[This is a repost of a piece that I wrote and performed for a local storytelling show called You’re Being Ridiculous: “Heros”. I’m using it to shamelessly promote the 10th Anniversary Blue & Blue Gala and Fundraiser of the Windy City Rollers, a roller derby league of which I was one of the original co-founders. Looking back on my very long journey to becoming a roller derby dame and the years after is a great way to get perspective on life. It’s also a great excuse to get together with “derby royalty”, old friends and have a drink (or five) and lots of laughs. EVERYONE is welcome to attend this event and if you live in Chicago, it is not to be missed. Get your tickets here.]
When I was young, my parents decided to buy my entire family season passes to the brand new, large-scale amusement park in town: Sea World. We passed many summers there during my budding adolescent years. While I felt conflicted about my love for beluga whales and watching them perform in glass cages, my favorite show, hands-down, was performed in a pavilion called “The Meadows”.
The premise of The Meadows show was “wheels”. The main story revolved around a beautiful blonde woman who wore a shiny Lycra suit and high-top roller skates…it was the late 1980’s, after all. She also wore a ponytail that was plopped on top of her head like a fountain vomiting hair and it was clasped with a fat, gold metal band. Although my hair was neither blond nor straight, it was long enough to get the idea and I insisted on wearing it like my she-ro for the better part of year.
Her name was Helen Wheels. She was also the only woman in this make-believe world, clearly the star, and I LOVED her. The rest of the cast included generic-faced men who rode bicycles, skateboards, inline skates, and motorcycles. The meat of the story involved the leaders of each gang competing with each other for her affections by participating in death-defying stunts on their wheeled vehicle of choice and often while singing. My favorite moment in the show was the closer and involved what is known as “The Sphere of Death”. The Sphere of Death is a mesh cage, made of very strong metal that can hold up to 8 people on motorcycles riding around each other simultaneously. It was lifted on hydraulics, high above the stage, and once the bikes got going, it was extremely loud and heart-poundingly exciting. The riders whizzed close to each other at impossible speeds and even turned upside down in the cage, circling and circling. You couldn’t look away, but you might watch it from in-between your fingers, as I frequently did. By the end of it, you didn’t realize you were holding your breath until you gulped for air as all of the motorcyclists came out of the cage and landed safely on the ground.
I’m guessing that the motorcycle gang leader must have won Helen’s heart even though I was rooting for either BMXer or skateboarder (who more closely resembled the boys that I had crushes on at that time). It wasn’t important who won or why; it was the excitement, the showmanship, the costumes, and most important of all, being the center of attention that mattered most to me. Little did my 9-year-old self know where holding onto that wish to become “Helen Wheels” would lead me.
Fast forward about 14 years and I’m drunk at 1am on a Saturday night waiting outside of a liquor store for my friends who are buying beer to take to a party that we were going to crash. This girl comes running out of a nearby bar to her friend standing near me on the sidewalk and says breathlessly, “Someone is starting a roller derby league.” Before I know what I’m doing, I grab the girl’s arm and say, “What! What are you talking about?!” She shows me this flyer clutched in her hand and it says “Hey ladies! Want to rock and roll? We’re starting a roller derby league in Chicago. If you’re interested, please call Elizabeth at this number.”
Hastily, this stranger and I dial someone’s cell phone and as soon as “Elizabeth” answers, we are screeching into her ear, “WE WANT TO BE ROLLER DERBY GIRLS!!!” Elizabeth calmly answers with, “That’s great. Why don’t you take down my number and call me in the morning?”
At about 1pm the next day, through the haze of a severe hangover, I see the name “Elizabeth Roller Derby” in my phone. I take a chance and dial the number with only a vague recollection of the previous evening’s debauchery. Happily, Elizabeth answers and is super cool. She explains that we will be meeting at her house to discuss next steps and at the end of our call she asks, “Have you thought of what you might call yourself? You know, a derby moniker?” And I say, without thinking twice, “Anita Applebomb. It’s what my friends call me.” Later, she tells me in that moment that she knew we were going to be best of friends for rest of our lives. We now call each other, in all sincerity, sisters.
Finally, the day comes and I find myself in Elizabeth’s (AKA Juanna Rumbel’s) apartment surrounded by about 12 strangers. None of us really know each other, but we all have two main things in common: we are excited about this venture together and we don’t know what the hell we are doing.
We start small. First, we watch a video of the championship bout of the Texas Rollergirls’ and try to make sense of what we’re seeing. We get to know each other, we gather our supplies, we go to bars together, and we start chatting up other women everywhere we go. We pick women who look tough, women who look cool, or just women who look interesting. We shove flyers in their hands and say, “You should join us.” We hang tear-aways on telephone poles and leave posters in bars, coffee shops, tattoo shops, and bakeries. We talk about our project constantly to anyone who will listen. We do our research and together we scout venues like roller rinks and sports centers and theaters. Most importantly, we start skating all of the time, carpooling to rinks in the ‘burbs and getting to know each other on the way and creating bonds that have lasted for many more years to come.
