Reflections of a Roller Derby Widow
“It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.” – Frederick Exley
When my girlfriend retired from the Rat City Rollergirls this last November I realized that the time had come for me to form some kind of perspective. I have no idea how I’m going to do it. Women’s flat-track roller derby has been the subplot of our life together since that day in March 2004 when she looked up from her computer and said, “Some girls are starting up a Seattle roller derby league. I think I’d like to try roller derby.”
And I said, “Real good, honey. Don’t hurt yourself,” thus beginning a five-year stretch during which I considered myself lucky if I saw my girlfriend three nights a week.
The boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses of rollergirls jokingly call themselves “Derby Widows.” A Derby Widow must recognize that roller derby isn’t so much a sport as a faith-based initiative, and that in order to keep up with a Rat City Rollergirl, one has to become a willing and eager Rollertarian or Derbocrat. A Derby Widow must sacrifice spontaneous evenings and weekends. He/she must learn some sports massage techniques. A Widow must, ever so patiently, explain the sport – yes, it is a sport — to friends and to co-workers and even to themselves. (The rules of women’s amateur flat-track and banked-track roller derby are surprisingly complex, and are amended yearly.)
Male Derby Widows have additional duties. We have to draw on the innate male desire to root for things – your hometown football team, the USA Olympic Hockey Team, Gryffindor – and use it to temper our heathen desire to see our significant other knocking down other girls. And most important of all, we have to accept that our darling, our sweet, loving, petit flower, could probably whup our ass if she put her mind to it. She could raise an illegal elbow and crush our windpipe, or she could get us in a scissor hold while we sleep and squeeze the life out of us with her iron-band legs, like Famke Janssen in that James Bond movie. Once we arrive at that realization, we never again forget an anniversary or birthday.
I’m not sure I did quite all of that — some of the rules of roller derby still elude me — but I’m content in the stuff I did do. My girlfriend skated with Rat City for one season and coached aspiring rollergirls for another four, and through it all, I was there. I even taught myself sports photography to feel like I was more actively involved in the goings-on. And now that Rat City Rollergirl PamOpticon – her “skate name” should ring familiar to anyone who’s ever read Foucault or done time in a SuperMax – has hung up her skates for good, I find myself in a strange state of mind: I’m wondering how much of me is left at trackside. I’m wondering how much derby I can live without.
I will miss supporting PamOpticon’s Rat City squad Grave Danger against rival squads the Sockit Wenches, the Derby Liberation Front and the Throttle Rockets … even though, at the end of the game, all four teams work together to break down the track, and drink in the same bars. It’s like that Warner Brothers cartoon, y’know – the whistle blows, and the sheep dog and wolf stop fighting, punch their time cards, shake hands and go home. I’ve never known rivalries that could turn on and off like that, and I wonder if I’ll ever see anything like that again.
I will miss the strange ends to which roller derby brought me. It took me to a state park on the Washington peninsula, where one of the teams held an overnight character-building retreat whose wild particulars I cannot reveal until the statute of limitations runs out. It found me driving a rented SUV packed with rollergirls – a dozen of them, as I recall – around Las Vegas on a high-speed scavenger hunt, and then having to explain to my parents the following day how the car’s windows and ceiling had become smeared with mascara and lipstick. And roller derby drove me to stand before a room full of rollergirls and do a striptease to the theme from “Jeopardy.” Yeah, sure, it was derby that made me do that. Why not?
Most of all, I’ll miss the skaters, refs, scorekeepers and volunteers. I’ve gone to countless Rat City-hosted parties; have had rollergirls conduct league meetings in my living room; they’ve even helped me to move my furniture. Rollergirls are a fascinatingly diverse group — programmers, journalists, paramedics, gay, straight, married, single – and I am better for knowing them. No one I’ve met through Rat City or any of the other Northwest roller derby leagues has ever been paid a nickel or gotten through a season without doing themselves some kind of heinous physical damage, and the fact that they keep doing it bolsters my faith in faith itself. For five years they’ve paid heavily out of their own pockets and have suffered broken bones, concussions and worse to accomplish two things: to play a sport they love, and to have other people watch it and enjoy it. Sport can’t have a more pure definition than that, either from the players’ or spectators’ side.
So here I am, at another strange end – but I confess that I’m not at all sure I’m done. Rat City would like to have me continue on as a bout photographer, the former Miss PamOpticon thinks I should stick with them, and I think that I’ve still got enough faith to cheer Seattle back to the top of the national rankings. If I do continue on with the Rat City Rollergirls, I won’t be a derby widow but a derby fan. I think I’m ready to give full-on Rat City fandom a try, even if it means I’ve finally got to learn that damn rule set.
“Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Rollergirls,” a documentary film by Lainy Bagwell and Lacey Leavitt, is now available at Amazon.com. It’s furnished me with something I never thought I’d have: a credit on the Internet Movie Database.