The Fellowship of the Rink: From Referee to Derby Skater

My Derby name is Gimli.  I’ve been asked to write a blog about my dual experiences as a newbie… first, trying to be a referee, and later, trying to be a skater. Both experiences have been incredibly rewarding, and also extremely challenging.

About a year and a half ago, I found out that Bangor was starting a Roller Derby League.  I had never seen Derby, and had no idea what the game meant, but I had loved skating outdoors when I lived in Florida, and I thought it might be fun. The coach was super nice, and told me that although I was too late to join the newbie class, I could learn to be a referee . I just wanted to be a part of the exciting new league, so I agreed to learn . At first, I absolutely loved everything.  I was allowed to work out with the team, and I learned how to skate faster, how to fall, how to stop, how to do a plank, etc. I really felt like I had stumbled upon the best sport in the world. I loved it so much, I bought a pair of skates.

Soon, several of the women progressed to more of the advanced techniques… how to block, and some of them began to scrimmage. At that point I was supposed to be learning the rules of the game, and how to referee the scrimmages. This part of the experience was extremely challenging for me. The league was just forming, and there wasn’t really any guidance at first for how we referees should proceed. I had never even seen a bout….and looking back, I realize that if I had been really serious in my promise to become a referee, I should have been watching bouts on the internet, or perhaps even going to actual bouts in other cities. I should have been figuring out what that enormous folder of WFTDA rules actually meant in a real game. The rules seemed unbelievably complicated to me…and the hand signals were dramatic and strange. So I tried to learn the hand signals, and I tried to figure out what the rules meant, and I tried to skate around the outside of the rink and call some of the major and minor penalties as the teams began to scrimmage. Mostly, I got whiplash. Once in a blue moon, I saw someone cut the track…. and actually seeing it and then calling it was a major accomplishment for me. We did have a reprieve….just after we began to wear our striped shirts, an experienced player, who had played in another city, started coming to practices. She wasn’t allowed to scrimmage for her first few weeks, so she kindly helped us begin to learn to be referees…she pointed out what we were supposed to be looking for, and really began to explain our roles. For a while, reffing started to make sense to me … at the time, I thought the wonderful woman’s name was “ Scar.”

The culmination of my first Derby experience was the day that all the new skaters took their WFTDA minimum skills test. It was exciting and fulfilling for each woman to demonstrate the skills she had mastered, and to try to skate her 25 laps. I was allowed to watch from the sidelines, and I had a poster, and cheered my teammates on….but I had this empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Though I was happy for the women on the team, I didn’t feel like I had really challenged myself. My personality is somewhat shy, and as a result, I hadn’t gotten to know the women as well as I might have…. I honestly didn’t look forward to calling penalties on them until I had been through the same trials and hardships that they were experiencing. I guess I truly felt isolated, that day….and I think it was a combination of my own shyness and my supposed role as a referee, which I was felt I was terrible at. So that was the end of my Derby experience. The next day, before the Christmas break, I gave the team my letter, and I put my skates in the closet. I actually considered taking them to Goodwill, but couldn’t bring myself to part with them.

Eight or nine months went by, and I never even thought about skating. I had grown up skating outdoors on sidewalks and streets in sunny Florida, and revisiting an indoor rink depressed me. It wasn’t something I was going to do unless my daughter had a birthday party invitation or something….but a skater who had known me at my first Derby attempt saw me at the grocery, and mentioned that a new team was being formed. Practice was on Friday nights at the Old Town YMCA. It was a chance for me to try again …. Luckily, I hadn’t given my skates away. The coach was someone I knew from my attempt at refereeing….it was the same wonderful woman who had helped us first figure things out, and her name wasn’t “ Scar” but “ Star” or “ Stargazer.” I had been calling her the wrong name all along …..

We started out learning what I had already learned…to skate faster, cross overs,stops, falls, pushing and pulling. But I knew that this time, I would be attempting to progress in my skating until I was possibly able to scrimmage , and that felt really different. As the months have passed, I have gotten to know my teammates more personally than I did as a referee. I’m not sure why or how this has occurred….maybe because I’m out on the floor with them more … this means I’m doing the same things they are, I’m hanging on to them and they’re hanging on to me, I’m feeling my legs ache just like they do, and when we all collapse ( some of us more dramatically than others) at the end of a work out, I feel exhausted too. Somehow, it’s important. It’s different for each person, but I think for me, actually being a skater has helped me come out of my shell.

The physical requirements for scrimmaging are pretty hard, at least for me. Flex keeps reminding us that we need to exercise much more off skates, and honestly, I think that unless you are already an athlete, you have to really bring yourself up to a whole new level of fitness to participate safely in this sport. You need strength and endurance. I’ve tried running ( a very little so far ) and doing core-strengthening exercises, but I’m not ready to be an advanced skater yet, and I might never get there. Amazingly, that no longer matters to me. Derby is something that is bigger and better than anything I could do alone….it makes me feel like I am part of something greater than myself. I think that I could have eventually arrived at this “ feeling” or this realization as a referee….I think it just became apparent more quickly to me as I started to become a skater.

I have met all different kinds of women, each unique and wonderful, each with special talents and insights, and each with their own skating goals. I don’t think we all have to bout to be a part of the magic….and it honestly is somehow magic. I hope everyone can be lucky enough to be a part of something like Derby, even for a little while….it’s a place where you can be yourself, no matter how quirky; where you can try and fail and try again ; where you are encouraged and rewarded with unconditional regard. Derby can be a starting place, or a finishing place. I’m not your typical idea of a Derby girl….my hair is going white, I have wrinkles, and I don’t look so hot in my shorts and fishnet stockings….but when I skate around the track, there are definitely times when it feels like I am actually flying….alongside friends.