Demons circling, life hangs in the balance. Sweet mercy, what I wouldn’t give for balance.
Weren’t there other contests cluttering my to-do list? No sword swallowing? Bomb detonation? It takes a special kind of human to throw elbows and smash torsos on roller skates, and I ain’t him.
“It’s a very awkward position,” said Craig Bailey, Race City Roller Derby president. “You’re going to say, ‘wow, this isn’t very comfortable.’ ”
You want to talk awkward positions? Imagine a world where every woman stands four inches taller, and keeping upright on two feet simply isn’t an option. Where a date with cold concrete teeters on eight wheels, more if you count the gurney they’ll need to roll me off the oval.
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“Just don’t stand up straight,” said Pam Yavorka, one of two Charlotte Speed Demons calling Fort Mill home. “Anything but a little bend in your knees, and it’s all downhill from there – straight backwards.”
Yavorka, the bank risk analyst, and massage therapist Joy Campbell aren’t fazed by the rounded razor blades underfoot. Five raised sons between them, roller derby barely qualifies as a challenge. These women four-wheel and kayak, practice football in the dining room and baseball in the yard until dark. Trampoline wrestling is a common occurrence.
I’m not afraid of roller skating. I’m afraid of how much chalk the coroner might waste tracing what’s left of my last fall. I recall my last skate. I hung onto the wall like the Mona Lisa. I can’t imagine I’ve improved in the decade since. Sport intuition won’t help, either. Liquefy all my roller derby knowledge, and they’d still let it on a plane.
Bailey says the semi-pro squad looks like chaos in high wheels, but a ring around the track takes a helmet-load of strategy and technique. He’s married to blocker Rebecca, so he’s pretty much bound by life and limb to say nice things.
“These aren’t just a bunch of mad, bruising women who are out there to hurt you,” Bailey said.
As if the world needs more of those, am I right? I get the gloss version, how team members fly planes and play the cello. They’re bakers, bartenders and bank execs, attorneys and dental assistants. Everybody’s playing nice. I’m not sold.
I have a contact in an opposing team’s city who I probably shouldn’t name for safety reasons. Reason being, I value my safety. I’m hearing there’s at least one derbiest I want no part of.
“She’s meaner than any man I know,” I’m told.
Race City vows to be different. They don’t want pro wrestling on wheels. No stage name heels or pageantry attire. No melees, hoodwinkery or bamboozling, either. Speed Demons want their sport in the Olympics. Allowing the likes of me on their track probably isn’t helping.
Yavorka, 43, toes the jammer line alongside me. We’ll race once through the eight-woman pack – four of her teammates, four of mine – and back through to score points. Or until I’m lapped. She’s a pleasant person until the whistle blows. A week later, against the Greenville Derby Dames, she’ll knock women into next week without breaking stride.
I wasn’t this nervous on my wedding day. I’m Juan Pablo Montoya on a track full of jet dryers. The whistle screeches.
For one straightaway I skate as fast and as perpendicular as I ever have. Yavorka is a memory. The former speed skater makes short work of the pack and sets sight on me.
Somehow I navigate one turn and a back straightaway. Before I test turn two, I’m lapped. Never even neared the pack.
Yet I’m the one drawing applause. Maybe these women aren’t such ruffians. Their husbands and sons tell me so, and they should know.
Families follow the team everywhere but into the locker room.
Campbell’s elder son is a penalty tracker who’s begging for a “my derby mom can beat up your soccer mom” shirt, and her husband stands guard as an EMT firefighter.
Yavorka couldn’t keep her husband away with a two-arm sling pass, and her dad was an instant convert.
“He thinks its funny that at my age, he’s still going to watch me roller skate,” she said.
Team members take my arm and wheel me back to the jammer line like a geriatric. They’re a vexing mix of maternal and maniacal, these Demons. Women who thrive in centrifugal madness, yet insist I’m “such a trooper” for trying. The bespectacled blocker awaits.
Campbell, 37, only began roller derby a couple months back. She completed the nine-week training “so you’re not a danger to yourself or others,” which I didn’t. Also an equine masseuse, she’s handled bigger horse’s you-know-whats than me.
“I get weird looks when people find out about that as well as the roller derby,” Campbell said.
She skates past me like I’m not even there. I fall several times. I’m barely through the first turn when I see her barreling into the near arc. I hold stiller than a frozen opossum. Campbell laps me and I can’t get the skates off fast enough. Those Miracle on the Hudson folks weren’t as relieved to foot solid ground. They ask if I want another round. I’d rather live birth a rake.
“You were skating on very slim wheels which probably didn’t help,” Yavorka later confesses. “Most wheels aren’t that slim.”
The civility of these athletes is relentless. What’s not to love about a rink full of women who’ll hold you by the arm to balance you from splitting your cranium, then shout such encouragement from the pack as, “if your butt and thighs burn, you know you’re doing it right?”
The middle school boy in me regrets not skating fast enough to swap paint with the pack. The adult in me envisions an 80-wheel pileup and a dozen toe stops to the skull. I’ll take my result. And the new lease on life waiting just inside an old pair of tennis shoes.
On Your Marks Scoreboard
Competition: Charlotte Speed Demons teammates Joy Campbell and Pam Yavorka, both of Fort Mill
Contest: One lap races around the rink, to see who scores the most points by passing pack members from the opposing team – or until I’m lapped.
Score: Both Campbell and Yavorka lap me with little trouble. Final score: Campbell and Yavorka 2, Marks 0.
On Your Marks is a monthly column where reporter John Marks takes on competition from the greater Lake Wylie and Fort Mill areas, challenging them in their field of expertise and profiling what makes them special. Check out past On Your Marks columns at lakewyliepilot.com. For ideas on who you think Marks should challenge next, email firstname.lastname@example.org.