return to play

When I was in second grade, I had a best friend. I’m talking about choreographing Cheetah Girls songs together, going on a family vacation together, and Mary-Kate and Ashley movie marathon — best friends. There weren’t a lot of things that we didn’t do together. 

Courtney and I would share the secrets she kept in her voice-activated Girl Tech diary, and I’d spill the ones I’d scribbled in my Lisa Frank rainbow dolphin journal. We’d watch TRL and listen to Avril Lavine’s debut album, Let Go. If you grew up in the early 2000s, you know there is no stronger bond than screaming some angsty Avril lyrics with your BFF.  

Halfway through third grade, the unimaginable happened: I moved. It was only a town over, but it was a whole different school district. Courtney and I promised to stay in touch, write letters and hang out on the weekends. After all, we were best friends. A few miles couldn’t change that.

The first month was fine, letters came, and we talked on the phone. The second month was quieter, we were both busy with school and new friends. By the third month, it just seemed like we had lives so separate from one another. Over the next few years, we just drifted apart.

Fast forward to 2020, it’s quarantine. It’s not so different from 2002, people are certainly choreographing dances, only instead of making their reluctant parents watch, they’re uploading them to Tiktok. Family vacations have stopped, but movie marathons definitely made a comeback, although now it’s Elizabeth Olsen on the screen rather than Mary-Kate and Ashley. I even had a best friend that I did absolutely everything with, but it wasn’t a person. It was a sport, a lifestyle, a community: roller derby. You probably know her.

Right before the world shut down, my team was finally seeing a payoff for all the hard work and systematic changes we’d implemented. We had four games and climbed a staggering 33 spots in the WFTDA rankings. We had scheduled a season that was exciting and promising, and we were so ready to take on the challenge. 

Not even halfway through our season, the unimaginable happened: we fell into a pandemic that shut down the world and brought roller derby to a screeching halt.

At first, I was aggressively optimistic. I would trail skate, practice footwork in my garage, and work out at home. The first month was fine, I stayed in derby shape thanks to outlets like Roller Derby Athletics and different skater’s Youtube channels. The six-month mark was harder, it was challenging to work on skating skills without a practice or bout on the horizon. By the end of the first year without roller derby, watching old bouts just made me sad and nostalgic for a whole life that felt so separate from my current self. Over the next year and a half, it felt like roller derby and I had just…drifted apart.

I often wish I’d had roller derby in high school. The confidence and strength I’ve gained through this sport would have come in really handy when I had to rock an accidental pixie cut as a 17-year-old. Before I got that very unfortunate haircut, I remember rushing to class, turning a corner, and being absolutely gobsmacked to see an older, more mature version of my childhood best friend, Courtney.

She’d transferred to my high school sophomore year. We made eye contact and in my mind, we were still those goofy kids doing clumsy box steps to the Cheetah Girls and using glittery gel pens to play MASH. In reality, though, we were strangers. It had been so long and we’d grown up. Did we even have anything in common anymore? Would she still like me even though I’d changed so much? I was too nervous to find out. Rather than saying hello like a normal person, I ran down the hallway and proceeded to ignore her for the next two years until we graduated.

My reunion with roller derby was similarly rocky, although the fact that I didn’t return to derby with a choppy, uneven pixie cut is definitely a plus, because let’s face it—not all of us were kind to our hair during quarantine. I did have homemade bangs and an undercut, but as our lord and savior Hannah Montana taught me, Nobody’s Perfect.

Returning to derby was surreal in a lot of ways. In my mind, we’d both paused and could pick back up right where we’d left off. In reality, though, a lot had changed in the three years without roller derby. I’d moved states, transferred to a new league, and was much less physically athletic than I had been at the top of my game in 2019.

This time, running away wasn’t an option. The only way to make my relationship with roller derby work was to embrace the awkwardness, celebrate the changes, and push forward. It’s been about a year since I’ve reunited with derby, and it’s still hard. My mind operates like my body hasn’t changed, but my body operates like I’m constantly skating through quicksand.

Roller derby doesn’t care if you’ve changed. It still likes you. Our sport is constantly changing and evolving and while that’s frustrating sometimes, it’s also empowering because it means we have the freedom to grow and change, too.

Just like a regular friendship, honesty, patience, grace, and time are the elements that are making the transition back to competitive play possible. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

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