Getting Fit to Going Derby

I remember when Ronald Reagan was the president, when round nylon purses with unicorns and rainbows were all the rage, and I had a crush on Magnum P.I. Junior high school was a challenging slog through popularity contests I could never compete in, and I was on my third different school in four years. The one place where I felt any level of competence or belonging was at the skating rink. I could literally skate circles around most of my peers. I felt graceful, and fast, and free on roller skates. I could do compulsory figures and I was competing in dances like the Glide Waltz and the Progressive Tango to music pumping out of an electric organ. Japan was selling its first CD players while I practiced in my carport to songs recorded on cassettes and looked forward to the next time that I could roll out onto that smooth, wooden floor with a strong partner by my side.

Three decades later, I had a body mass index in the high 30’s and an alarming lack of endurance. I wanted to get fit, but every approach seemed beyond my ability to start. Zumba looked like great fun, but I couldn’t find anything to wear that didn’t look likely to get me into some embarrassing YouTube video. Yoga had some appeal, but local classes were scheduled at a time more suitable to milkmen. Then, my stepdaughter’s friend posted a photo on her Facebook page of a line of women on roller skates in a crosswalk in downtown Bangor. She bragged about fitting back into her favorite old skirt for the first time in ages thanks to roller derby. I offered some encouraging comment to that “young lady”, wistfully recalling my competitive skating days but never dreaming that it would turn into an invitation.

Less than a week later, perhaps because I had not had time to talk myself out of such folly, I was renting a pair of figure skates, donning borrowed knee and elbow pads, and stepping out with Central Maine Derby’s Fitness Skate at Great Skates in Bangor. My husband was standing by with a camera in hand to record that momentous occasion when I returned to my youth. Like many car-racing spectators, he was secretly hoping to watch me wreck and maybe catch it on camera. I took a few trial laps around the rink as some of the more experienced derby girls offered encouragement and support. Despite my heavy weight, I was gliding along and feeling the air on my cheeks and in my hair. That old sensation of freedom and exhilaration returned like a familiar friend, and I was smiling.

During that first night, we did individual and paired exercises to build skills like stopping, turning, stepping, and crossovers. We did stretches to start and finish and squeezed in some work on the floor to strengthen core muscles. This was derby without the contact, and every level of ability was truly welcomed and encouraged. I found a new friend who was just a little bit older than me. We practiced backwards skating, using one another for balance, and we egged one another on. At the end of the evening, I had pushed myself well beyond any place I had been in years, but I’d had so much fun doing it that I didn’t realize I was sore until I sat down to unlace my skates.

Friends, colleagues and family couldn’t help but hear the groaning over the next few days, but they also couldn’t miss the grin on my face. When I whispered loudly to them, “I’m skating with the derby girls,” they were just as flabbergasted as I felt. “But you’re a grandmother, a harp player, a woman in her FORTIES, aren’t you afraid you’ll get hurt?” I told them, “Well, yes, every sport has its risks, but we don’t do any contact, this is just fitness.”

I should have seen where this was going when I bought my own swanky speed skates just two weeks later on a road trip to Portland for my birthday. I picked out a hot pink helmet with matching skull-and-crossbones socks. I swore up and down that I was only ever going to do it for fitness. Perhaps I would learn to be a referee and volunteer for the league when they started to compete, but that was the extent of it. My “harp parts” were too precious to risk in the tumult of blocking, hitting, and bouting.

As the weeks went by, I started to grow stronger, faster, and more flexible. The other women and men skating for fitness were getting to be my friends, and there was a delightful sense of belonging and acceptance that drew me into this community. Emphasis was placed on safety, well-being, and pacing yourself, and while there was a playful sense of competition, it wasn’t pitting us against one another, it was pushing us against our own limitations. After six weeks of fitness skate, I had lost almost an inch as measured by the Velcro on my wrist guards.

One day in November, three months into the fitness experience, I went to an advanced practice to begin learning how to referee. I filled out several pages of forms to be a volunteer for Central Maine Derby, and along with my husband, I started helping with the officiating of a scrimmage. It took me five minutes to figure out that I couldn’t be a bystander, or a ref, or a photographer. There was no way I could just watch. I handed my whistle back to the volunteer coordinator and approached the coach. “Stargazer, I can’t be a volunteer. I just can’t do it.” She gave me a hug and said, “So you’re going to join us, then?”

After testing through my basic skills, ensuring that I could fall safely, jump over obstacles, and maintain a satisfactory speed for five minutes without stopping, I was permitted to move up to contact level. Last week, I started learning how to hit my new friends with my hips and shoulders. It’s the most fun I’ve had getting healthy, and the best time I’ve ever had getting bruises. My “elder” friend is in the league, too, and she’s hot on my wheels as we encourage one another. I’m two sizes smaller than when I started last August, and my circle of friends is ten times bigger. I am HarpPoon, and I am on a roll.