An Excerpt from Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels by Kate Hargreaves (forthcoming)
Cheeks flush. Forehead lined with effort. Mascara smeared. Eyes squinting straight ahead. God, my jammer face is not pretty. Anyone who says that roller derby is just a bunch of girls skating in circles looking cute should take one look at me when I’m jamming. I’m clicking through a slideshow of photos from our most recent bout, wrinkled nose and gritted teeth captured, uploaded and posted online for anyone who can click a mouse. Maybe I’m working backwards from the end of the game, almost a full hour of jamming painting my face with the fierce red hue I boast in most of the shots. But, no…no, my face is twisted and contorted from my very first jam.
When I’m on the track, forcing my way through the pack, pulling legs and torso up off the floor, or speeding to catch the other jammer on the straightaway, I don’t actively press my cheeks up under my eyes and bare my mouthguard. I don’t realize I’m biting my bottom lip, or sneering as I pass the other jammer. More urgent than my face: the burning in my thighs. Fresh bruise on one hip. Lower back crossover ache. The photos write a different recap. I may as well be posing in the “funny take” of a family portrait. In one shot, I’m blocking, chasing down the other jammer, eyebrows scrunching, and a half-smile that says I’ll laugh if I knock her down. In another less than model-worthy snap, I’ve just made it out of the white team pack, black hair jutting lank and sweaty from the front of my helmet, mouth open and panting, cheeks blotchy. Or, I’m sandwiched between two white team players, far stronger, larger skaters, both sets of hips swinging toward my gangly frame. My face is flush, one foot off the ground and teeth gritted to push out of the pack. Just two. More. Steps. To push past the hit. Not on film: turn three of the track, a well-aimed hip check takes me up and off my feet, a backwards somersault into the suicide seating. Earns me a purple wheel-shaped bruise from kicking myself in the rear as I land. Not on film: sliding on one knee into our bench after two jams in a row. Grasping for a full water bottle. Deep breaths before lining up for the next jam to hit the wood floor and drag lead legs to standing, hit the track again, scramble back up onto toe stoppers. Floored and floored again by blockers twice my size.
We knew they’d be a tough team: a week before the bout, a web slide show introduced me to our opponents. Black and white shots of strong women staring down the camera. A black eye. Fake? My own league headshot caught me mid-laugh, lunging forward, mouth agape and eyes closed. I guess I could be screaming. But big and strong isn’t always the most distressing on the derby track. Team Canada, who came second in the Derby World Cup, are mostly tiny skaters who can jump and juke their way through a pack and still throw major hits. Canada’s Smack Daddy jammed against Team Sweden. Gave the announcers chills: she looks like she is going to eat everybody! Even blocking, Smack’s face crumpled with concentration. I think she just swallowed her mouthguard. I only notice the faces in the photo recap. Watching from the World Cup stands, I sat alongside thousands of other derby fans, eying feet, hips, and shoulders as world-class athletes juked, jammed and blocked. The skaters weren’t thinking about how their makeup was holding up, or if their shorts matched the stripes on their skates; they were glaring down the track to take out the other jammer. Gritting their teeth against mouthguard plastic recovering from a fall. Creasing brows to push through one. last. lap. Sure, some skaters wear fishnets. Some skate in skirts. Some paint their faces with lipstick and eyeliner. But roller derby is certainly not pretty.
Kate Hargreaves is a poet, freelance writer, editor and designer who spends her spare time playing, watching, and generally devoting her life to women’s flat-track roller derby. Her work has appeared in publications such as filling Station, Rampike, Windsor ReView, Room, Off the Coast, and is forthcoming in The Antigonish Review.