It's just before Christmas, 2013. We're lined up, one-by-one, in a cold warehouse that used to be a fireworks storage facility. In front of us is a flat concrete track. Parts of it are cracked and uneven. The boundaries of the track are denoted with red tape.
The coaches split us up into two groups: one group will be skating, the other will watch from the center or the outside of the track.
Each of us on the track is shaking, a combination of cold and nerves. We are each assigned a partner in the middle to count our laps. The goal? Get at least 27 laps in five minutes.
For a former broadcast journalist, that's an eternity. In roller derby, it's STILL an eternity and generally includes some serious aching and saying "fuck" repeatedly under your breath near the 4:40 mark.
That night, I got close to 29 laps. After a few more drills, we strip off our gear and do an intense workout circuit that includes weights, jump rope, and burpees.
After the workout, we meet near the benches and stretch. The sweat seems to freeze on my clothes and body following two hours of strenuous exercise and near constant movement. My warm car seems miles away.
At the end, the coaches bring us together. We each put a dirt and sweat-covered hand into the middle of a circle. Then, the cheer starts...
"Who skates faster?" "NRG!"
"Who skates harder?" "NRG!"
"Who are we?" "NRG!"
"Long live Naptown!" "Naptown Forever!"
This is how I spend two nights and one afternoon a week - practicing for two hours as a member of the Naptown Roller Girls under the moniker "Peyton Slamming."RELATED: NRG Skatin' Slideshow
What's In a Name?
I made a New Year's Resolution at the end of 2012 to try out for the league I have spent six years as a volunteer and staff member. Dan McGowan of "Inside Indiana Business" and I created one of the first podcasts for roller derby in 2008. That later turned into a live broadcast on Derby News Network.com and is now shown on HTSN/WRTV 6.2.
I came up with my derby name inside a studio at WIBC-FM at a time when the Indianapolis Colts were led by Peyton Manning. I'm glad I kept it, given Manning's success (not to mention being frugal and already having a dozen shirts with my name and number on the back).
I started skating for one league from 2008-2009, but life got in the way of my derby dreams and I hung up my skates in 2010. I'd bouted once — a bout is what we call one of our contests — and begun working with some of the best skaters in Indianapolis. I was heartbroken when I left, but my plate was too full to meet the demands of derby.
I didn't think I'd ever lace up again. I was told I'd never be fast enough or hit hard enough to be a competitive derby athlete.
The questions nagged me as my career and life priorities changed. I missed the challenge and the thrill of flying around the track. I missed the camaraderie of a team.
Could I come out of retirement?
Could I skate for Naptown?
Naptown Wakes Up To Derby
The resurgence of roller derby originated in Austin, Texas in the early part of this century. As a sport, roller derby has been around for decades, in forms ranging from all-day races around a track to jumping over pits of alligators. For some, roller derby conjured up images from flicks like The Kansas City Bomber, which featured Racquel Welch pulling opponents' hair as she skated to a disco beat.
Word spread about the DIY-nature of the sport, the fun "stage names," the punk feel, and girls on skates racing and hitting.
The Naptown Roller Girls began in 2006, practicing in a church parking lot with a handful of skaters. The first home bout was in 2007 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Today, the league boasts about 50 skaters, dozens of staff and volunteers, and thousands of fans. The league also has three teams: the Tornado Sirens (the A-team), the Warning Belles (B-team), and the Third Alarm (C-team — the level where I skate currently).
The "Hoosier State" currently lays claim to more than a dozen leagues.
Indianapolis has two women's derby leagues (the Circle City Derby Girls formed in 2008), a men's league, and a junior league. It's one more way the city is living up to its nickname as the "Amateur Sports Capitol of the World."RELATED: NUVO gave the NRG a pretty cool trophy
Lace 'em up again
I'd started skating again in the spring of 2012 for a fitness program called "Derby Lite." My former teammate, Andrea "Splatty Hearst" Ratcliff, started teaching the classes to give women the chance to learn about derby and skating without the hitting. It became a safe zone for women wanting to eventually move to the competitive side of the sport, but needed to master the basics first.
I stayed in Derby Lite for close to two years. (I still attend classes on occasion.) It was in those classes that my confidence returned. Retiring from derby in 2010 had been painful, both physically and emotionally. I was surprised by the satisfaction I felt just skating again. I wasn't worried about making a roster. I could skate just for the enjoyment and the workout.
Slowly, though, I wanted more. I still had the same lingering question: Could I cut it?
Newly married, my husband and I talked about it. How would it impact our relationship? We'd seen couples split as a result of the scheduling demands of the sport and we didn't want to end up a statistic. My husband sealed the deal by taking my hand and saying, "I know you want to give it a shot. If you don't make it, I'll still be your biggest fan."
We both knew the time commitment would be expansive (six hours of practice a week, plus committee hours and events), but it would pay off in the end — if I made it.
Not Just Yet
I didn't make it the first time I tried out.
In mid-February of 2013, the league held a workshop/tryout hybrid. Led by "Dora the Destroyer," it was a chance for the coaches and the team to see if someone had the potential to learn and improve her skating skills. I was fired up and ready, skating the first 23 laps in five minutes, keeping pace with a group of other skaters from Derby Lite and a few other assorted derby wannabes. Leaving, there was a feeling of confidence that my performance would stand out: that at the very least, coaches would see that I had enough heart to go forward. Surely, my name would be on the roster of skaters. It was midnight Sunday when the list was emailed. I was not on it. It was not my time.
