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Published on September 7th, 2011 | by Trigger Mortis

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Vintage Five On Five: Coming Back From A Break

By Trigger Mortis, Assassination City Roller Derby (orginally published in the September 2009 issue of Five On Five Magazine)

It was Feb. 8 of 2009 at Dad’s Broadway Skateland, and we were deep in the heart of Texas, and our Valentine’s mash up bout. There were several girls from all three of our league’s teams arbitrarily assigned to be on either the “Sweet Tarts” (the good girls) or the “Heart Ons” (the bad ones). The crowd waited on the edge of its seat, as it was a close one, and you could feel the sweaty electricity building in the air.

It was the last jam of the night and my bench coach, Magnum, held out the jammer panty in my direction, and ordered “Hey Trig…You jam.” Anyone that’s ever laid eyes on me know immediately that I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a jammer type, and I honestly had NEVER jammed, but I grinned, complied, and put that glorious star helmet cover on my head and grunted through my mouth guard, “I got this.”

And with that, I barbarically punched the bench with my fist a couple of times, hopped up and rolled on over to my spot on the jam line against Gloria Vanderbitch. We simultaneously traded a couple of haughty “show me what you got” looks, hopped up on our toe stops, squatted into the jammer ready position. The crowd had my back and was chanting my name. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity (but was actually only a few seconds) the whistle screeched.

What actually ensued after that doesn’t really matter. Nevermind the fact that I got left in the dust by a much more built-for-speed Gloria Vanderbitch. Forget the fact that I had a harder time breaking the pack than trying to fit into a size six pair of skinny jeans. Let’s overlook the fact I went to the penalty box where I spent the remainder of the jam, and our scrappy little team ended up losing that bout.

What’s important to bring away from this story is that I had just come away with a more amazing personal victory than a trip to the box could ever tarnish. That bout was my first bout back from a long hiatus brought on by the most terrible derby injury I’d ever experienced; a broken leg. I was coming back from a break, literally, and it was a moment I’d dreamed of for eight long months of recovery.

Now, to say my leg was broken is an understatement. It was shattered, actually–in eleven places. It was just a freak accident. We were scrimmaging, I got hit really good while I wasn’t looking, and fell wrong. I tried to plant my feet instead of succumbing to the fall in smart, “fall small” manner, and I paid the price. Boy did I pay the price.

The night I spent in the emergency room, when I implored the x-ray tech, doctor, or whatever he was “Tell me, it’s just a bad sprain, right?” He squinted his eyes, sucked air through his teeth and said with the utmost tact and sensitivity, “Honestly, it looks like someone took a sledgehammer to your leg. I don’t know how you’re gonna skate again.” It was way worse than a sprain. As It turns out, I had broken my tibia in three places and my fibula in eight.

Tears rolled down my cheeks and I buried my face in the crook of my arm so my derby wife, Smack the Ripper, couldn’t see me crying. My sweet teammates…they were there through the whole terrible ordeal. I just couldn’t deal with it at that moment. Derby was my life. To some degree, it defined me as a person, and the thought of never skating again, made me immediately feel like I had died inside. I was just coming into my own as a skater and it was all taken away from me in the blink of an eye.

The week following that fateful night was a tornado of surgeries, hospital stays, morphine drips and, occasionally, chocolate ice cream to make it not seem so bad. I was really out of it, and, although I don’t really remember much during those days, my mother had told me that most of the girls from the league had come by at some point or another to bring me get well packages and offer up encouraging words.

Even some of the surrounding leagues like the West Texas Roller Dolls and the East Texas Bombers had sent flowers or get well gifts. When I came out of the haze, two plates, thirty two screws freshly implanted into my leg. I even had, at one point, an external fixater on my leg, a freaky contraption that was made to hold the bones in place. It was, at best, a medieval looking torture device that kids couldn’t stop staring at whenever I went out in public. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they tried to poke me with a stick or throw rocks at me.

I was bed-ridden and wheelchair bound for quite some time and physical therapy was excruciating, but none of that was as difficult as the knowledge that I couldn’t be out there playing the sport that I loved. What was also very difficult was the feeling of helplessness I felt for the first time. I had always viewed myself as strong and, well, dammit, near invincible.

Now, having to ask for help to get to the front door, or to get into the bathtub was very humbling. Everyone was more than willing to help, mind you, but I had a hard time facing the fact that people might see a weak Trigger Mortis, which I just couldn’t have. Needless to say, I eventually had to suck it up and get used to people helping me during my time of need.

With the help of my friends and family, I still went to almost all of the practices. I watched from the sidelines and cheered, yelled and sometimes helped run practices while I waited for my leg to heal. There were a couple of things that kept me going during my darkest times when I felt dropping off the face of the derby map.

