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I Joined a Rollerderby Team at 46

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(Photo courtesy Shelly Rabuse)

Here’s the thing: Most weekdays I’m a website designer, jewelry crafter and mom with a 13-year-old daughter and a husband who works in finance. And while I live in the suburbs of Philly, I’m not your typical 46-year-old suburban mom. On weekends I like to “jam,” throw “whips” and “booty block.”

And by jam, I don’t mean canning up strawberries.

This kind of jamming.

I’m a brand new member of the Penn Jersey Roller Derby team.

How did I get here? My history of roller derby goes something like this:

Philadelphia Warrior: One Saturday afternoon, when I was 14-years-old-ish, I happened to be watching roller derby on a black-and-white TV in my room. My dad came in, flipped out and told me “you aren’t supposed to be watching that junk.” Remember, in the ’70s, women’s roller derby was more like pro-wrestling with women really slugging each other. Some of the same people in those leagues — like the Philadelphia Warriors — are now our coaches. It wasn’t like I had any compulsion to watch roller derby. It was just on. But my dad was pissed. That was the last time I’d watched real roller derby.

Learning to Fly: I learned to roller skate at a roller rink two blocks away from my house, Young’s Regency. I would go roller skating (not derby, mind you) every Friday night, sometimes Saturdays. They had a flat rink, a giant disco ball, and always played the same music: Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache”, or Rick James’ “Give it To Me Baby” and a lot of REO Speedwagon. Oddly enough, my father was on the local town planning committee and his was the deciding vote to build this roller rink. He thought it would be nice for the kids. He just didn’t like roller derby. The building is now a library.

Rollergirls: I watched the movie Whip It and thought, you know, I could do that, that looks really cool, but I’m too damn old.

TN01_rollerderby_270The Rabruiser: My interest in roller derby was stoked by a flyer in my local Starbucks — a pink and black poster, emblazoned with crazy graphics that featured a roller derby game that weekend. I saw something of myself in that picture, something I imagined I might like. I’m pretty competitive and I like sports — tennis, skiing, softball, bowling — but, I have never played a contact sport; and this was something out of my comfort zone. A friend suggested I try out. On Facebook I asked for roller derby name suggestions and “The Rabruiser” came up so I created this graphic as a joke.

Yet, I came up with a million excuses as to why I couldn’t do it. The practices were at night and in a rough part of the city. What if everyone thought I was way too old? What if I fell and broke something?

A while later the same friend posted a photo from a derby game. I jokingly asked, “Where am I in the photo?” He flat out said, “You chickened out.” Oh hell, no. That was the moment when I officially decided, let’s do this…

New Recruit: I’d decided to join the co-ed Penn Jersey Roller Derby league but I’d just missed the sign-up date for new recruits. But when I called they told me to just show up. (And as we’ve all heard many times, that’s half the battle right?) I bought a rookie package of skates, helmet and pads and set out for a forlorn part of North Philly. What I found inside was a cavernous, window-filled warehouse that doubled as a derby venue and practice facility. Other rookies were already lacing up their skates in the locker room. I felt like the new kid on the first day of school. One thing I did not feel though was old — there were women (and men) of all ages, sizes and abilities. I was immediately welcomed by a friendly group of veteran skaters, all wearing their red and black team shirts. Ruby Bruiseday. Fonda Dixenshoes. Classy Chassis. Chelsea Hately. Another rookie, Cat Astrophic, introduced herself; turned out she is a year older than me, so we immediately bonded. I was feeling right at home.

Bigger is Better: Each of the male and female rookies skated at a different level — from hot dogging former hockey players, to some who’d never skated a day in their life. Turns out I could still stay up on two feet; my years skating as a kid served me well. Roller derby is a pretty simple sport when you break it down. Each team has five skaters — a pivot in the front, three blockers in the middle and a jammer in the back. The object of the game is to get your jammer through the pack and the other team’s blockers to skate around the track, and get by as many of the other teams players as they can on their second pass. For each person you pass, you score a point. Speed and agility are important. And this is one sport where it kind of helps you to be bigger; the idea is to knock people down and you need to be able to absorb blows. You’re literally throwing yourself at people.

No Time For Apologies: I learned very quickly that roller derby means never having to say you are sorry. Each time I would knock someone down I wanted to apologize and help them up — but the coach would yell at us to keep moving. I also learned that as nice as the vets and coaches are, they are ruthless on the track. Just because we were new, they wanted to be sure we could take it. During the very first two weeks I fell hard and hit my head — several times. It takes everything you’ve got not to just throw in the towel and not return. Last weekend a woman flew over the rail on our banked track and got back up and started skating again. I’ve seen people go out in a wheelchair. Suffice it to say you can buy Derby insurance, and you might want to.

I’m a Voodoo Vixen: After three months in the rookie program, I did well enough to first make the Hell’s Belles, the B team (where most rookies start.)  This meant choosing an official roller derby name. While perusing the national register of roller derby names I discovered that, no matter how clever you are, that name is already taken. So no Princess Slayer, Dutchess of Wails, or Phyllis Killer for me. And since a lot of people went by their derby names I figured I’d just keep it simple and go with an old Hollywood actress I always liked. And so, Shelly Splinters was born. Want to make your own name? Here’s a fun derby name generator.

I’ve recently been drafted to a new team, the Voodoo Vixens. So now I’m a bona fide derby addict. After skating for two hours I feel completely energized, there’s nothing like it. And I thrive on the tremendous encouragement I get from my teammates. I expect I’ll do this for as long as I can. I could imagine celebrating my 50th birthday on skates — as long as I don’t get too beat up in the meantime.

This piece was originally published September 24, 2013 on TueNight.com

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Shelly "Splinters" Rabuse

Shelly Rabuse lives in a Main Line suburb of Philadelphia with her husband, 13 year old daughter, 2 cats and a smelly dog. She freelances as a graphic designer and makes jewelry when she is not getting beaten up playing roller derby.

20 Comments

  1. Years back, I was with my kids at the now-shuttered Empire Roller Rink in Bklyn when a woman asked me to consider joining the Gotham Girls rollerderby team Still have my skates and, now, my nom de derby (love that name generator!): Atomic Destruction…though I was thinking Dori Furnace sounds, um, kinda hot. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  3. Lori Lantz says

    What a great story! I don’t think I’d last long in roller derby, but I started doing power yoga when I was in my forties. In my probably skewed perspective, the people my age were all sinewy veterans, while the newbies were supple twenty-somethings. Despite my misgivings, I stuck around. It’s so easy to think that it’s too late to start something new – but it’s not!

    By the way, our local roller rink played an endless loop of “My Sharona.”

  4. Susan Linney
    Susan Linney says

    LOVE this story, Go Shelly Splinters! And thanks for the link to that fun name generator: You may call me Duncan AnnihilateHer. Although, unlike you, I’m just an imaginary “jammer.”

    Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Shelly "Splinters" Rabuse
    Shelly says

    The thing about roller derby is its so much more than a contact sport – yeah, you have to haul ass and show up but I’ve met the most inspiring and cool people and I Amos grateful for that. You are never too old if you believe in something (and yourself!)

  6. Lauren Young says

    Shelly, if anyone can rock the roller derby, it’s you. But how do you wear a helmet with a bee hive?

  7. the Warriors were Roller games, not real Roller Derby, but they had great skaters including Buddy Atkinson, Jr. and Judi Sowinski, the original trainer for PJRD……I love that there is banked track Roller Derby still skating original rules……check out http://www.jerryseltzer.wordpress.com for a bit of history in cases you haven’t.

    The Commisioner

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