Rachel Watts finds herself rolling the light fantastic.
I’m sitting on the bench in my skates waiting for my turn on the track. My heart is in my mouth alongside my mouth guard and my fingers are tingling. It’s late April and this is the biggest game we’ve had so far this tournament. The waiting is the worst.
Just yesterday, play was stopped on both tracks as paramedics strapped a skater to a spine board and handed her a green whistle full of Penthrox to help with the pain, but as I wait to play in our grand final it’s something else I’m worried about.
I will not let my team down.
The phrase repeats over and over in my head. I wonder if I’ve done enough to get to this place, if my muscles have the strength to stop the other team’s jammer, to protect my own. I worry I’ll fail.
A series of whistles sound and it’s our turn. I take my place. On my right, Juicy taps my hip.
“I need more ‘Duce,” she mutters. I shuffle toward her slightly.
To my left Dash is silent. Bladey, our captain, faces me in front. I rest my hand on her shoulder reminding myself not to grip. Behind me the jammers, or point scorers, from both teams stand on the other side of a line marked with duct tape. I know Hades will be leaning on one toe-stop ready to propel herself forward with muscular thighs. The opposition jammer is out of sight in my blind spot, but in a few moments she will make impact with our line, either to my left, Dash’s side, or to my right, between me and Juicy. She wants to get past us. It’s our job to stop her with butts, hips or shoulders.
I can take the hits. I will relish the impact. I will stay strong.
I don’t want to shift my weight either way to glance at her. Bladey is my eyes.
“She’s still right behind you, ‘Duce.” Bladey’s voice is always clear on the track. I trust her completely. I want my team mates to trust me too.
“Five seconds!” An official’s hand drops. On track, ten women mentally count them down.
What comes next is always a bit of a blur.
My name, on the track, is Medusa Cascade. I have been playing roller derby for five years. I’m still learning. It never gets easier. But Medusa has, over time, grown stronger. I have to remind myself of that sometimes.
Before I was Medusa Cascade I introduced myself as Rachel at a Fresh Meat session at Rolloways in O’Connor. I had seen a documentary called Hell on Wheels about the reinvention of roller derby in Austin, Texas in 2001. I remember thinking that it was a sport for the coolest, toughest girls. Not me at all. Rachel still isn’t cool, or tough.
To be fair, Medusa isn’t those things either. But then, Medusa is an apparition. An invention.
I seem to have little control over who Medusa Cascade has become. I accidentally created someone who tries hard, who is a little goofy, always a team player. What Medusa lacks in skill she makes up for with a willing attitude. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it’s not.
There was a list of names I toyed with before I settled on Medusa Cascade: ShreddingHer’s Cat; Ziggy Starlust; River Strong. It used to be a big deal; there used to be an international roster, hosted online, where names were either approved as being unique or denied as too closely resembling another skater’s. At the time Medusa Cascade was registered, that was still in force. It’s since been abandoned so there might be another Medusa Cascade out there now. These days many skaters use their real names.
Skaters will tell you that they “found themselves” through roller derby and in fact, roller derby is a sport of reinvention. Invented during the great depression because it was cheap entertainment, using both banked and flat tracks it grew, reached a peak in the 70s and 80s, and then it fell into decline as the audience tired of scripted bouts and cheap wrestling style stunts. In 2001 a group of women who didn’t know how to skate decided it would be fun to try. After a messy teething period the banked track was all but abandoned in favour of a flat track. This meant derby could go anywhere. All you needed was a flat surface, some duct tape and a bunch of willing, slightly crazy, skaters and officials.
Medusa comes from a time, only a few years ago, when skaters wore fishnet tights and hot pants. The sport has changed so quickly, grown so fast. Already the old rule-sets are a distant memory. Now, at tournaments there is not a fishnet stocking to be seen. Compression gear for days. Derby is still an amateur sport, but some enterprising women turn professional by selling training routines, equipment or athletic wear. Top skaters travel the world coaching other skaters. Everywhere they go their derby names, and increasingly their real names, precede them.
Medusa Cascade is proud, and slightly awed, to be part of all this. But I, Rachel, am very, very tired. Rachel’s feet are always in pain. No more high-heels. Comfort is at a premium. Rachel would like to live in PJs and ugg boots, with a blanket and a cup of tea. Medusa is the one who makes it to training two or three times a week. Medusa is conscious of her core muscles even when she rolls over in her sleep.
Last week the toenail on my left big toe dropped off. It had been going since training resumed at the start of the year. I suspect the right one will soon follow. This sort of thing doesn’t bother Medusa. It’s May. We have five weeks until the biggest roller derby tournament in the world, The Great Southern Slam. We have never won a game at the Slam. We’re hoping this is our year. I’m just hoping to make the roster.
If you do what you’ve always done you get what you’ve always got. Or something like that. So I’m going to try something new. These five weeks I’m going to reinvent Medusa Cascade. It’s something that has already started because Medusa evolves constantly. At a recent game I realised Medusa is far more competitive, far more serious about the sport, than I give her credit for.
It’s a Wednesday night and the team is training our walls. Individual blocking, paired blocking and working in threes because the triangle is the strongest shape. It’s fluid and brutal.
“I’m out, I can’t,” a skater jamming against our wall peels away to catch her breath.
“We need a new jammer! We broke this one!”
Last night, as I coached Fresh Meat, a girl in the contact cleared group fell and broke her ankle. Tonight, there is still something white and powdery looking on the track where the paramedics begged her to inhale on the green whistle. We are training to meet Adelaide Roller Derby League on the track at the Slam. No-one mentions the war.
Lat May, a Thursday morning. A handful of us are squeezing in an extra practice. These are top skaters, but everyone wants to work harder. It is Medusa who got up early today. It is Medusa who did yoga before turning up to an extra training session. Rachel has barely put her aching feet on the ground this week. There’s 30 days to go.
“I’d like to work on my drop backs and on the lines,” Bubbles tells us. Bubbles is a jammer. She’ll face those Adelaide walls. We’re here to challenge her as well as ourselves.
Nails, Modern Warfare and Medusa assume the triangle formation we’ve been working on for nearly 18 months. Bubbles hits our wall, with hip, with shoulder, with full force. We hold firm and follow her as she moves across the track we’ve marked out with cones. The only sound is the screech of our wheels on the wooden gym floor and the occasional “I’ve got it”. A few moments later we stop to catch our breath.
It can always be better. I once heard it said to play roller derby you have to learn how to be hungry and satisfied at the same time. As a team we’re still realising that we can actually do this.
“I think your movements need to be faster,” Modern Warfare says. “A bit more unpredictable.”
On the next attempt, Bubbles hits us like a cannon ball, fakes toward the outside, we track her leap for the inside line, but she’s too fast and slips past us. We all cheer for her.
We get ready to try again. Bubbles breathes for a few moments before engaging. Adelaide Showgrounds. Thirty days. Playing Adelaide in front of their home crowd. The biggest roller derby tournament in the world.
I drop into my strongest stance and engage my core. Bubbles attacks the inside, then charges, hoping to find a gap along outside line. I stop her with the side of my whole body, relishing the impact because I know I can take it. Medusa taught me that.