Breaks and Bruises - Life On Team Injured
Roller derby is a tough sport. It conjures images of players crashing into each other, rolling over each other, and slamming into the floor. This doesn’t compare to the battery that learning to play and grueling practices can bring. The danger can push people away from playing, but it can also draw people in. I was drawn to derby for its toughness for sure. I liked the idea of getting to knock around and be knocked around by other people. There is something honest and decisive about the physical interaction. I liked that I could hit people constructively and teach myself how be better, stronger, and faster. To play derby is to accept the inevitable injuries that are part of the sport.
In derby it is never a matter of “if” but of “when”. I’ve stopped counting how many times I’ve pulled a muscle, bruised myself, or come away from a scrimmage covered in scratches from someone else’s pads. Injury is a part of this sport but once we get a taste of that action out on the track, once we hear the whistles and the sound of skates scraping and rolling across the floor, the sound of bodies knocking into each other, we wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. The “derby kisses” we find on our shins, our hips, or anywhere else give us a real sense of accomplishment. They tell us that we’ve pushed ourselves to work harder and to take risks.
There are the minor injuries. Ones we quickly become accustomed to as we navigate our way into derby play. It’s the Big Injuries that we talk about; the bone breaks, the muscle tears, and the concussions. When they happen it is show stopping. Everyone will, if not injured big themselves, witness a collision gone wrong or a fall gone awry for someone else. I was 6 months into my derby career when I took on my Big Injury.
I had just played my first rostered game in Decatur over the weekend and was heading into a regulation scrimmage 4 days later. I was pumped, high on “I CAN DO THIS” juice from my first big game and win of my derby career. I couldn’t wait for this scrimmage and the chance to keep honing my skills against the best players on my team and work toward my next rostered game. We were a few minutes from halftime and it had been tough as always but fun as hell. I was encouraged to take the star and jam next. I was hesitant not for fear of what would happen but because I just didn’t really like jamming. I much preferred to block and felt much more confident there. Knowing that jamming, despite my hesitations, would only help to improve my skills, I grabbed the star and slapped it on my helmet, heading out to take my place behind the line. My heart pounding as I readied myself for the whistle.
The whistle blew and I charged into the pack, trying to push my way through the seemingly immovable wall of Syndicate blockers in front of me. I knew I had a tough job ahead of me and looked around frantically for my pivot in the event that I needed to make a star pass. I was pushing into the first turn and making minimal headway when the blockers broke up a little and I found myself on the inside line tangling with just one person. As I pushed against her, thinking I might actually have a chance to get around her and get out of the pack to make my first pass, my skate locked into hers. I was desperately trying to unlock my skate and get around her when suddenly, a hit came in from the side. Everything moved in slow motion after that. I felt a ‘pop pop pop’ in my ankle and shrank to the ground, whispering obscenities to myself
I knew instantly it was broken. Being an adventurous yet clumsy child, I’d dealt with a dozen or so sprained ankles growing up and this felt nothing like that dull throbbing ache. It felt like jelly. The lack of pain was terrifying. The entire rink grew silent as dozens of knee pads hit the floor and our Athletic Trainer ran toward me. Another recovering injured skater made her way out to sit down next to me, hold my hand and comfort me as the bad news unfolded. I lay with my face to the ground trying to hold back tears, though not from pain (adrenaline is a hell of a drug apparently). I knew at that moment, as I lay there listening to the caring and loving whispers of my teammates, as my skate was carefully removed and a splint put on, that all of my hopes for a fantastic rookie season were gone.
I was scared, disappointed, and really angry. I had transformed from this fiery ball of passion and energy to this crumpled mass surrounded by scared sad faces in a near ominous silence. I knew there would be surgery and then recovery and after that rehab to get through, just to be able to walk normally again, let alone skate. At that moment it felt as though all of that momentum, all of that hard work I’d put in, was all for nought. That maybe I wasn’t meant to be out there like I thought I was, maybe this was all I was able to do when it came to my derby career, that this was it, no more skating.
But it wasn’t. Recovery was not easy but I was fortunate that it only took about four and a half months from the break to being back on skates again. It helped that I can be a disgustingly positive person and when it comes to my passions, I have more drive in me than Ryan Gosling. But there were days that I sat alone and cried in my apartment. Living in a second floor rear walkup with no elevator and steep stairs meant I couldn’t leave my apartment to even take out the trash without someone’s help, it began to feel like a prison. Whenever I got really down or felt really discouraged, my team was only a message away. There were homemade lasagna deliveries, pizza orders, and movie nights. There were cakes, pies, and evenings spent just talking, as well as rides to Target where I would drive around in one of those rascal scooters collecting all my goods and wares.
I’ve never been one to easily depend on others but the thing about being on a team is that you have to let go of that control and trust them both on and off the track. The Outfit encouraged me throughout my recovery, cheered me on when I started in my boot, and were over the moon when that boot came off and I was wearing two shoes again. The hugs and cheers at my first practice back, skating to the side with our Athletic Trainer as I relearned all of those skills from before and taught my body how to maneuver on skates again, I will never forget.
I’ve been back skating now for as long as I’d been out and I can honestly say I feel more confident, more sure of myself, and better than I was before my ankle break. Big Injury doesn’t have to be the end. There are plenty of people in my life who think I’m crazy for going back to a sport that landed me in an operating room with a bunch of metal in my leg, and the possibility of more to come. I am still scared sometimes. I think “what if…” each time I lace up my skates and head out onto the track. But that’s the thing about derby; once you fall in love with it, you never want to leave it. It’s a part of who you are. I even got myself a little reminder shortly after I started skating again, a tattoo of a robot derby girl on the inside of of my ankle between the scars of where my new metal pieces now reside (her name is Rhonda Swantron and I love her).
Any player that’s been through a serious injury can relate. When a Big Injury occurs, it will push you into someone stronger and more resilient than you were before. You’re going to get through it and your team is going to be there with you for every single painful step it takes to get there. If you haven’t been through it, I truly hope you never do, but if by some bad luck, bad fall, or bad hit you find yourself among Team Injured, please know that all of that hard work and momentum is never all for nought.