The First Lap
I arrive at Skateland forty-five minutes before tryouts are scheduled to begin. Walking into the building I’m greeted by a cool, air-conditioned atmosphere that smells like Big Red cinnamon gum. I approach a booth where two girls wearing derby t-shirts sit organizing papers. Because I’ve seen their photos on the Fargo Moorhead Derby Girls website, I recognize one as Maulflower and the other as Skaty Gaga.
“Are you here for tryouts?” Skaty Gaga asks, pen in hand hovering over a sheet of paper. She looks at me with a partial grin as if hiding something besides the rest of her marvelously straight white teeth.
I nervously reply that I am and tell her my name.
“Oh, you’re the Sammi who sent me the email asking for tryout information.”
I smile, nod and recollect that in her email reply the word helmet had been spelled helmut which had caused me to wonder if too many derby hits eventually led to a complete disregard for spell check.
I rent a pair of tired looking tan skates equipped with bright orange wheels that don’t feel or look much different than painted rocks. While I haven’t been on roller skates for God knows how long, I had earlier that day rummaged through my Christmas decorations, golf accessories, and long forgotten winter sweaters to find at the bottom of the heap my trusty 8th grade purple roller blades. While the blades had felt a bit tighter than I originally remembered, I was able to complete a short spin around my south Fargo ghetto neighborhood with zero wipeouts – a sure sign I was ready to play roller derby.
“Oh shit!” is the first thing I mutter when I finally stand in the laced-up rentals. Unsure whether it’s easier to walk or skate across the carpeted area, I use a metal railing to pull myself toward the rink and down onto the hardwood floor. There are already a handful of derby girls out on the track skating in a counterclockwise circle. Decked out in helmets, kneepads, elbow pads, and wrist guards they appear to be going Mach 3 and are as cool with skating as Rod Blagojevich is with selling Obama’s senate seat. An overwhelming desire to “be like them” kicks into gear and, trying to gain composure of my shaky legs, I release my death grip on the railing and coast onto the track.
A derby girl skates up to me and offers a friendly hello. I try to look up from the ground to return the greeting but swiveling my head disrupts my concentration and nearly lands me on my ass.
“How do you skate so fast?” I ask the derby girl, my eyes glued to the floor while trying to find a fluid skating motion.
“I’ve practiced for a while,” she replies as we merge toward the center of the track, “trust me, it just takes time.”
Our leader for the evening introduces herself as “Sargent Largent” or “Sarge” for short. She welcomes us new girls with such genuine warmth and sincere gratitude that I figure she’s sweet and harmless – especially because she sports a large colorful cherry-topped cupcake tattoo on her arm. However, within seconds of beginning the first drill, somebody flips the crazy switch on Sarge and she begins screaming, “SKATE FASTER DAMMIT!” All of us new girls exchange nervous glances with one another, each of us expressing a common “oh my GOD!” with our eyes. [Note: to this day I find myself apprehensive around anyone who has a cupcake inked on his/her arm.]
As tryouts progress I’m mesmerized by some of the new girls who have complete control over their skates. They seem to possess mad Nancy Kerrigan skills - whirling and twirling around the rink like they’re floating on some fluffy angelic cloud - while all I seem to possess is a pair of demonic skates that enjoy driving me into either the Pollock-esque carpeted wall at the far end of the rink or the steel blue railing at the near.
Three-quarters of the way through tryouts I get cocky during a drill the derby girls call the “25 in 5” and think "ooh yeah, I’ve made ten laps around the track…I’ve TOTALLY got the hang of this skating business." Just as I lift my head up to look at nobody in particular, my right foot quivers and veers north toward Winnipeg while my left foot takes a southwest route toward Tucson. I topple forward in what must look like a slow-motioned Hollywood “I’ve-been-shot!” stupor and hear a harmonic “OOOhhh!” crescendo from the chorus of on-looking seasoned veterans as I squeal to bare-kneed halt on the polished wood floor.
Finally, at the end of the grueling three-hour-LONG tryout session I find myself with aching wrists, bruises in places I didn’t know could bruise, a bad case of tinnitus from Sarge’s screaming, and a burning hatred for the rental skates that have undoubtedly caused irreversible nerve damage to my feet and my ego.
Outside of Skateland a nervous energy hangs in the mid-July evening air. I smile when I meet the eyes of a fellow competitor but shy away from engaging in any light chatter. I’m certain I haven’t made the team since three-quarters of the girls trying out actually know how to skate and stop – a winning combination in my eyes.
After what seems like an eternity, Sarge and the other FMDG skaters who have evaluated us exit Skateland and join us in the parking lot to announce the results. In a half-grimaced state of anticipation I wait for Sarge’s “SKATE-FASTER-DAMMIT!” voice to crack the air, yet to mine and everyone else’s great surprise she addresses us using an “inside” voice - even though we’re all outside - and we now find ourselves inching closer to her cautiously, the way one would approach a firecracker that didn’t go off.
“Well, as you’re all aware, there are thirteen spots available to fill in the league and twenty of you tried out. Naturally, seven of you should be sent home. However, after looking over everybody’s charts and taking into consideration that 40% of you probably won’t survive past two weeks of practice, we’ve decided to take all of you.”
A roar of cheers and laughter rockets skyward but I find myself unable to participate in the excitement because my jaw is nearly resting on the pavement in a you’ve-got-to- be-kidding- me state of awe and bewilderment.
“Congratulations!” Sarge finally yells in her familiar loud voice, “you’re now derby girls! Welcome to FMDG!”