My fingers fumbled with a well-worn lace as I knotted the first boot. I took a deep breath before moving onto the second, shaking slightly, a nauseating sensation of anxiety bubbling away in the pit of my stomach.
I’ve never really been one to step out of line, although I’ve always harboured the desire to. I worry too much about being late, or missing deadlines, or being perceived as being rude to people. As a teen and into my early-twenties, I was heavily impacted by what society considered to be the norm. In my efforts to find a comfortable balance, I was a cautious outcast who listened to rock music, wore outrageous eyeshadow and thick, black eyeliner, and got tattoos; but also worried about how my peers saw me: was I too fat? Was I wearing too much make-up? Why wouldn’t my hair stay straight?! I’d always yearned for that rebellious streak, but so often remained too anxious to take the leap to the other side and embracing, well, me.
It was with a tightening knot in my chest that I first went along to roller derby practice. Having just moved to a new city, I wanted to meet new people, get fit, but most importantly do something for myself. I had felt confident upon signing up, and my cool lasted right up until I reached the changing room and was handed the battered safety gear. At first, I thought it may have been the damp smell of someone else’s sweat clinging to the wrist guards that made me feel uneasy, but it soon became clear that I was nervous, bordering on terrified. As a grown adult putting on roller skates to play a fast-paced full-contact sport, well aware of the risk of injury or concussion, I knew I was about to test the limits of my comfort zone.
I had researched the sport extensively after signing up for the taster sessions and discovered that newbies are often referred to as “fresh meat”. I found something deeply unnerving about those connotations, perhaps because they reflected something honest for me. I was entering into this completely soft, unhardened. It proved to be the thing to toughen me up.
Roller derby is all about non-conformity – for the players, for the community, and for society on a larger scale. It acts as a voice or form of expression for people from all backgrounds, building a truly supportive network for anyone who is bold enough to get involved, and speaks out loudly against oppression when confronted by it. In an era of divisiveness and building walls, it’s about tearing them down and building each other up instead.
I hadn’t expected to feel such a sense of belonging in the heart of my derby team. A slower learner than many, the coaches continued offering encouragement, showing me that I could push myself further than I ever realised was possible. It quickly became clear that there is no “sorry” in roller derby, as I was scolded for apologising for getting in the way of hits. Every time I fell, I picked myself up again and kept pushing. There was no failure here, and certainly no judgement.
I also hadn’t expected the sport to impact my daily life. I walk taller, talk louder, and speak out. I have a firmer hold of my convictions, as I know I have a valid voice and am confident enough to speak freely. It had never occurred to me that in my life before derby, I would shrink down to fill the smallest possible space, not wanting to be an inconvenience. Now, I fill those spaces – I own them. I embrace the shape and build of my body as much as I embrace the bruises and blisters that I’ve earned along the way. As a woman in the 21st century, is there anything more rebellious than finally being comfortable in your own skin?
It’s in this growth that I’ve finally become that rebel I always dreamed to be. I’ve been lifted so high by my peers – and enjoy lifting them in return – that the anxiety slips away whenever I put my skates on. My fingers still fumble as I tie my laces, and there is still a sense of dread flipping wildly in my stomach as I fasten my helmet and stand up onto my wheels, but it all slips away as I push myself over the lines and onto the track.