First, the amazing support and love I got from my derby sisters really made my heart melt. I was never alone at home. The girls were constantly coming over, bringing me food and making me laugh. Another thing that helped keep me going was the love from the derby community. People I didn’t even know reached out to me to offer encouragement, and in some cases, they took up collections to help me pay for medication, dues and whatnot.

Of all the thinks that fueled me through my ordeal, the one thing I focused on most was the fact that I was not alone in my injury. Believe it or not, almost a year before, another one of my teammates had had the exact same injury–same leg, same number of breaks, and as crazy as it sounds, very very close to the same date. Pyro Maim Ya was my hero, my magic eight ball and my oracle through my recuperation.

I had watched her recovery for the last year, and knew that, although the road would be hard, it was possible to eventually come back from such an injury. And if I hit a stumbling block along my journey, I knew, all I had to do was ask Pyro, and she had already been through it months earlier, so I barraged her with questions via text at all hours of the day and night. “Does your leg ever do this…?” or “Did you have trouble with this movement….?” If she had set up a wooden stand at the rink and hung a sign that said “Injury Advice – 25 cents”, Pyro would have made (and would still be making) a good living off of my patronage alone.

Make no mistake. I faced numerous frustrations upon my return to skating; the foreign feeling of having to starting to learn to skate again from scratch on what seemed like someone else’s leg. The misdirected jealousy of other skaters that had improved beyond my skill level while I was out of commission. The loss of precious time, and, worst of all, the insurmountable fear of falling wrong again and the distrust I felt while skating near even my own teammates. But eventually, the fear fades, the trust is rebuilt, and you end up learning to skate smarter, not harder.

During my recovery, I did lots of research on derby injuries, and discovered that Pyro and I were by no means alone. There were, in fact, a ton of girls across the country that had suffered similar derby injuries, and each had a story to tell. Pyro and I still joke that we are Pyrobot and Trigger 2.0, members of “The Bionic Bitches Club”.

It’s a small and implied club, and the “dues” are expensive, but there are members scattered across the country and beyond, and we wear our purple hearts inside our hearts. I interviewed some of the “members”, listened to their cautionary tales and thought that, at the very least, they would have pearls of wisdom for derby girls currently coming back from a break. What I got back from them was much more than that–I got back stories of the strength of the human spirit, the unyielding love for derby, and positive, inspirational words to live by–on and off the track…

Here are the stories of just a few;

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Pyro Maim Ya, #10/70, Assassination City Roller Derby – Dallas, TX

What was your injury?
“I shattered the tibia/fibula in my left leg – I was broken in 11 places (my fibula was basically gravel). I have two plates and 17 screws in what I affectionately refer to as my bionic leg.”

How did it happen?
“Remember how the first rule of derby safety is ‘fall small’? As I was making my first scoring pass through the pack during scrimmage @ practice, a blocker lost her balance and kicked out her leg instead of falling small. Her skate connected with my calf and the pileup that followed wrapped my leg around her foot. Donkey kicks are one of the most dangerous mistakes in derby! Please train your Fresh Meat to keep their limbs tucked in as much as possible when they lose their footing.”

How long was your recovery?
“I had to wait nearly a week for surgery. After that, I was in a wheelchair/on crutches and in a walking boot for almost 4 months. I was cleared for non-contact skating around 6 months and was released for contact @ 7 months.”

What fears did you face when returning?
“My sense of personal space changed while my bones were growing back, so I had to get used to being in a tight pack again. I was afraid to get kicked in the leg (for over a year after I returned to skating, my leg ached a lot and any contact with the plates freaked me out). I was afraid that leg would always be weaker, and I was afraid I’d never be able to snowplow correctly again. I reffed for 5 months before I felt comfortable with full contact again, but when I came back, I came back with a vengeance!”

How was your attitude? What kept you going?
“This injury was the worst and best thing that could have happened to me. My drive to return and my ambition to become a better skater than I had been before the break fueled me. I lost over 30 pounds and became faster and more agile than I have ever been.”

Pain factor upon returning?
“I have a pretty high pain threshold, but in the beginning the pain was worse than childbirth! At first, it hurt a lot – enough to make me seriously reconsider returning. (that last for about a day) The pressure on the screws and new bone growth was pretty unpleasant for the first year. Two years out, I’m so used to the dull ache that it rarely registers anymore.”

Did you stay active in derby during your hiatus? If so, how?
“I fell in love with yoga during my recovery. It improved my balance and strength – physically, mentally and emotionally. I highly recommend yoga to any athlete recovering from a serious injury. It changed my life for the better…I practice every day.”

