Having your ass kicked at 32 hurts. This is my thought after Hausa Pain sends me flying face-first into a wall with a hip check. My other thought: Moms don’t do this. Roller derby is for young people who don’t worry about black eyes and broken arms. I should be arranging playdates, bedazzling costumes, sending my kids to dance classes. I should be wearing shirts that say “Mom All Day, Then Rosé.” Instead, I put on skates, crack body parts, and ask teammates to smell my armpits.
It’s 2006, and I’m training in a building on the edge of West Town. It’s a concrete-block warehouse chosen for its unobstructed openness, the better to minimize concussions. On the dingy yellow floor are gray splotches where the paint has worn thin. The room smells like cheese, and not a funky good one like Roquefort. It’s a stink that only moist elbow pads left in a humid room for a week can produce.
At the end of practice, Anita Applebomb, Yvette Yourmaker, and Anne Putation huddle in a corner discussing the best strategies for blocking: speed up, get in front of the opposing skater, widen your stance. Other skaters peel off their shirts in front of black metal lockers, exposing their sports bras and tattoos of Chicago flags, cherry blossoms, and swallows. They buzz about wheel hardness, brag about bruises, and gossip about who’s fucking who. A chick interrupts with an announcement: “Sorry, I have to fart.”
I remove my helmet, and my wet hair slaps my face. I’m making a mental checklist of all my aching parts when Mama Vendetta approaches. She’s a petite brunette with a wide smile.
“How are your girls?” she asks.
I tell her, not really kidding, that thanks to my decision to sacrifice parenting for roller derby, my daughters, 4 and 7, will likely grow up to be grifters, gambling on corners or stealing from Dominick’s because I wasn’t around to award them gold stickers for pooping in a toilet.
It had been two years since I convinced my friend Kelly, a.k.a. Sister Sledgehammer, to start Chicago’s first all-female flat-track roller derby league by pinning up recruiting fliers at places like Gold Star, the Cork Lounge, and Liar’s Club. The idea had come to us after Kelly asked a waitress in Texas about a tattoo on her hip. The woman had leveled her gaze at Kelly and said, “That’s not a tattoo. It’s a derby burn.”
After watching videos of the Texas Rollergirls, I was hooked. Women in fishnet stockings and miniskirts fighting and speed skating grabbed my gut. They reminded me of a show I watched as a girl, GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling — the original, before Netflix, back when people used coat hangers to get better TV reception. Like the wrestlers, the Texas Rollergirls were unapologetic, fierce, and fun. They had names like Hydra and Annie Social. I wanted to be like them, so I became Juanna Rumbel and started the Windy City Rollers.
Practices were twice a week for two hours, plus pickups and drop-offs for skaters who didn’t drive. There were weekend boot camps in Wicker Park run by Ivana Krushya, a 42-year-old personal trainer who’d seen our flier on a Division Street telephone pole, and Crimson CrusHer, a six-foot-tall redhead in her 20s with tattoo sleeves and no room for excuses. There were four teams in the league: Manic Attackers, Hell’s Belles, the Fury, and Double Crossers. We competed against each other because we didn’t have the money to travel to competitions outside Chicago. We would show up to boot camp hung over, with last night’s glitter eyeliner still crusted under our eyes, and Ivana and Crimson would make us do suicides, frog leaps, and Bulgarian squats until our legs shook. Occasionally, one of us would run over to a trashcan to expel the spoiling booze in her gut.
I answered emails from skaters at 1 a.m. while the kids slept. I would get off work — I was a print production manager by day — pick up the kids from school, feed and bathe them, and hand them off to my ex. Then I’d rush to Windy City Rollers fundraisers at places like Delilah’s, where I did pushup contests on the barroom floor and arm-wrestled men on pool tables.
In the early years, I was one of the few skaters with children. My girls would come to practice and sit for hours on thrift store couches pretending unused skates were Barbie cars. They were given their own roller derby names, Fiona Falls a Lot and Baby Rage. I remember standing in the middle of the track when they ran obliviously through a pack of skaters to wrap their arms around my thighs. One of the ladies scolded me, saying that kids shouldn’t be at practices because it’s distracting and dangerous. It hurt and it was true, but I kept bringing them anyhow because, frankly, I didn’t give a shit.
Also, I felt I didn’t have a choice. I loved my kids, but I couldn’t give up roller derby. I ached for it. I was living in the basement of my ex-husband’s condo. I had a dead-end job and no college degree. I had few friends and my family was far away. I was lost, hurt, and terrified of being a single mom. But I felt good with the Windy City Rollers. I was focused, confident, energized.
It wasn’t the best for my parenting, I admit that. I pushed myself until I literally broke. I got my first concussion at Orbit Skate Center during an outing with my team. Skating backward, I tripped and my head hit the ground so hard that I heard my jaw clack on the floor. Gold and blue stars circled my head, my ears rang, and my vision was blurry. As Kami Sutra drove me to dinner at Leona’s, she barked at me to stay awake in between recounting how she’d just met a boy in St. Louis. Once I started throwing up blood, my team ordered me to the ER. A new guy I was dating came to comfort me. He read texts from teammates asking for updates. He sat by my side while I cried. He cheered me on to pee as I was horizontally strapped to a backboard over a bedpan. There was no hope for my children or this relationship.
But not long after that, during a practice, Mama Vendetta said to me, “Your girls are going to tell people their mom started roller derby in Chicago. They are going to talk about being on a skate track and the many strong women who helped raise them. Juanna, everyone gets to have a story. No matter what it is, you don’t get to take away that story.”
It’s been a long time since Mama V gave me that advice. My younger daughter is off to college in Milwaukee this fall. The older one is working her way through school and babysits for former skaters who now have their own children. I even married the dude who watched me cry and pee in the ER. I’ve accepted that my kids may not have a perfect story, but they have one filled with colorful characters, like Coco Bang Bang, Mo Vengeance, and Malice With Chains. Their story is illustrated with pictures of their mother jumping on a Hell’s Belle during a bench-clearing brawl, belting out the national anthem when the booked talent was too drunk to remember the words, and strapping plastic skates to their little feet so they could practice in city alleys. They will remember punk-rock-hearted gals with rainbow-colored hair who were willing to learn how to skate and scuffle to secure their place in Chicago’s wild history.
Like I said, it’s not a perfect story, but damn, it is a good one.