The Birth of Penny Pain

Photo of Meryl in wrist guards, knee pads, and skates.

Those wrist guards are on backwards.

My interest in roller derby started, like so many other of my interests, with a movie I once saw. Five years ago, in November 2009, “Whip It!” came out, and my then-boyfriend and I saw it. That Christmas I asked for derby skates, even though I didn’t expect anyone to actually get them. Owen and Jamie did, and I started skating at a rink by where I used to live in Columbus.

I love skating. I am not a graceful person and I am not a fast runner but I feel stronger and bolder and faster on skates than I ever do on my feet.

Like the joy I experienced when I realized I loved riding my bike this summer, I feel similarly when I lace up my skates. I already knew I loved skating but I had forgotten how great and freeing it felt. We can always still manage to surprise ourselves and continue to let ourselves be surprised. I love that about life. I hope I always feel this way.

I’ve been subscribed to Derby Lite’s emails for a while now. Around the time of my breakup last winter I toyed with the idea of taking a class but decided I couldn’t afford it. That was absolutely true then, when I lived alone in an apartment I couldn’t afford and still had my old job that didn’t pay well enough for me to stay there. But when I saw an email last month with the subject “FREE ‘Get In Gear’ Day for Derby Lite: Chicagoland,” I knew I wanted in.

“How long have you been thinking about joining Derby Lite?” the email read. “Is 2015 your year?”

Yes, I thought. Yes.

I say yes now, to most things. Yes to biking. Yes to reading my essays in front of audiences. Yes to climbing the Sears Tower. Yes to talking to strangers. Yes to being brave. Yes to going to Portland by myself for a week. Yes, yes, yes.

May 2015 be the same, if I can be so lucky.

Image of the outside of Derby Lite in Oak Park.

Derby Lite in Oak Park.

I drove to a roller rink/gym in Oak Park on Saturday morning for the intro class. I walked in 10 minutes late, but a pretty, short-haired blonde woman asked me if I was there for Get in Gear. I smiled shyly and nodded. She told me almost immediately that the skates I’d brought were not going to work and I felt disappointed. Part of the reason I was even there was because I already had the most expensive piece of gear. She said I could borrow knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, and a helmet like everyone else and see how the skates went, so I suited up with the rest of the women who had shown up.

There were six or seven of us, all at varying levels of skate experience and roller derby knowledge. Some had already registered for an intro class and some, like me, were still mulling it over. We were given a rundown on the gear and how to put it on, then asked to sign a waiver before rolling onto the rink. Some had never skated before, or not since they were kids.

I had felt hungry to get on the rink since touching my skates while sitting on the rink’s bench, carefully lacing them up. Mine looked out of place here, bright white with purple rubber front brakes and purple plastic wheels. The borrowed, proper derby skates the other women wore were black and orange, uniform. I’d been told the brakes on mine would prove insufficient, but I was skeptical.

Out on the rink, I felt amazing. The pads made me feel foolishly brave, even though I knew I was still afraid of actually falling. I skated faster than I ever have in my life, feeling so strong and so full of energy.

After about 30 minutes, the tall, short-haired blonde leader, Queen B, led us in some drills. The first was stopping: That’s when I realized she had been right about my skates. Everyone around me was able to stop by letting down the front of their skates in an easy toe stop. When I tried, my front brake skidded bumpily on the rink’s floor like a tire going over a rumble strip. I frowned. She’d been dead on just from seeing them.

Then we practiced falling drills. Queen B showed us a two-point fall first, with one knee going down and then the next. We all looked at each other when she told us to try it, unsure it was a great idea. But we did it, one knee first, and then the other — we couldn’t feel a thing through our thick, borrowed knee pads. We moved on the a four-point fall (knee, knee, elbow, elbow). She described a six-point fall and told us to click our wrists together first.

“If your wrists make a clicking sound, you’ve got your wrist guards on right,” she said.

I moved my wrists together and heard no click. She saw, and pointed out I had my guards on… backwards. Like a boss.

I quickly corrected them and joined my squad members in our first six-point fall and felt nothing.

It was awesome.

After we did some more drills, our first-ever roller derby lesson was over. I told Queen B I wanted to register for class and buy their discounted gear, but that I wasn’t sure I could afford new skates, too. I knew I couldn’t — I wasn’t totally convinced I could swing both registration and gear at the same time. She told me I could keep using my skates for the class if I wanted, and I was grateful. I suspect I’ll need to invest in some new ones with better brakes soon, but for now I know I’ve got the very basics I need.

I can’t express to you how great it felt to be on skates again. Maybe my uncle’s skate and cycling abilities have finally taken hold in me this year? Probably not — but it feels amazing to be (kind of) good at something. I can skate. I am comfortable skating. I want nothing more than to be skating right now.

I’m glad I said yes to this.

Image of my white and purple skates.

My white and purple skates.