I arrived outside the Wagon Wheel forty-five minutes early.
Making the trek from the heart of Denver, to a place that can only politely be described as the boondocks, through rush hour traffic is hard to time properly.
I sat parked in the shade of the old building and admired the large cracks in the white stuccoed walls. The words Wagon Wheel Skating Rink had been nailed to the side in rust-colored wooden letters, probably sometime in the ’70s as evinced by the similarly hued shag carpet plastered to the walls inside.
I’d been coming out here to the middle of nowhere, a farm patch sandwiched between soil and sky, faithfully for three months. Every Sunday evening I strapped on my quad skates and endured the blistering summer heat and boys’ locker room scent because I was yearning for something. I kept coming because it was filling up that hole inside me with something I’d lost. Or maybe it was releasing the waters that had built up against a dam within me that had finally threatened to burst. Maybe it was both.
Over the past year I had gone through a battle with depression that forced me to take some time off from college and sort myself out. Even though I knew I couldn’t help it, I still felt like a failure. I had re-enrolled for the fall semester, but was full of self-doubt. Would I be strong enough to go back? Could I handle the work load? What if I struggled again and relapsed?
I had lost that unthinking confidence in my abilities, my strength, and my competence. For some reason coming out here week after week revived that formerly tenacious individual and helped me believe in myself once more. Now I was parked outside and the doors were locked, while the dirt parking lot slowly filled up with women with faces as anxious as mine.
Sunday nights at the Wagon Wheel are for drop-in roller derby. You pay ten bucks, put on your skates and pads, and for three hours Rockett and Wicked will teach you how to put one rolling foot in front of the other without falling. The few hazy childhood memories I have of roller-skating mostly consist of birthday parties and field trips. For the first few weeks my method of stopping often resulted in me rolling into a large stationary object, like the giant plastic tree trunks lined across the middle of the rink. Or desperately gripping the shag carpet on the walls.
I first encountered roller derby while in the heart of my depression.
I went to a bout (that’s what we call a game) with a couple friends and for the first time in my life experienced love at first sight. The Denver Roller Dolls were playing at the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield, Colo.
The Denver Roller Dolls are a league comprised of six different teams. That night it was a round-robin match-up of the Bad Apples, Green Barrettes, and Shotgun Betties. I was impressed by the sheer number of people inside–there were easily a couple thousand fans.
We found seats on the smooth concrete floor just feet away from the track, and I poured over the program. Inside were pictures of fierce-looking females with names like:
Bea Ware, Deadly Long Legs, Dharma Geddon and Honey Punches of Throats.
On the other side of the track an announcer named Dumptruck was bouncing around in a pair of cutoff jean shorts and black square-framed glasses. He sounded like he’d crawled out of some Louisiana bijou with his gravelly, sometimes unintelligible creole accent. He was easily as entertaining as the derby girls, although his legs (which the audience saw more of than they wanted to) weren’t quite as pretty.
Then the girls came out and I was done for. Lights flashing, music blasting, panties shimmering. Crash Dance, Boo Boo Radley, Lynnsane, Fonda Payne. These weren’t women but goddesses. They were so powerful and confident. I smiled as they danced unselfconsciously while waiting for a jam to begin. I didn’t know anything about roller derby but these glamazons were irresistible. After months of battling depression I couldn’t resist their fearlessness. For so long I had felt weak. I wanted to be strong like they were strong.
One of the Green Barrettes, Dharma Geddon, told us that every Sunday night there was drop-in derby at the Wagon Wheel Skating Rink in Brighton where they would teach us the rules and how to skate.
Most of my motivation for trekking out there each week came from the desire to rattle someone’s teeth, which the we got to do in the painfully short scrimmages at the end of practice. Although I got better, I still longed to improve with a frightening intensity. I treasured the little comments I got from my coaches/derby idols. The Terrible Suz telling me to “keep that ass down” and slapping my behind to emphasize the point. Wicked shouting “look at you!” after a particularly good instance of “booty blocking” and of course Rockett remarking to the whole group, after a kamikaze-style defensive effort, “She’s trying to kill everyone, including herself.” I held onto these remarks like trophies.
Every Sunday night the overwhelming torrent of anxiety and frustration came pouring out, unleashed on the innocent skatersby. But this was Monday night, a night I had been looking forward to with anticipation and dread for months. Tryouts.
