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Published on July 17th, 2011 | by Isabelle Ringer


Finding My Way Back From Injury

If you’ve played roller derby for a bit you, you know that getting injured is not an “if” but a “when.” I came into the sport knowing that I was bound to get hurt on a somewhat regular basis and was happy to take on the risk. I’ve been pretty athletic most of my life and am no stranger to an emergency room.

I found in the beginning of my roller derby career every little bump hurt, but over time, my tolerance for it grew. In my first couple of years I experienced a separated shoulder, a damaged PCL, and a bad case of whiplash that had me carried out of our warehouse on a backboard and into an ambulance, but none of those really held me back. They required a bit of rest, but no real harm done.

In September of 2009, on Labor Day weekend, my derby reality got turned on its head. I was at a flat track practice at our Doll House in San Diego, on the Monday of Labor Day weekend. Very few people were at practice, it being a holiday and all, but since I had a bout coming up on that Saturday, I felt I could use it just to stay on my game. In a fluke accident, I juked to the outside and forward and my leg got caught on my opponent’s and got pulled back and to the inside. I fell in a heap of pain and I could have sworn I heard something inside of me snap. I was panicked more because of the snap than because of the pain. I took my skates off and stayed for the rest of league practice. I followed it up by coaching our team practice that night, limping a bit but hoping it was nothing too serious.

I started by stating my threshold for pain is a bit skewed by many years of derby. That Monday night was a testament to that fact. The next day I had extreme calf pain and was hoping and praying I hadn’t torn my calf muscle or hamstring and would still be able to play in the game on Saturday. I was the captain of an undefeated team and could not bear the thought of missing the game. But worse than that, in the back of my head the little voice of true panic started gnawing at me… This felt serious.

I bench-coached the game that Saturday and although I very much missed being out on the track with my team, I was thankful to still be a part of their triumph. That night as they skated their victory lap, I felt my face get hot and my eyes tear up. I held it back that night, but it was the beginning of what would be a very long haul of “Emotional Endurance,” a phrase coined by a good friend, Micki Dagger, also struggling with her place on the Injured Reserve.

After wading through a sea of referrals, MRIs, and co-pays, I finally made it to an orthopedic surgeon who confirmed what I already knew at this point, I had torn my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and I would need ACL reconstructive surgery in order to regain full stability in my right knee. I cried hard in his office that day. “THANK YOU! Thank you for helping me,” I was wailing through the tears. It had been over a month since the accident had happened and all I wanted was to start getting better. I had not played roller derby for a whole month! I was wilting away.

I told my surgeon, and subsequently my physical therapist, “I want you to treat me as you would a professional athlete. I did this playing a sport that I love and I have every intention of getting back to it as soon as possible. Please treat me as you would an NFL quarterback. They only miss one season for this sort of thing and I intend to be back on skates in a couple months.”

The following month, two months after the accident, I finally had ACL reconstruction. They took a good-sized chunk out of my hamstring and used it as my replacement ACL. I got home that afternoon in a fog. My leg was in a locked leg brace, and having never used crutches, I was having a pretty hard time. As the days wore on, the nerve block from the surgery let up and I had to really start feeling the pain, but I could manage the hurt in my leg. I took very few painkillers after the first few days. As mentioned previously, my tolerance for physical pain is quite high from the years of beatings from playing roller derby; however, my emotional pain tolerance was well below par.
I cried every day, some days many times. I kept the shades drawn. I virtually refused to use my crutches except for vital tasks. I had six weeks in that locked leg brace. This was the worst six weeks of my life (one might note that it says a bit about how nice my life had been so far). I was in so much emotional pain and I just could not hold it in any longer. I cried and cried and cried. “This isn’t fair!” I wailed. “Why would this happen to me?! This isn’t how I planned it! I don’t deserve this!” I tried ice cream and coloring books to ease the pain, but my heart hurt so badly. For the last two months I had not been able to play roller derby and though I stayed active as the captain of my team, I felt completely stripped of my identity. And now, I lay there in a locked leg brace, unable to walk, feeling like I had hit an all time low.

When the six weeks had passed and I was freed of my brace, I vowed to begin anew. I had cried a month and half of tears and now it was time to really get to work at rebuilding my body and spirit. I walked an hour every morning to rid myself of the limp. Once I mastered that, I started really working hard on my physical therapy. I went to as many sessions as I was allowed, three per week, and then did my workouts on my own every day. It was like I had my own trainer, getting me ready to get back on skates. In February of 2010, five months after the accident, three months after the surgery, I put my skates back on. It started slow, fifteen minutes of just laps, which was really tough at first, and then it built up in ten minute increments from there. A month later I was back in the Boot Camp program at our league starting to work on my skills again. A couple weeks after that, back to league practice! It was happening, I was getting my life back! I was finally starting to feel like myself again.

I vowed that this time around I was going to be better. I had to re-teach myself everything so I might as well teach myself the right way. I was a league trainer and had begun to travel coach the previous season. I would teach myself proper form and technique with the most conscious part of my brain. This time around, there’d be no more fouling out due to excessive penalties. No more sitting in the box all game wondering that I did wrong. Goodbye by chicken wings. This time around, I would improve my stride, get more power, skate faster and stronger. I would become the version of myself that I knew I could be.

By May 2010, I played in my first bout back. Banked track roller derby in San Diego, CA vs. Team Legit. We won that night and it felt so amazing to be back out there with my teammates. But truly, this was just the beginning of the long road I had ahead of me. Being back on the track with the All Star team, awesome. But being back was not enough, I needed to get back to the level I left at, nay, I needed to become the great roller derby player that I knew I had in me.

Between two months of no derby, six weeks of no walking and the chronic depression, I had managed to pack on 25 extra pounds, which of course just reinforced the depression I was feeling that winter. The experience had given me some perspective. My derby life was a mortal thing and could be killed by one fleeting moment. I would not know when it was coming; it could be stolen from me at any time. With this new insight and my “extra baggage,” I decided that I needed to up the stakes. I needed to become the best version of myself I could muster while I still had it to enjoy.

I started in on a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. I did a ninety-day hardcore fitness program. I cleaned up my act on the track and embraced the role that I always knew I had in me, the pivot. I worked hard to get here, to surpass my old best me and become the best one I know how to be now. Better than I have ever been.

I am becoming the player I always wanted to be, that I was meant to be! It took having it all stripped from me to realize that I needed to seize the moment, now. Become the greatest version of myself, now. I don’t know if I could make it through another recovery like the last one and come back to playing roller derby. So I need to live each practice, each scrimmage, each bout, like this one right here could be the very last and that I could leave on that day knowing I had become the greatest version of myself, to leave without a regret, having savored every moment of it. To have become the greatest roller derby player I know how to be and know that those very low moments are the ones that act as the stepladder to get to the ones at the very top.

Photo: Tim The Enchanter

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Isabelle Ringer

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  • Ella Callison

    Thank you for taking time to share your story! I also had ACL reconstruction and both menisci repaired in my left knee. I am just over 3 months post-op, and not sure when it is safe to put the skates back on. My surgeon wants me to wait to jog until my 4 month follow up, but I am getting so anxious and tired of being held back!! He doesn’t seem to be able to answer my recurrent question of “when can I skate again?” So this blog definitely helped me determine when I should attempt to basic skate again. I hope that I can get back into derby the way you did with such success. Thanks again for your story! :)

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