News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
The Secret Life of a Roller Derby Queen
Dressing Up and Acting out on a Saturday Night
In ordinary life, Jane McManus (A93), on the right in this promotional poster, is a journalist and the mother of two little girls. On Saturday nights, she becomes Lesley E. Visserate, Roller Derby Queen.
It was my first night scrimmaging. I was part of a visiting roller derby team in an ancient skating rink called Roller Magic. The women there had names like Bleeding Rainbow and Pinky Swears, and I knew once we got started they were going to try their hardest to knock me off my skates and onto the polished wood floor.
And as much as I had butterflies, I wanted to get at them first.
My 5-year-old daughter was at the snack bar, playing with some of the other kids tagging along with moms, and a few fathers, tattooed or nose-ringed, casually watched over them.
First two-minute jam, I was a capable blocker. I can do this, I thought, and I rammed into Pinky. Once I got comfortable, one of the veterans threw me the jammer helmet cover, meaning I was the only one who could score points for the team. The whistle blew, and I cut through the pack of skaters quickly and cleanly, beating the other woman at the spot. I skated out fast and glanced at the tables to see Jean jumping up and down.
"Go, Mommy, go!"
I knew I was going to like roller derby before I pitched the story to the newspaper I write for, The Journal News in the New York City suburbs. I've worked as a sportswriter for the last 10 years, covering most sports from amateur to professional. Some I try, some I like better than others. I loved roller derby from the start: the physicality of it, the speed and, let's face it, the fishnets. I joined the local league, Suburbia Roller Derby, and adopted a name a sportswriter can live with—Lesley E. Visserate. I got an e-mail from longtime sports broadcaster Lesley Visser after I told her. Subject line: "How are we doing?"
Some background on me. I am in my, ahem, 30s and I live in the New York suburbs. I have two little girls, ages 5 and 3. Although I got my first tattoo at age 19, you wouldn't know about it unless you work out at my gym or know me really, really well. So I'm not the usual derby demographic on the surface.
But I love derby for the same reasons you can find features on the sport in any newspaper lucky enough to have a hometown league: it's sex and violence in one sporty package.
Stockings, stripes and Jolly Rogers colliding in a tangle of wheels and limbs. I like the theater of it, and the fact that—before the crowd and the DJs at a public bout—it's just a group of women practicing for months on a dusty sport court at the police gym in Yonkers, drenched with sweat by the end of the night.
For me and for a lot of women who I play with, roller derby means getting out of the nest, out of the life that has been made comfortable. Out of the world of white-collar workers and academia, out of affluence and covering other people's achievements. For a night, it's my chance to be cheered, to dress up and act out.
In the last five years, roller derby has attracted thousands of women. And, in an age when the WNBA has to beg for the insignificant coverage it gets, women in ponytails and skates get the front page of the sports section. It reminds me of the mid-1980s, when a women's basketball team had players dress in unitards to titillate the fans.
I am a basketball player first, even now, so that double standard irks me. But I don't blame derby for being sexy. When she bats her pretty eyes at me, it's hard to stay mad.
American audiences still have a hard time with women and sports. Tennis has short skirts, so it gets a pass. Softball might have lesbians, so that's scary. Volleyball players are in bikinis, which is awesome. Just like in life, pretty athletes get the coverage—why, hello, Danica Patrick! Who are you wearing?
Given what I do for a living, I've given this some thought. I also noticed that it was really hard to find a women's basketball league nearby. After the passage of Title IX in 1973 and the millions of women who started playing sports, I assumed there would be legions of women playing basketball once I got out of St. John's in 1993.
I'm still waiting.
And so are a lot of soccer players, lacrosse players—in fact, most anyone who played a team sport. Adult women's leagues are few and far between in my area just north of New York City. I did a story on this a year ago, and I actually sat down and counted, calling up leagues and recreation departments and talking to women who once played a sport in high school.
You want to know why so many women run? It's because there aren't a lot of other options, and it's easy to schedule. I've talked to women who hate running, but hate being inactive just slightly more.
Some of those women come over to the dark side. Kimberly O'Leary, a woman who goes by Vixen Von Bruisen on Suburbia, played seriously in high school. You can see it from the way she leads practice, very hard physically, but fun.
As much fun as it is put on a flirty uniform on the Saturday nights we hold our bouts at E.J. Murray's Memorial Rink in Yonkers, there is a ton of work leading up to it. We are a young league, just a year old, and we are still learning. Some of our players come from other leagues and could mop up the court with us rookies, but it really is a cooperative environment where we try to help each other get better at the basic skills.
My learning curve is slow. I have a competitive streak, and I want to be the best player out there immediately, which I definitely am not. I throw my elbows, which is just one of the illegal habits I have. There have been nights I've been so frustrated with myself that I wanted to quit, and other nights when I wondered if I was insane.
In early February, I was blocking Jeri Fling'her (a mother of two and health technician who lives in Connecticut). I was a little off balance but thought I had her. I missed her and fell backwards, slamming my tailbone on the floor. It hurt, but I told myself to get the $#*% up and finish the jam.
After practice, I drove to a gas station in a crappy part of town and asked, through the bulletproof glass, for a frozen sandwich. The guy tried to sell me a refrigerated Hot Pocket but I said, "No, it has to be solid ice." Just then my teammate Black Star Heroine pulled up in a station wagon to ask if I was OK—a woman in a sketchy neighborhood wearing fishnets—and I paid for a chicken sandwich.
I told her what happened and that I was in a lot of pain.
"Oh, that happened to me, too," Black Star said. "It's probably going to wake you up for the next few nights."
I sat on the chicken sandwich for the 30-minute drive home, shifting uncomfortably in my seat the whole way. I thought about what I was doing—wedging frozen meat under my tailbone—and whether it was really a sensible decision for me to play a sport like this.
I did wake up in pain. I popped Advils. I couldn't drive my stick shift for weeks. It is a solid six months later, and my tailbone still aches. You know it's the one bone they can't do anything for when it breaks?
Still, I was back at practice the next week.
Call it my midlife crisis. I'm staving off the creep of mediocrity. I had my lame old tattoo redone in brilliant colors and invested in fishnets of every variety. My body has emerged from the years of pregnancy and nursing, wonderful in their own way, but over.
I have abs again.
This might not last forever. I'm covering the New York Jets for the first time this season, and I'm aware that I could get an injury tomorrow that causes my little hobby to intrude on my real life. But I will savor my tenure as a roller girl while I can.
Jane McManus (A93)