The parking lot began to fill up, but no one came out to unlock the doors. Around 10 or 12 girls sat in their cars pretending not to notice each other in an effort at intimidation. Finally Slick Vick, the president of the Denver Roller Dolls, arrived. She requested that everyone stay outside until 6:30 so the Dolls could get organized. Shortly after Vick’s arrival the rest of the judging panel came. Tracy “Disco” Atkins, Crash Dance, Deadly Long Legs, Bea Ware. I recognized their faces from breathlessly watching bouts and memorizing the program. I reflected on the strangeness of trying out for the team in front of these women I had begun to idolize. Even if they were accountants, engineers, and housewives during the day when they slipped on those fishnet stockings and short-shorts they were goddesses, and I was determined to become one.
When the doors opened we all filed in, paid our five dollars, got a number and filled out a waiver. After completing these prerequisites and getting the number seven pinned to the back of my black tank top I laced up my skates and headed for the rink. For a few minutes I was alone in the rink, and I reveled in the quiet moment. The feel of skates on wood was calming as I practiced everything I’d learned in the past few months.
Shortly other girls joined me and I sized them up one by one, trying to show off the smoothness of stroke to dishearten all other applicants, an effort which at the time did not seem at all overly competitive. I was encouraged by this tactic until a woman with a 1 pinned to her back sashayed into the rink. She stroked her way around the room impressively. Then she turned around and did it backwards. She’s just showing off I thought to myself. Just like I’m doing I had to admit and steeled myself against #1’s minds games. I’m not going to get psyched out.
All thirty-four finally made their way into warm-ups. I studiously ignored number 1 performing some sort of maneuver where her feet pointed in opposite directions as she twirled a flaming baton.
After some good limbering up Wicked came out with a microphone and introduced the judges whose faces and names I already knew by heart. Then tryouts began in earnest.
Two hours of weaving around cones, showing off our stopping skills, and timed laps. I brooded darkly for a while about a near fall in the staggered cone portion, but there was nothing to be done.
The tryout ended with an interview where we were asked questions such as: “What is your fighting style: kung fu, bar fighting, or boxing?” And then we were done. The judges went off to Applebees to discuss our fates and we went home.
I barely slept that night. My mind refused to unwind, and repeated on loop various moments of the tryout, different conversations with skaters, my interview answers, and the myriad reasons why I hoped I would make the team. I was awakened early the next morning by a phone call, and my nerves refused to let me fall back asleep. I hustled to the basement and logged onto my email where I found a message from Slick Vick with the heading:
Aren’t you dying to know if you made DRD?
I grinned for a week straight after reading the rest of the email. I made it. I was officially a Denver Roller Doll. I was a Baby Doll at first and then a member of the Bad Apples. My first few months of practice I got the crapped kicked out of me by more experienced skaters and loved every second of it.
Because I was a new person now. I wasn’t Lauren anymore, Lauren full of weakness, fear and doubt. I was Shadow Cat. And in the little over a year I’ve been playing many people have told me that I live up to my name, coming out of the shadows to nail people. I’m now the captain of the Bad Apples and a member of the junior varsity traveling team Bruising Altitude.
The depression is still there. It beckons me to lay down, to give up, to sink into apathy. But I can’t. I have to go to practice. And when I’m at practice I can take out all of my frustration and anxiety on someone else, and they can do the same to me.
It took me a long time to realize that the thing I was yearning for out at the Wagon Wheel was myself. Roller derby gave me my voice back. It taught me exactly how powerful I am.
I no longer doubt whether I’m strong enough to do something. Maybe Lauren isn’t very strong, but Shadow Cat can take a hit and get back up, eyes blazing, ready to take on whatever may come.
Here is short documentary about roller derby made by my friend and teammate Yvonne “To Infinity and Yvonne” Phan.
Lauren “Shadow Cat” Baity is an elephant journal editorial intern. She plays for the Denver Roller Dolls and loves to hit people. Her passions are the 3 R’s: Reading, Writing, and Roller Derby. She prefers to ignore the existence of arithmetic and mornings.
If you want more info about the Denver Roller Dolls or are interested in trying out email firstname.lastname@example.org.