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Leaning in, on the roller derby circuit

Roller derby is a full contact sport.

Bruises, broken bones and blood happen. Rink rash and fishnet burns are considered trophies.

I'm more roller disco.

I wear dresses. I love shoes and sparkles. Confrontation is not my strong point.

Still, when the Lakeland Derby Dames announced they were recruiting, I was intrigued.

The women on the team are tough, intimidating and, in their fishnet stockings, sexy. Three things I am not. The thought of being like them scared me. Inexplicably, I signed up on the spot.

I spent more time choosing my skates than I did on the decision to join. Cotton-candy-pink Rebels. Size 7.

I strapped them on for the first time two months ago, along with more protective gear than I had ever worn before: mouth guard, wrist guards, knee and elbow pads, helmet.

I expected to struggle, to lose balance. I even bought padded shorts to cushion my falls. When I made it through my first two hours on wheels without meeting the concrete below, I was amazed.

Somehow, the moves I perfected during countless hours at the rink as a teenager came rushing back. Backward skating: check. Crossover turns: no problem. Turn-around toe stops: easy.

The feeling was fleeting.

Learning how to fall properly when I was fighting gravity for dear life took some adjustment. So did giving and receiving hits. Especially when I felt the need to apologize for every tentative bump I doled out during drills.

I haven't skated in a bout yet. There's a skills test, mandated by the world roller derby governing body, I still have to pass. Only then will I qualify for one of those brassy tough roller derby names like Bo DeckHer and Iva Grudge (I kind of like the sound of Shellosaurus).

In order to prepare, I went into my typical excessive research mode: watching videos online, reading about the best players and poring over the rules. All the while I worried not only about injuries, but about being exposed as a fraud.

I have never been an athlete. I cry when I get hurt and my fight or flight instinct skews heavily toward flee. I get scared. After years of trying not to ruin my makeup, of avoiding skinned knees and scars, I struggled with the vulnerability of it all.

But the more time I spent at practice, the more I began to change.

When my first derby-induced bruise turned purple, then blue, then greenish, I contemplated using makeup to cover the blemish on my calf before I headed to work. Instead, I pointed it out to co-workers.

The first time someone pushed me down, I fell so hard and so fast that for days I felt as if I had whiplash. I almost didn't go back. The old me would have certainly quit.

But I had a gnawing feeling that had nothing to do with pain. I was addicted. I felt powerful. I walked a little taller.

I stopped worrying about what other people thought of me — and I made friends. I stopped pretending I was tough — and I became fiercely competitive.

And I finally learned why roller derby is one of the fastest growing women's sports in the country.

In the rink, society's rules don't apply. There's no glass ceiling. No need to choose between sexy or smart, strong or supportive. No one is taking it easy on me because my favorite color is pink.

In a day when women are encouraged to Lean In, roller derby is a giant shove forward.

I'm trying to hold on to that feeling of confidence as I await results of an MRI on my shoulder.

A fall at a recent practice sent shooting pains up my arm, but instead of crying, I picked myself up and finished my 24 laps. In denial, I went to practice two days later, too stubborn to admit defeat.

I leaned in, and I fell. So what? I'm not done yet.

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

Leaning in, on the roller derby circuit 07/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 1:33pm]

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