Devastation was overshadowed by determination. I emailed one of the coaches for advice. What could I do to improve? Her answer was simple: work harder, try again next summer.
That was all it took - I refused to take "no" for an answer. Four months later, the formal workshops and tryouts would begin.
I got on the treadmill to work endurance. I bought a set of free weights.
I went to roller rinks regularly, careening around kids with a far lower center of gravity than mine — and no fear of falling. I drove to Franklin every couple of weeks to attend the weekly adult skate night at Franklin Skate Club, where seasoned skaters evaluated my speed and form.
I started getting faster, on and off my skates. It wasn't taking close to 18 minutes to run a mile anymore - it was taking less than 12. The 10-lb weights suddenly weren't so bulky. The 30-lb bag of dog food we buy for our two lab mixes suddenly made a great training tool.
The workshop and tryout information went out Memorial Day Weekend. As I hit the reply button and RSVP'ed, I told myself, "This is it." I had no back-up plan. Failure was not an option.
The workshops were held at the place that has quickly become my second home: "The Lair," our private practice facility. "Intimidating" probably wasn't a strong enough word for what would happen at those sessions. It was summer, the inside of the space was like an oven, and the thought of being hip-checked by well-known skaters like "Dora the Destroyer" or "Asian Sinsation" terrified me.
What if I get hurt?
At the same time, I didn't want to look back on my life in 50 years and wonder what could've been. I realized I wanted to have great stories to tell my nieces and nephew when they got older.
The group of ladies who came to the workshops was diverse. A copywriter, a librarian, a consignment clothing buyer, an electrical engineer, an Iraq War veteran, and a paralegal made up our motley crew. We ranged in age from the mid-20s to the late 40s. We were married, divorced, moms, straight, gay, and bisexual. When we strapped on our skates, we became something else — a team of strong women who left our problems off the track.
Tryout day (or "D-Day" as I had been calling it) arrived in mid-July. Two days before, I had received a special award from the league for my work as its Media Relations Coordinator.
While the honor was amazing, it didn't fulfill what I truly wanted.
During tryouts, I came close to 26 laps in five minutes. We were also given a "test-jamming" (forcing our way through, between or around the skaters trying to block us) against some of the Tornado Sirens for 90 seconds. One by one, each of us donned the "jammer" panty and skated toward some of the best blockers in the world. This was more than just an assessment of skating skill and strength - it was a mental exercise.
The whistle blew and I skated forward, willing my heart to slow down. I repeatedly told myself, "Stay up. Fight. Stay up. Fight." I hit the backs of the blockers and went down immediately. I knocked into a teammate and left a nasty red mark on her back that required ice and rest.
Shit, I thought as I scrambled to my feet. I kept getting knocked down. I'd pop back up, grunting like a wounded animal. I could feel the bruises already forming all over my body.
While I did not make it through the pack, I did fight through the 90 seconds.
Driving home, I replayed the afternoon and hoped I'd shown the league that I was ready to skate.
Had I accidentally elbowed someone?
Would the inside of my car smell like sweat forever?
Several hours later, while sitting on the back deck of my house with my husband and two close friends, the "ding" I had waited for arrived. I opened the email from Dora and saw the words, "Congratulations! We'd like to invite you to skate for Naptown!"
We uncorked the $35 dollar bottle of wine we'd saved for this occasion. The tears flowed. The calls went out to my parents, my Derby Lite coach, and my play-by-play partner for the league.
I had become a Naptown Roller Girl!
In the months since, we've been tested at every level. We took our Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) minimum skills test on a day when the high temperature was 103. I skated 28 laps (one over the required 27), stood on one foot for 30 seconds each, gave and received hip hits, and a whole host of other skills.
We've learned how to be faster, how to hit harder, how the rules work, and even strategy.
For the Third Alarm opening bout (a "closed bout" held at "The Lair"), I rostered as the first alternate.
Each roster can have 14 skaters and two alternates. One of my coaches sent an email to say that she knew how hard I was working and how close it was, but I was rostered as an alternate. While disappointed, I took her input and advice to heart.INFO on NRG's next bout
Skating with a roller derby squad is a far cry from the years I spent in radio broadcasting chasing hurricanes, politicians, criminals, and professional athletes.
At some point, I yearned for more than a collection of awards and press badges. I didn't get the same rush I once did turning stories around in a 90-second deadline.
While the seed of this dream really began when I saw my first bout in the spring of 2007, it would take six years and a lot of change and heartache to get here.
I'm not an all-star. I have teammates who can do 35 laps in five minutes. I still have plenty of skills that need improvement.
I'm a copywriter by day that plays and promotes derby by night.
Roller derby is not for the faint of heart. We're right up there with rugby and Australian-rules football in terms of danger. Contrary to the stereotypes perpetuated in the 1970s, roller derby is a real sport. We have rules and penalties similar to hockey.
I've been lucky enough to not have any serious injuries thus far, but am always conscious of the potential for everything from hematomas to concussions to broken bones.
So why do I do it? I have to. I need that rush, as scary as the process of getting that rush can be.
Life's too short not to step out of our comfort zone. We might fall the first time. But we can get back up. I promise.