Roller Derby by the Numbers: or, How I Broke Up With My Scale and Committed to the Flat-Track
With the recent release of D.D. Miller’s roller derby book, Eight-Wheeled Freedom, we asked writer, poet, designer, and derby player Kate Hargreaves to share her experiences in the sport with us. Her early motivations in joining derby morphed into a lifelong love of bouts and jamming, walls and blockers. Bonus: learn derby lingo with Kate’s handy definitions!
2010: Year I joined roller derby.6-8: Average number of hours skated per week.9: Average number of bouts skated per season.28: Current age.33.5: Maximum laps skated in 5 minutes.110: Pounds deadlifted at the gym.9-10: Seconds, average cold lap time.1/3: of my team’s jammer rotation. Like with any sport, you can break a roller derby skater down by the numbers.Players, coaches, and stats nerds can analyze figures like percentage of jams played, lead jam percentage, points per jam, jammer plus minus, and VTAR (versus team average rating), which are all fun mathematical ways to find out how well you’re skating, which teammates are your best allies in success, and where you can make improvements to your game play.
Stats can tell a coach which blockers are raking in the most penalties, which jammers are bleeding points, and who is capitalizing the most on power jams. Then there’s the numbers that come up outside of roller derby game play: timed cold and hot laps, laps skated in five minutes, practice attendance scores, MVP trophies collected, hours volunteered at fundraising events, and hours spent working out off-skates.All these numbers can tell you a lot about a roller derby skater, and more broadly about a derby league. However, as much as a disappointing jammer plus/minus may plague me from time to time, it’s not something that I allow to define me as a player or significantly influence my self-worth. For that privilege, I used to rely on one special number: my weight.My name is Pain Eyre, and I joined roller derby to lose ten pounds.Six years later, about fifteen pounds heavier, and substantially stronger, I have roller derby to credit with a massive shift in body-image paradigm.When I saw an online event advertising the first roller derby league starting in my town back in 2010, my initial instinct wasn’t terribly unique: like the thousands of women joining derby leagues around the world, I’d seen Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s roller derby blockbuster, and thought the sport seemed right up my alley. It had a punk DIY ethos, a feminist backbone, and seemed to involve women in knee socks knocking each other around. What was there not to love? I’d never roller skated, I couldn’t ice skate at all, and my roller blading skills left me scraped and battered every time I tried, but roller derby sounded too cool to pass up.
In the back of my mind, however, behind all my tough girl, stereotype-defying motivations, there was the embarrassing little thought that maybe this would be it: the way I would finally be happy with my body. I thought that roller derby might just help me exercise enough to get thin, to lose those ten pounds and finally be okay with how I looked. Hitting the gym regularly and busting ass on the treadmill wasn’t working, and neither were my unhealthy restrictive eating habits. Roller derby seemed tough, athletic, and exhausting, and years of disordered eating and unhealthy body-image led me to believe that this sport might be the solution to the “problem” of my weight, that it would help me uncover the ultra-thin body I believed I needed to inhabit, somewhere underneath the body I found so disappointing. I was 21 years old, 5’10”, and 145 pounds. I had spent all of my adult life to that point, and most of my youth, completely wrapped up in my weight. I had a three-times-a-day scale habit that I hadn’t been able to kick since I was a pre-adolescent, and I was tracking every blip up or down.My first scale was an early-90s digital model with a black display with blinking red digits. It lived under the back-left corner of my parents’ bed, just behind the bedskirt. The mat had already begun to peel away from the metal at one corner, even when I dragged it out as a child, refusing to peek at the Christmas presents I knew were somewhere nearby, and waited for the double zeros to flash on screen before stepping on. The countdown was always the worst, watching the flashing “00 00 00 00” until finally the number appeared. I started my sneaky scale habit at age 12, closing my eyes, and opening the right one first, waiting to be hit in the gut with the angry red number: my weight.Cue an insistent 10-plus-year dance with the scale, beginning with that peeling digital one, which I began sliding out of its home daily, twice a day, four times a day, every time I went upstairs to use the bathroom, every morning before skipping breakfast, walking to high school, forgetting my lunch, and walking home after work to pick at my dinner. Every twenty minutes of running on the spot in my bedroom, doing sit-ups on the floor, sliding out the scale, watching the 00s flash and closing my eyes against the number that turned up. 145. 139. 134. 129.I always knew my exact weight. Morning, night, anytime during the day with a free moment, before I went to the bathroom and after, before and after the gym. I needed to know to stay in control. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I bought a manual bathroom scale, “Not legal for trade” stamped on the panel. How accurate could that be? It lived in my bedroom, banished by well-meaning roommates, and I could spout my weight with shoes and without, morning, after a meal, before a glass of water and after.At 21, with a flashy new bathroom scale gracing my tiles (body fat percentage, programmable, BMI checker, and a memory setting showing progress up or down) and still weighing at least three times a day, I walked into my first roller derby practice. Just ten pounds, I thought. Then, I’ll finally be happy.That afternoon, I didn’t know that roller derby would not help me lose weight. I didn’t know that I’d end up heavier than I’d ever been, but also far healthier and stronger. And I could never have anticipated that this sport would throw into disarray the negative and disordered way I had been thinking about my body, my weight, exercise, food, and health as long as I could remember.
