometimes when you never give up, you just end up being the last one standing. And sometimes, when you never give up, it shows everybody you really give a shit. I think that’s something I’ve shown as a skater. I really do care out there. And I really, really, really don’t want to suck.

It’s because of school, I know. I just want the trainers to be proud of me. It’s really no different than how I felt in the ninth grade. Coaches, managers, trainers — I just want them to think, “Well, that May Q. Holla. She really listens. She tries really hard. I’m glad she’s in my class.”

My second subpool tryout was about nine months later. I’d been gone from the track for about a month due to work, which is a terrible mistake. You miss two practices and it’s like you’re skating in quicksand the next time you get up there. I remember being unable to catch my breath after the “20 laps in 5 minutes” portion, which is one of the first two skills. I was hurting during that tryout. My skate came untied twice. It was kind of a hot mess. They only took four girls into subpool that time. Out of twenty.

Then I got a little busy, and was focusing on the Baby Doll Brawls. I really liked playing in those games, training for a bout. It’s so much fun to watch a team form, to play the sport, to improve by learning strategy, to find out what exactly I’m good at in the actual game. Because through all of this, I was still freaking lousy at a t-stop.

I skipped the next tryout, feeling I was a little too injured. And to be honest, I didn’t think I was good enough for subpool. They say, “To be in subpool, you’d better be ready to play in an actual bout tomorrow. Can you do that?” I didn’t think I could. Any encouragement I’d get from a fellow player I chalked up to them being nice. I was frustrated with the plateau I’d reached in my own game.

I don’t know about anybody else, but my personal relationship with roller derby is constantly swinging from one extreme to the other.

I love this! I will never quit!
I am terrible at this. I should quit.
I can’t quit! This is like a family to me!
A family of people who wish you would quit. You are terrible at this.
But I’m getting better! I’m not a quitter!
But I hurt. Everywhere.
But it’s fun!
But I’m getting better!
But it still hurts! Every time! You wake up every day in pain! Idiot!

Here’s how bad. Recently during all this steroid conversation on the news, I heard that one of the reasons athletes take steroids is because it makes you recover more quickly from injuries. And my immediate thought was, “That would be awesome. Oh, my God. I have to quit derby before I try steroids.”

This has become harder as I’ve gotten older. And I’m someone who never thinks of myself as someone getting older. But I have to be reminded when my shoulders click every time I raise my arms, or my knees crackle when I stand up, or when the girl next to me taking off her gear says she’s going to miss the next practice because she has a final.

But I kept going to practice. I kept trying to be better. I wanted to know if I’d ever be good enough, if I could continue to improve, or if I’d hit some kind of wall. I’m a comedy writer, you guys. I never really forget that. But there are times when my feet move the right way and I skate past a girl who’s normally three times faster than I am, and for like, sixty seconds: I am an athlete.

For a girl who has an inhaler in her purse and goes into panic attacks whenever she sees someone riding a bike without a helmet, this is kind of a big deal.

So two Baby Doll Brawls (two victories, once where I co-captained), one thousand falls and one novel later, I felt ready to try out for subpool. I knew I needed to at least try, to get an accurate evaluation of how I’ve improved over the past year. I knew there was a chance I’d get into subpool, and if I didn’t, it would let me know that perhaps I really had hit my limit, that I could maybe skate Fresh Meat or Derby Por Vida a few times a week and let the Doll Factory become my hardcore gym. That I could back away from the goal of being on a team.

I signed up. Third time’s the charm, right?

It was. Yesterday I made it into subpool.

I stuck around the track after getting the good news. Eighty girls were trying out for Fresh Meat, vying for some of the very spots my fellow subpool skaters and me had vacated only an hour earlier. Some of the girls trying out already know how to t-stop! Some of them, just like how I was back in May of ’08, could barely stay upright on their skates.

As I watched them practice seemingly endless circles around the track it hit me for the first time: tomorrow night I won’t be going to Fresh Meat practice. How weird. Tuesdays and Sundays have been derby days for almost two years now, and suddenly I have a new skating schedule (Yes, Tara and Dave: this means I’m home for 1 vs 100!) I have even more practices to attend and a whole new level of expectation placed on me. I proved myself as a freshie that I was ready to skate in subpool. But now I have to prove that I’m good enough to be drafted onto a team. I have two months [edited to add: I was wrong! It’s six months!] to show them I belong there, or they can send me back to Fresh Meat.

I’m nervous. I’m scared. It’s going to hurt. They are going to hit me and I’m going to fall. I’m going to fall a lot.

But I’m going to get back up and haul ass, hoping that they see how much I want to be there, and just how much I want to make them proud.

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