How had the game/skaters changed while you were out?
“Most of my old team retired and the skaters who stayed transferred to other teams. The game became much more strategic – our league began to implement a higher level of training than I’d experienced during my first season. We became more athletic and more driven as a league.”

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How did you get yourself back up to speed?
“I skated my buns off! J I attended every practice, even when I was in the chair or on crutches. I became involved with training so I could watch and learn, even if I couldn’t participate. When I was cleared for noncontact skating, I resumed my outdoor skating a couple of times per week in addition to league practice. The weight loss also helped me regain my agility and speed and the yoga gave me flexibility that helped my range of motion return quickly.”

How had your attitude/approach to derby changed when you returned?
“I have always had a deep and abiding love for derby, but my passion was reignited. You want it so much more when it’s taken away from you! On a personal level, I’d spent several years in a bit of a complacent rut. My injury triggered the most intense aspects of my personality – I was fully charged and ready to return to the track as a completely transformed skater. One of my proudest moments was receiving Most Improved trophies last season from my team and from the entire league – it validated all of the hard work and desire I pour into this sport (and into my training every single day).”

What advice would you give to injured skaters? Any insight?
“It’s so hard not to feel sorry for yourself and wallow a bit. It hurts like hell to watch your league skate without you. Know that this is only a temporary setback. Treat it as a test and pass with flying colors! Don’t get too dependent on your painkillers and don’t drown your sorrows in alcohol, because this will only set you back and make you more miserable. Eat well, get plenty of sleep, and stay as active as your injury permits so that your body will be healthy and heal more quickly. Do your own physical therapy at home in addition to the exercises the doctor and physical therapists give you (just don’t overdo it).”

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Death By Chocolate, #69, Houston Roller Derby – Houston, TX

How did it happen?
“After scoring 43 points in a game, I fell wrong and twisted it. My doctor says it was probably breaking prior to that last fall.”

How long was your recovery?
“3 1/2 months”

What fears did you face when returning?
“How would I skate? How long would it take me to get back to “skating” shape? What if I couldn’t be there to help my team? What if I were more of a hindrance than a help? What if I break something else? What kinda crazy am I?!?!”

How was your attitude? What kept you going?
“Kinda pissy in the beginning. Who wants to sit on the side and watch?! My families (blood and derby) kept me energized, passionate about the sport, and pushing myself. I did it for myself to prove I could come back and still be a threat.”

Pain factor upon returning?
“Stiffness was the main part in coming back to practice 3+ times a week. I was limping after the first game! :o) Pain should only be temporary. Work yourself until the pain goes away, or at least minimizes.”

Did you stay active in derby during your hiatus? If so, how?
“I went to practices, pushed my team mates, helped out my team in every way. Called line-ups for games, was there for calls/talks/emails whenever someone needed me. Just because I couldn’t skate doesn’t mean I couldn’t be a friend.”

How had the game/skaters changed while you were out?
“My injury was prior to rules changes and the amount of time I was out was minimal compared to other injuries. I was lucky/blessed in being able to come back and jump right in. I also pushed myself not only at practices, but doing anything I could to get back in the “skate” of things. Prior to putting my skates back on I made sure I was exercising my entire body, not just the part that was injured. ”

How did you get yourself back up to speed?
“3+ practices a week with my team/league, street skating, biking, running, vitamins, exercises
concentrating on my injury, doctor’s calls about what I could do to help strengthen my ankle.”

How had your attitude/approach to derby changed when you returned?
“There was definitely a level of appreciation that wasn’t there before. To be sidelined and have to watch skaters grumpy, complain, etc made me say I would never complain (seriously!) about being on the floor. I wasn’t a slacker by any means, but ever since I came back I’m one of the first ones on the rink encouraging my team to hit the floor. You never know what small move can take it all away in the blink of an eye.”

What advice would you give to injured skaters? Any insight?
“Don’t let anything hold you back. If you want to skate, put your heart and body into it. Encourage your team mates because they will be the ones out there for you when you need it. You can’t do it alone and it’s always better fun if your friends can have some! :o) I still have my cast and they let me keep the hardware, a screw and 7 plates!!”

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Anne Tagonize, #Exit 62, Tampa Bay Derby Darlings, Tampa, FL

What was your injury?
“I am perpetually injured. It’s become a joke in my league; someone once gave me a handicap sticker for my helmet. First season I broke my nose which broke a blood vessel going to my tooth and turned one of my front teeth black. Second season I sustained knee injury that fractured 2 bones and tore my ACL. This season I am out with tendonitis in my shoulder.”

