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The Harrisburg Area Roller Derby Team

Word association test – I say “roller derby,” and you say what?


“Tough women.”


“Mean women.”


“Big women.”


Myth-busting time. Tough, yes. I saw women pushing, pulling and tumbling. I saw them circle a track, stop for “burps” and circle the track again, over and over and over.


But mean? Nope. Nicest women you could ever met, and they totally didn’t care that I could skate about as well as Adrian in the ice rink with Rocky Balboa.


And big? I saw women ranging in size from downright petite to those who don’t wear hip and butt protectors because, as one player put it, “God already did it for ‘em.”


Adventure Chick joined a practice of HARD, the Harrisburg Area Roller Derby team. We were at Olympic Skating Center in Enola, a low-ceilinged, expansive space with a beautiful wooden floor – players call it one of the best on the East Coast – that has hosted HARD practices and bouts since 2006.


HARD member Janet Swisher was my guide. I headed to the floor, encased like a Ninja Turtle in helmet, elbow pads, wrist pads and knee pads so complex they required a master’s degree in mechanical engineering to strap on.


“The worst thing to do is fall on your back,” Janet said as I grunted my way into the knee pads. “It’s the easiest way to get a concussion, break your coccyx and just harm your back. We teach everybody to move forward and fall forward with knee falls. Our pads are a bit bulky, but it doesn’t take long to start trusting your pads.”


Fall forward. I can do that!


I started with teeny steps and arms flailing. I was hearing the same lessons heard during Adventure Chick’s failed skiing excursion (fell forward many, many times that day). Bend the knees in “derby position.” Low center of gravity. Core control.

And “the floor will almost always be there, so try to look up, because the wall and people may or may not be there,” advised Janet.


That’s a comfort. And now that I’m not thinking about the floor, it’s time to learn how to fall on it.


I’m just learning how to stay on my feet. Now I’m supposed to fall? But that’s the whole point, I was coming to learn.


Rollergirls come out for different reasons – for the athleticism and heart-pounding workout, for the stress relief or to keep playing sports after college. All reach into themselves and find new reserves of strength, both mental and physical.


Coach Gia Katherman first tried roller derby because she’d become inactive and was just bored. She saw Rollergirls on A&E, and thought, “Holy <expletive deleted>, this looks fun.”

“Every time you step on the floor, you’re going to learn something about yourself,” she told me. “You’re going to learn something about your team. It’s fun. As adults, we sometimes have a tendency to get stuck in a routine where we’re safe, and this pushes these boundaries in a remotely safe environment. It’s a very empowering sport.”


So, feeling remotely safe, I’m learning to fall. The point is hitting the floor on one padded knee and keeping your hands off the planks because wheels are harder than fingers. Get some speed going, Janet said, and just drop to one knee.


Sure. I skated. And skated. And skated some more. I just couldn’t work up the nerve to drop a knee. Try it from a full stop, just to get the feel of it, suggested TriXie Twelve Gauge, known as Lydia Wanyo in real life.


Good idea. I stood, genuflected on the floor and was pleasantly surprised by the squishiness of the knee pad. OK, let’s go. I got up some speed, gulped and dropped the right knee. And came to a clean stop. Call it the “Miracle at the Olympic.” Of course, the hand was planted on the boards. If this were a real bout, I would have parted ways with several fingers.


A few more tips from Janet about shifting weight from one leg to the other, and I was having too much fun to stop.


Did I mention that I was “fresh meat”? That’s the name for roller derby novices –nothing like a little prison lingo to set your mind at ease.


HARD competes in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. These 20 women are happy to welcome fresh meat to the sport they love and support with their time, money and sweat. Janet started as a wall-hugger, barely able to keep upright, and here she was, showing me the ropes. She also had a cool nickname, Tanker Bell.


Her teammates include Redrum Doll, Annie Viral, Rainbow’s Revenge, Pixie Panzer and Katie. Come again? Surely, using your real name can’t be legal? But it seems that nicknames are waning, as the sport strives for legitimacy. Too bad – I had been introducing myself as Meltdown.


This game is about supporting your jammer as she tries to score points by skating past opponents. The opponents, of course, are pledged to keep her in her place. So, players block or try to get unblocked, but within a set of rules that fill a 79-page binder. In making contact, the head and back are off limits. Arms, thighs and chest are fair game, and woe to the skater who leaves them exposed.


Anyone can learn this, Gia assured me. It just takes agility and awareness. Lacking both, I still asked for a lesson in blocking. We started with hooking, a basic move to encircle and trap an opponent.


Hands in front. Lean into the left foot. Pressure on the little toe. “As I lean, I can turn,” said Gia. “It’s called carving. Do you ski at all?”


Sigh. There’s no escape, but there’s also no evil, icy downhill here. I did as I was told, and what do you know? I’m turning. I’m carving.


Gia encouraged me with shouts of “There you go. Nice!” Then she instructed me to sidle up next to her and reach across.


“As soon as you feel my tricep, you’re going to start to carve,” she said. “Keep leaning. Keep leaning.” One more “There you go!” and I blocked her. Of course, Gia (derby name, Nash Villain) could have countered with a “snake move,” leaning back with her foot in front of mine, and driven me wherever she needed me to be, but that’s not for fresh meat. No matter. This was just plain fun, including some exhilarating turns circling the track when I had it all to myself.


Melissa Wimbish, aka Charlie Foxtrot, told me she couldn’t even skate backward when she started. Now, she’s a passionate advocate for her sport, recruiting new players and winning new fans.


“Anybody can do this,” she said. “There are so many different body types, and everybody excels in one way or another. I think the one thing that keeps people back is self-doubt. It’s ridiculous. You can do it.”


HARD is happy to welcome women interested in trying roller derby. See a live bout on home turf: Harrisburg Area Roller Derby vs. Key City Roller Derby on June 7 at 6 p.m. – Olympic Skating Center, 60 E. Shady Lane, Enola. For tickets and information, visit harrisburgarearollerderby.com and on Facebook, HARDderby.

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