by Jeanie Neal
Photo credit: Junior Say-ow
Empowering. Exhilarating. Surreal.
I’d never played a team sport when I started roller derby in ’09. I’d been in contact with a senior skater with the Circle City Socialites. She invited me to watch a practice before I decided to join the team. The drills looked pretty tough, but I was too excited to care. I ordered all the gear and a pair of skates the next day. I practiced with the team 10 hours a week. I was sore and tired at the end of every practice, but I’d never felt more alive in my life.
Many people think roller derby is fake. It isn’t. Until the modern roller derby revival around 2003, roller derby was more about profits and showmanship. Today it’s athleticism and sport. I’ve seen skaters with countless bruises, a few concussions, and more than a couple broken bones. You can have a maximum of five skaters per team on the track at a time—four blockers and one jammer. I normally play as a blocker or pivot. I help my jammer score points and stop the other jammer from doing the same.
You can field an almost endless combination of skaters from a roster of 14. You may know a certain skater’s abilities beforehand, but others you may know nothing about. You assess the situation when you line up on the pivot line next to the opposing blockers. What skills do the opposing blockers bring? Do they play a mental or a physical game? Block opponents passively or knock them out of the way? How does their jammer play—defensively, offensively, or both? How does yours play—will she need a lot of help? Are skaters in the penalty box? How do you use that to your advantage?
These questions and scenarios run through your head in seconds. Once the whistle blows you’re playing for a maximum of two minutes. Play can change quickly from offense to defense, or to offense and defense simultaneously, and those two minutes can fly by.
play that first time?
The first time I played another team was both exciting and scary. We traveled from Indy to Bloomington for a scrimmage during a practice for the Bleeding Heartland Roller Girls. A flood of thoughts raced through my head. I quickly found out that a lot of our skaters don’t hit very hard in practice. Who was this girl slamming into me now who felt like a human-sized Mac truck? (“Margles McNasty” was her name, and she lived up to it.)
I felt like a human punching bag. Get up, skate, get hit, fall down, repeat. What had made me think I could play roller derby? I survived the ordeal with a few bruises, but they wouldn’t be the last. I was embarrassed every time I fell, but in later bouts and scrimmages, every hit would feed my determination. “If you want my jammer, you’ll have to go through me!”
Eventually, with more practice, I dished out more bruises than I received. Honestly, I’m a little proud if opposing skaters cheer when I go to the penalty box, or if they look nervous when I roll out onto the track and tower over them.
score a big hit?
I’ll never forget the first big hit I landed during a bout. The other blocker was headed toward my jammer, so I slid between them and landed a solid shoulder check. She was almost upright when I hit her, so she went flying back-wards and sprawled out on the floor.
I instinctively thought, “Wow, I hope she’s all right,” but then I thought, “Let the medics sort it out!” Since then I’ve sent dozens of opponents flying, but I don’t give it a second thought. Why? We play roller derby. We don’t wear helmets, mouth guards, and pads because they’re fashionable. I never intend to hurt another player, but it’s bound to happen regardless. It’s the nature of the game. I was recently involved in a pileup during a scrimmage with my own team. I landed a solid hit on the jammer, who fell flat on the floor. She was glassy-eyed, lying very still. I felt helpless as the medic examined her. She responded, stood up slowly, then stumbled to the sidelines and vomited.
She’s my teammate, and my friend. She suffered a minor concussion and I wound up with a sore jaw. Roller derby is a contact sport: eventually you’re going to be giving or receiving a hit.
Jeanie Neal, coordinator in UIndy’s Office of Institutional Research and Grants, on her preparation for roller derby (or the lack of it): “I was always a tomboy. I’d been a gymnast for 15 years. And I’d always been a drama club and show choir geek. Much to the chagrin of coaches, I wasn’t very good at basketball or volleyball, despite my 5’10” frame. I’d skated around the cul-de-sac in my neighborhood as a kid and watched roller derby on television in the 1970s.”