How did it happen?
“The broken nose happened a few months after we started the league. It was the night we formed teams and adrenaline was running high, several people were injured. I got hit with an elbow when another skater flailed her arms to keep her balance. The knee injury at the beginning of the second season was from a tangle up. A teammate and I were going for the jammer and her blocker hit me from the inside into my teammate and we both went down. My leg got twisted around hers. The tendonitis I am currently out with happened because I tried to jump back into scrimmaging before I was ready.”

How long was your recovery?
“The broken nose didn’t keep me out long, maybe 6 weeks. For the knee injury I was out for 6 months. I am still battling tendonitis, it’s been off and on for almost two years. It’ll be fine for a while but if I jar my shoulder during a fall, it flares up again. My doctor thinks I haven’t allowed it to fully heal, so I’ve taken myself off the roster for this season to do that.”

What fears did you face when returning?
“When I came back from the first injury, I definitely played more cautiously. I noticed I would tuck my head down a lot which affected visibility and therefore my effectiveness. Once I was able to change my focus to the job I had to do, I thought less & less about protecting my nose.”

How was your attitude? What kept you going?
“It is the most difficult thing in the world for me to watch others skate when I can’t. I still wanted to be a part of the league, so I continued to come to practices. But it’s hard to not let that get you down. But I just kept telling myself that it was temporary, and that other people go through this too.”

Pain factor upon returning?
“I had the most trouble with the knee injury, the fractures healed quickly and weren’t painful but the ACL was. I skated with a knee brace for about 3 months after coming back and then gaskets which I still wear.”

Did you stay active in derby during your hiatus? If so, how?
“I had such a passion for derby I still had to be involved in some way. It gave me a chance to contribute more administratively, which the league really needed anyway. And I was Bench Manager for my team which still allowed me to feel part of my team. A lot of girls disappear when they get injured and feel like the league has forgotten about them. It’s really the responsibility of the injured skater to stay active and a part of the league.”

How had the game/skaters changed while you were out?
“The knee injury happened right at the beginning of our second season. Our league was getting
exponentially better, having learned from the mistakes of the first season. They were working on fine tuning skills and technique. It was a little overwhelming coming back after 6 months and feeling like everyone had gotten so much better and I had to work to get back to where I was before the injury.”

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How did you get yourself back up to speed?
“My endurance had taken a big hit after the knee injury, so I focused on that. I started running, which I hate to do, but I just kept the vision of the championship cup in my mind. Looking back I should have been working on my upper body during my recovery since that part of me was fine. I also made a mistake by jumping back into scrimmaging too soon. I didn’t think that my agility and balance would have suffered during the absence, but it did. I had come back from watching the 2007 Nationals in Austin and I was inspired and motivated. I came back to practice the next week and immediately started scrimmaging. By the 3^rd jam, I was getting worn out and ended up getting knocked down. When I went down, I turned my body to protect my knee and fell on my shoulder. I knew right away something was wrong and two days later, I couldn’t lift my arm up.”

How had your attitude/approach to derby changed when you returned?
“I definitely think more about the risk. I’m getting older and my body doesn’t respond like it used to. I won’t jump back into playing until I feel completely comfortable, even though it gets harder the more time I spend away from it. Watching the game isn’t anywhere near the fun of playing the game.”

What advice would you give to injured skaters? Any insight?
“It’s no brainer but listen to your doctor. Don’t try to jump right back in too quickly, if you aren’t physically AND mentally ready, you can end up worsening your injuries. Work out any part of your body that you can while you’re recovering. And this might sound corny, but I found that visualization exercises help. Before I came back, I would do some exercises where I imagined myself performing the things that I saw at practice.

I would picture myself doing them over and over. And when I returned, I would do refocusing exercises on the line before a jam to try to keep my focus off my injuries and on the game. I would turn and look at the opposing jammer and imagine a target on her chest. I would look at her closely so that when I looked away I had a good mental image of her and I would keep that image in my head. I would repeat in my head things like “stay low”, “communicate”, and “hold the line”. Focusing on those things over and over helped me train myself to not think about anything else. Eventually when I got caught up in the action enough, there was no longer a need to consciously refocus my mind.”

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To anyone outside of roller derby, it might seem crazy to put skates back on after a major injury such as what some of us have experienced. To jump back on the proverbial horse that threw you might seem insane to civilians. But amongst roller derby girls, it’s just the way we do things. We don’t try to hide our bruises, and we wear our scars with pride. And while there may not exactly be safety in numbers when it comes to derby injuries, it is safe to assume that whether it be a broken nose or a broken leg, in roller derby, you are never alone. Just ask Pyro Maim Ya. I always did.

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