The Unexpected Joy of Roller Derby

Photograph by Kelly Jane

In my thirty-four years of life, I have spent a good deal of energy planning, managing, and orchestrating the details of my days. I have worked hard to ensure likely outcomes, strategically planned for the best- and worst-case scenarios, studied the habits of highly effective people, and self-helped my way through many a season. But in the past year, my joy has come largely in the ability to embrace life’s surprises. 

A little over a year ago we packed our bags and moved our young family to the other side of the world. We had never set foot on New Zealand soil before the day we arrived with our four children — ages 7, 6, 2, and 7 months old. To further complicate our international move, we chose to embark on this adventure during a fairly unstable season of our family life. We had run ourselves into the ground with the slow and steady addition of well-intentioned things, and we were looking for an exit strategy. We opted for a risky one.

Moving to New Zealand was easily the scariest decision of my life. It also ended up being the thing that got my heart beating again. Everything did not go perfectly. There were a lot of surprises along the way, and not all of them were pleasant. But at some point, I decided to start receiving the unknown with courage and grace, and that has proved to be a good strategy for me. As I stubbornly surrender my instinctive need to control, I find richness in the inevitable uncertainties of life.

One of the more delightful surprises came on a cold August afternoon about a month after we arrived. I was slicing fruit for my always-hungry brood of children when our neighbor stopped by and invited me to watch a demo at a local high school gym. Twice a year, the Sulphur City Steamrollers host a fresh meat training course for women interested in checking out the fastest growing women’s sport in the world: roller derby. My heart beat fast.

From 1998 until 2002, I attended Texas A&M University, in the heart of the Brazos Valley. Forty-five minutes down the road was Brenham, Texas, a small town noted for its brilliant wildflowers and a creamery that pumps out millions of gallons of the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted, Blue Bell. Brenham is also known as the real life inspiration for the fictional town of Bodeen, Texas, home to one of my favorite movie characters, Bliss Cavendar. Bliss is a down-to-earth high school aged waitress who is stuck in a life that isn’t aligned with her gifts or callings. Her well-intentioned mother encourages her participation in pageants but Bliss is drawn to the less “refined” sport of roller derby.

In 2009 when I saw the movie Whip It for the first time I was almost 30, married with two kids and living in Delaware. I decided that if I ever had a real opportunity to play derby, I would take it. However, my life was chaotic and I never really expected my golden moment to arise.

Our life in New Zealand was, by design, a lot slower. We made intentional decisions to create more space in our lives, and implemented them upon arrival. I had a newly procured allotment of free time and was looking to meet new people and get some exercise. Strangely enough, roller derby made sense for this season of my life. So an hour after my neighbor’s visit, I found myself sitting on wooden bleachers in an old gymnasium, nursing my eight-month-old, and watching strong women knock each other to the ground. I put my name on their list and went home grinning.

Over the next two weeks, anticipation grew as I prepared to lace up roller skates for the first time in almost twenty years. I didn’t have any formal skating experience, but, as a kid, I was pretty quick. In the Chicago suburb where I grew up, my elementary school had a semi-annual roller-skating night at a local rink, so every six months, I had the good fortune of attending the Lincoln School Funway Skate Night. I would assemble the perfect outfit, select a matching neon scrunchy, hop in the back of my parents’ station wagon, and mentally prepare for the best night of my life.

The loud music, neon lights, and disco balls were thrilling. I loved skating back and forth between the concession stand, bathroom, lockers, and rink, chatting with friends between laps. But the moment that I waited for with eager expectation came towards the end of the night, right before the final slow skate. The DJ would get on his microphone and announce the races men, women, boys, and then, finally, the girls. My palms would sweat as I waited eagerly for my moment to skate out and put my toes on the black line. When the whistle blew, I’d skate my little heart out — fast on the straightaway, lean into the curve, fast on the straight away, lean into the curve, over the black line, and win.

But despite my elementary school skating prowess and my longstanding affection for Bliss Cavendar, I quickly discovered that I had a lot to learn. It wasn’t just the twenty years out of skates that I had to overcome, but a whole new vocabulary and a set of precise skills to practice. Over the next several months, I learned more about roller skating than I knew there was to learn. Transitions, T-stops, crossovers, turn around toe stops, plows, swoops, knee slides, derby stance, hopping, weaving, whips, packing up..The women I met in the process were a surprisingly diverse bunch, with a wide variety of gifts and talents on and off the track. Derby is a sport for women of all shapes and sizes, making it one of the coolest and most accepting team sports that ladies can be a part of these days.

Every derby girl must pass the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) skills test to become official. After four months of fresh meat training, I passed and became a legitimate member of the Sulphur City Steam Roller’s Motley Crew, subsequently receiving a hot pink jersey, fishnet stockings, and friends with names like “Cold Blooded” and “Princess Die.”

In December, I began training with the team in preparation for Rotorua’s first roller derby bout — Slam Rock 2014 on June 7th at the Rotorua Sportsdrome. One of my teammates gave me a pack of pink leopard striped stickers for my nails. I appreciated the gesture, despite the fact that I had never done my nails with any success. This particular set didn't require nail polish remover or dry time, so the evening before my first bout, I turned on some music and did my best to awkwardly apply them.

As I worked on my nails, anxiety set in, and I began doubting the hours I’d spent training. I decided to meditate on a few Bible verses to combat the growing sense of panic welling up within me. I wracked my brain for something comforting. Maybe a passage on peace, strength, or courage. But the only thing that came to mind was 1 Corinthians 2:9, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” My mind could not have possibly conceived of this scenario — doing my nails the night before a roller derby bout in New Zealand. None of these things were noted on my highly detailed five-year plan.

The following day was by all measures glorious. My kids were dressed in 80s-era glam rock, packed into a retro gymnasium with five hundred other people. Our team emerged from the locker room and skated onto the track. We wore electric pink, leopard striped jerseys with black cap sleeves, shiny black stockings, and derby skins with a thin strip of coordinating pink leopard binding. Disco balls flashed, spotlights twirled, and brightly colored signs of support were specked among the fans. Our “roll-out” song screamed from the speakers, a loud, emphatic anthem: “My heart, my heart, kickstart my heart,” strong words from Mötley Crüe. The rest was a blur. The next thing I remember with any real clarity was sitting in the locker room celebrating our win.

And then just like that, I was back at my kitchen counter cutting fresh fruit for my hungry kids. Most days of the year, I wear worn blue jeans, a soft grey T-shirt, and old tennis shoes — a sharp contrast to my derby attire. I like grey: it suits my personality and my desire to keep things safe and simple. But looking back on my collective experiences, I recognize there is a hot-pink narrative thread that runs throughout my story, stringing together all of the things that thrill me most in this world. It connects me to an adventure that is more exciting than one I have envisioned for myself.

Two years ago when we sat down to make the final decision about our move to New Zealand, I was leaning heavily toward grey — safe and simple. But the hot-pink thread caught the light and its shimmer reminded me that “God has prepared good things for those who love him.” I know that God would have had other good things in store for our family had we chosen grey, but I would have most certainly missed the unexpected joy of roller derby.

“You knit me together in my mother’s womb” . . . with a hot pink thread and a Mötley Crüe bow. “My heart, my heart, kickstart my heart!”

Photograph by Kelly Jane

Liz Fitzgerald Goodgame (a.k.a. “Fearlesss Fitz") is an American “mum” of four, living in New Zealand. She takes lots of photographs, sells lemonade with her kids, and writes about noted moments in the life of her young family. Liz enjoys making bread and delivering hard hits on the derby track.

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