I’m strapping on a helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, and kneepads just after 7 p.m. on a Monday night. As I tie and tighten my laces, I’m already beyond the point of asking myself, “What have I gotten myself into?” Well before walking into the door, I’d already accepted the possibility of waking up the following morning sore and bruised.
I roll onto the maple hardwood floor at ; not even five minutes have passed and I’m already a sweating, drooling, snot-nosed mess. It’s been over 10 years since I rode rollerblades, and the last time I’d been on quad roller skates had been… well, until this moment, never. With a mouth guard collecting a mini reservoir of slobber (courtesy of my already-awkward braces) and a nose running like a faucet from the exercise, the fun has only just begun. The sound of dozens of pairs of skate wheels rolling on the 12,000-square-foot floor should make me nervous, but my anxiousness soon turns into excitement.
I’m among 20 women in the new San Fernando Valley Roller Derby league’s third-ever “First Date” training session, a program recently set up for women interested in joining the team. Across the way, about 25 already-sworn-in adult league members are doing exercise drills. The junior derby girls have just finished their practice session, and some remain on the sidelines alongside supporters of some of the new recruits.
One of those new recruits is Laura Sweet, and her friend Jenny has accompanied her for moral support. When I speak to the 46-year-old on the phone a few days later, Sweet tells me she was “scared to even walk into the rink by myself.”
A regular inline skater, Sweet says she was invited to try out for the league after she struck up a conversation with a customer (and current SFVRD member) of the wholesale company she works for. She’d been approached 15 years ago to join a roller derby team, but never followed up and regretted it ever since. When the opportunity arose once again, she hesitated because of her age but didn’t want to turn it down this time around.
“I was chicken… I was like, ‘what the hell am I doing?’,” she tells me. “I did not know what to expect.” But when she walked into Skateland Monday night, she “was welcomed and greeted so kindly that I felt I belonged right away.”
On this Monday night of Aug. 6, team members Tiggz and Belle Mastiff #K9 (players go by an alter-ego name) are our trainers, and they’re teaching us the basics of roller skating. As Tiggz runs the group through a series of stretches, she tells us the skating rink shouldn't be the only place we practice—exercise outside of the track to build endurance for the fast-paced sport is a must.
Learning how to skate is not just about having the physical capability, she tells the group, but also having the right mental attitude. When she first began skating in 2010, she had an “I can’t” attitude, she tells us. After she straightened up, Tiggz said learning became much easier.
For those unfamiliar with the competitive contact sport, roller derby bouts are two 30-minute periods in which two teams circle either a flat or banked track as they earn points passing one another. Teams score points when a jammer passes the opposing team’s pack of blockers. Once the jammer passes the defense a second time, her team earns a point for every pass until she’s either blocked by the other team or when she calls off the jam.
SFVRD was founded Killo Kitty #187, a captain with the L.A. Derby Dolls team, the Sirens, and several others in January 2011. There were several leagues in L.A., but none specifically for the Valley, and it was in 2010 that Killo decided to start one up.
It first began as a junior roller derby program for girls between the ages 7 to 17, and the adult league was formed later that year in October. The junior program currently has between 20 to 30 girls enrolled, and the adult team has been actively seeking new recruits — “fresh meat” — to join their 65-member crew. Both leagues call 's roller hockey rink their home, and practices are also held at Skateland.
To go from fresh meat to a bonafide roller derby skater, new recruits must attend two First Date practices. The coaches will then determine whether they’re ready to be mixed into the league’s regular practice sessions; if they are, the recruit will be invited to attend regular practices. The team meets a minimum of twice a week to run through endurance and skill drills, and to practice bouts. After two months of regularly-attended sessions and paying dues, only then can a recruit register with the league and pick their own alter-ego nickname.
Come back for Part II