Months and months go by and we amass a following of about 60 dedicated girls. We give each other monikers like Sharon Needles, Anne Putation, and Ivanna Crushya. We start developing our hell on wheels personas on and off skates. We find skating coaches and do drills and travel several hours a week to have 2-hour long practices after working our full-time jobs.
Finally, we find a venue who is excited to know us and can’t wait to have us. The Congress Theater was the first place that didn’t laugh in our faces when we told them that “Yes, we want to play an all-female contact sport, on roller skates, and we want people to be able to drink beer while watching us.”
We create teams like The Fury, The Manic Attackers, The Double Crossers and The Hells Belles. We pick uniforms and team colors and do boot camps together (very often hungover). We have sold out fundraisers and debut parties. The week before we are to skate our first bout ever, we scrape our venue floor free of gum, repaint it, cover up holes, and lay down our own track during one of the hottest months of the year. We play games to sold out audiences of 3500+ people. We have merchandise, photographers, and most importantly, fans.
Right before our playoffs and championship game, we are invited to attend the 70th Anniversary of the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, sponsored by Jerry Seltzer, son of Leo Seltzer who invented the original roller derby game here in Chicago in 1935 at the Chicago Coliseum. That is when we meet one of the first roller derby queens ever. Her name was Ivy King, “Poison Ivy” to her opponents. At first, it was hard to believe that this small woman who looked like she could have been someone’s grandma was anything like a modern-day derby girl. But as soon as she opened her mouth, we knew she was one of us. Ivy, even at 89, was renown for her storehouse of dirty jokes and her glee in making people blush. She was sweet, hilarious, and full of energy. And after meeting her, we decided to name our Championship cup after her.
My team, The Fury, had fought our way to the Championship, literally and figuratively. We were hungry to win that first victory. Before the game, we would peek out of our dressing rooms to look at the crowd and within the darkness of the theater, we knew that there were thousands of people here to see US play. There were family and friends and fans and an untold number of strangers excited to see what we had built. We had all been nervously sick for weeks, anticipating our moment, and the unknown future of what would happen that night and after.
When they announced Poison Ivy’s presence at our championship bout, to a standing-room-only crowd, everyone chanted, “Ivy! Ivy! Ivy!”. Our hearts beat that much harder and our stomachs churned that much faster. I knew that this was my Helen Wheels moment. I was primed for the stage, the spectacle, the costumes, and the drama; only this time it was real.
We weren’t a shiny lycra prize to be won by the alpha males of the story; we were there by our own sweat and volition, drive and ambition. And we had come so far in only 6 months, starting out as a rag tag group of strangers all journeying together for this one goal of starting something that we had no idea what it would look like. We had resurrected a Chicago cultural phenomenon from nothing through dedication, bravery, humor, luck, moxie, and charm. We spent most of our own money and tons of our time to accomplish this. We had fans, we had made names for ourselves, and we wanted to be Champions.
The game was an exhausting battle. I was out with a torn PCL to my right knee sustained during the playoff game. People were dropping like flies from both teams, clutching ripped rotator cuffs, swollen ankles, and one teammate who broke her leg in a spiral fracture that sounded like a tree branch breaking.
The clock ran down to the last minute and we tied with the Double Crossers. The officials called an unexpected and unprecedented 5-minute overtime. Everyone groaned in exhaustion, soaked in sweat, and was heaving. I was tasked with calling the line-ups and had to throw people in who didn’t look like they were going to keel over.
As we got to the last 2 minutes, some people covered their faces because the anticipation was just too much. In the last seconds, my team scored the final 3 points and we had won the first Ivy King Cup Championship.
All I remember was sobbing, hugging my sweaty teammates, eyes burning from spraying champagne, and confetti falling from the ceiling and sticking to our jerseys. Ivy King herself, a world speed racing champ and the original derby queen, handed us our trophy (with the help of some of the girls because the thing was so damn heavy).
Little did we know that not only were we changing our own lives forever but how far and wide that influence would go. It continues to ripple today. Of the 5 years I skated, by far one of my favorite parts of playing roller derby were the little girls who approached us after the games for our autographs. I was always honored and flattered that I and my skating mattered enough for them to wait after the game to find me. Like the Helen Wheels from my youth and Ivy King of my adulthood, I had become like a benevolent goddess and superhero to these girls, a feeling that I know I share with my fellow skaters. By my presence and actions I taught them that their obsessions of youth may shape them into the women they would become.
Perhaps they were pulled in by the outfits, silly names, the lights, and the blur of women in skates whizzing by but I also know that they were seeing first hand the results of strength, hard work, fun, and competition that I hope will change their lives positively and permanently, just like it did for me. There is one thing that I will savor to my grave and one thing that no one can ever take away from me and that’s what it feels like to be a champion.