Lacing up at my first practice, I encountered the most varied group of women I had ever met in one place, ranging widely in terms of background, age, and body type. As a relatively new sport, derby seemed to be the great equalizer. No one among us had much skating experience, let alone knowledge of the rules, and being skinnier or fatter or taller or shorter or older or younger didn’t stop any of us from bailing face first onto the cement more than once. I fell alongside women from 18-years-old to 50-plus. I sprinted with teammates under 100 pounds and over 200. I stretched after practice with teachers, students, paramedics, stay-at-home mothers, and professional artists, women who had played sports their whole lives, who had never broke a sweat on purpose, and women who worked out for a living. And we all fell down. Often.As the league grew and our skating skills improved, with enough players to start forming a team to compete, I realized there were benefits and roles for every body type. I would get thrown off the track by women who were bigger than me, but I could out-sprint some of my teammates. The top skaters in my league weren’t defined by their weight or size, but by their strength, work ethic, and determination. We aspired to be strong, fast, and agile, with a premium on power, not dropping pounds, and I began to see the truth in the cliché derby narrative around the sport’s impact on its athletes’ bodies. “You won’t be able to fit in your pants!” veteran skaters and coaches asserted. “Your legs will be huge, but your ass will be spectacular.”The same way the derby community praised the largest and most colourful bruises garnered by skaters, I saw my teammates begin to point out the changes in each others’ bodies. “Your quads look amazing!” “How great are your calves. They’re huge! Look at that definition!”Watching the Roller Derby World Cup in Toronto in 2011, my league’s first chance to witness the very top level of play, we marvelled at the athleticism of the skaters representing their countries. “She’s a total beast!” I heard a teammate swoon, watching a jammer power through walls of opposing skaters, “What a tank!” I realized that roller derby was the first place I had really witnessed women’s strength and power praised as something aspirational. Top-level skaters sprinted, hit, and built impenetrable walls with their teammates. There was no premium on thinness, height, or anything else, each skater using her own body and its unique qualities to her own advantage.However, regardless of this positive talk at practice, at home I was still stuck on the scale. Skating three nights a week, I assumed the numbers would be dropping, but instead they had been on the rise. I began tracking everything I ate, panicking over the calories in a rice cake or a spoon of peanut butter, working out six days a week on top of my six hours of derby practice. The mythical ten-pound drop never got closer and my skating began to suffer. My legs went to mush under me from too many jump squats at home before practice and my calves cramped. I was exhausted from limiting calories, and couldn’t understand why I struggled so badly to make it through the practices I loved. I pulled my lower back grunting through just one last set of push-ups at home and had to take two weeks off-skates while it healed. I realized, watching my team literally skate circles around me, that I had to make a choice as to whether the scale or the sport was more important. I committed to losing the scale instead of the weight, to dumping my scale and taking my relationship with derby to the next level.Roller derby motivated me to get strong. Not the “strong is the new skinny” kind that shows up all over Pinterest #fitspo, but strong enough that my body would accomplish the tasks I asked it to do. I started to feed my muscles what they needed to function, especially on heavy exercise days, and I did workouts I never thought I would: deadlifting, weighted squats, determined not to shed pounds but to add muscle bulk. My clothes fit snugly in the hips and legs. I tried zipping a formfitting dress and couldn’t get the clasp to close across my back. In tears I resigned to stop eating, and stop lifting. It was my teammates again who reminded me what my body could do was more important than some old dress.And my body could do more. It could jump higher, skate faster, get hit with force and not fall down every time. My butt could dead-leg my opponents and even knock them over occasionally. “I remember when you were just a skinny little girl,” one of my coaches told me. “Now you’re a force on the track.” And while I was by no means playing high-level derby, I felt stronger, more in-control and like my body was finally functional. In moments of “I need to lose weight” weakness, derby was there to remind me of my game-play goals and successes instead. The only numbers that mattered were the points going up on the scoreboard. 3: years since I have owned a scale.2: skates on my feet.1: sport that changed my mind. ***Kate Hargreaves is a writer, book designer, and roller derby skater in Windsor, Ontario. She is the author of Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels (Black Moss Press), and Leak (BookThug), a collection of poetry. Find her online at coruskate.com, on Twitter @PainEyre or on Instagram @CorusKateDesign.***Want to learn more about derby? Check out D.D. Miller’s Eight-Wheeled Freedom, The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby(Wolsak & Wynn, 2016). If you’re already jamming and blocking at every opportunity, keep track of your bouts with My Bout Book.