Pamela Ribon as May Q
Photo: Marc Campos
When times get tough, tough girls get rolling. At least that's what Pamela Ribon says. The author of Going in Circles (which she affectionately refers to as Eat, Cry, Shove) extols the virtues of roller derby, why it worked better than therapy when her marriage ended and what she learned along the way.
I didn't join a roller derby league in order to survive my divorce. Looking back, I don't know how I ever thought one had nothing to do with the other.

You know what roller derby is, right? The full-contact, super-fast, bump-and-bruise-filled passion that is currently the fastest-growing female sport in America? Maybe you've seen Ellen Page fly around the track in Drew Barrymore's Whip-It. These days, chances are you even know a roller girl or two. Or you are one. Perhaps you've witnessed a bout for yourself. If you haven't, do yourself a favor and find out where your closest league is, grab some friends and go. It just might change your life.

All you need to play the sport is a pair of quad-wheel roller skates (imagine the ones you had when you were a kid, but souped-up like Greased Lightning), elbow pads, wrist guards, kneepads, a mouth guard, a helmet...and everything you've got inside.

All your strength, all your courage. Roller derby is hard work. It truly takes blood, sweat and tears. Practices are long and sometimes involve seemingly endless drills consisting of squats, push-ups, jumps, sprints, stops and falls. Imagine a hardcore boot camp, except your drill sergeant is wearing fishnets and hot pants.

Ask any derby girl why she commits probably more than half of her daily schedule to this sport, and she will most likely tell you, "It's what I do instead of therapy."

When you're doing something that difficult, you don't have time to dwell on your problems. You can't afford 13 seconds of, "What am I going to do about my crappy job?" because in that time someone will either out-skate you or knock you to the ground. Imagine suddenly realizing two hours went by where you weren't worried about the things that keep you up at night—you hadn't thought about your life for even a second. You'd completely left behind the fog that normally consumes you. Two hours passed (some nights maybe even three or four or six), and now you're covered in sweat and your body craves only two things: a bath and a bed. If this sounds like heaven, you are really going to love roller derby.

This is a sport in which you play offense and defense at the same time. That means every 60 seconds you're in the middle of a new challenge, a new game, a new puzzle to solve. "Can I skate that hard, that far? Can I hit that angle, that girl? Can I jump this body? Can I play for this long?" You're constantly learning, and every triumph is followed by new amazing challenges. Roller derby is often better than therapy because no matter how competitive it gets, your biggest enemy, your constant obstacle—physically and mentally—is yourself.

That being said, often you'll find you're joining this league against the wishes of the people in your "normal life"—the nice, sensible, loving people who prefer your body in its unbruised form, who gently (or not so gently) remind you that you're the kind of woman who can't pass a coffee table without somehow running into it with your shins. They mean well, these people, but they can't understand. They don't know what you know. You've heard the wham-SMACK of skates in a jam, and you want in. You're not one of them—those well-intentioned, regular people. You are different.

What it means to be a teammate
Pamela Ribon
Photo: Thomas Hargis
Many derby girls find they are playing a sport for the first time in their lives. They never got all that excited about going to the gym, had parents who made them choose academics over athletics back in school or simply "hated exercise." These are the same girls who are now willingly spending hours upon hours a day, sometimes six days a week, training their bodies. Not because they want to fit into some killer bikini, but because they want to win.

Now, if that's not girl power, I don't know what is.

In roller derby, we skate rather anonymously. When you first start, you go by your given name. Your first name—we don't need to know the rest because it's going to change. After three months of training, you create your own derby name. This means your real identity is gone. It doesn't matter. In fact, it's better if nobody knows. I don't want to slam into a woman I think of as a mother of four small children, and I don't want you to go easy on me because you think, "I feel like a jerk whenever I make that geeky comedy writer go flying to the ground." When I'm on my skates, I'm not Pam. I'm May Q. Holla! My teammates include such fearless women known only as: Risky A Go-Go, Sulfuric Astrid, Asa Hearts, Helen Surly Frown and Queen Elizadeath II.

This way, we aren't skating as mothers, sisters, daughters, teachers. We are teammates. We're all taking the same risks to play with each other. We willingly do this knowing there's pain involved, that sometimes you're going to get hurt. We don't need excuses, nor do we need to know what's going on in your normal life. Who cares if you're going through a divorce, that you're waiting on test results or that you're thinking about dropping out of that masters program? We just need you to get your head in the game. Right now.

You quickly learn who your teammates really are. Not what they've done or how they make a living or where they live—what they're made of. You find out which ones are fighters, brawlers, divas. You see who will be there for you when you need a partner, when you need a hand. You know who recognizes you for your skills and counts on you to be there when she wants your help.

Because on the track we aren't mothers, sisters, daughters, teachers. We are jammers, blockers, pivots, captains.

Of course, over time, you start to learn the people hidden underneath those tough, tough derby exteriors. In my case, after almost two years of skating with the LA Derby Dolls, my "normal life" ended up with a divorce and a published novel about a woman going through a similar struggle. Once the book came out, the most amazing thing happened. Women I'd been skating with for months came up to me and told me their stories.

"Nobody knows this: I also joined roller derby right after a divorce."

"I joined roller derby when I beat cancer."

"Before roller derby, I didn't have any friends. Now I have 50."

It's pretty powerful stuff.

What being on a team of superheroes will teach you
Going in Circles by Pamela Ribon
We bond. Our stories come out. We learn a new kind of respect for each other. But what's funny is, instead of going easy on each other, knowing who we really are only makes us tougher teammates. Now when someone falls, when someone's on the ground doubting herself, there's no apologies, no excuses. We look at her and say: "Get up. I know you've been through worse."

How amazing is it to have someone who knows you well enough that they can see the level of strength you have inside? To give you that kind of credit, to believe in you more than you were willing to believe in yourself? In roller derby, if you give your team everything you have, they just might give you your life back.

We skate together not as what we were labeled out there, but by the names we've chosen in here. And just like a team of superheroes, we know each other's secret identities.

We are mothers, sisters, daughters, teachers. Scientists, widows, military officers. Divorcées, recovering addicts, Wiccans. Gay, straight, undecided. Shy girls, fat girls, overachievers. Loudmouths, morticians, Mormons.

We fight together as a league of extraordinary women, ready to hit back and win.

And when you're out in the "normal world" knowing somewhere a gang of badasses absolutely has your back? Nobody can knock you down.

Pamela Ribon is a television writer, novelist and a pioneer in the blogging world. Her newest novel, Going in Circles, is about a heartbroken newlywed finding salvation through roller derby. She affectionately refers to her book as Eat, Cry, Shove. She is currently on the injured roster and a book tour. You can follow her on Twitter @pamelaribon.


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