Don’t you just love it when life comes at you with an unexpected pleasant surprise? This was my experience recently when meeting up with some roller skaters while doing research for a local roller skate shop.
Let me explain. I am not a skater. Though I rollerbladed a bit as a child, it was mostly around the neighborhood with my brother, or just a way to get to work (at a local pool) before I had a car and a driver’s license. So when I say that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into by entering into this subculture, I mean it. Walking into this very specialized arena like a baby deer in the headlights was daunting, to say the least. What I did know was that the roller skaters I see along the boulevard are always perfectly matched from head to toe and glide effortlessly as if they were born with skates on their feet. On the other end are the roller derby girls, which frankly, I just imagined as a female version of a pro-wrestler, or the Hulk: strong, tough, unwelcoming, and callous. I was so wrong. Here is where my journey to enlightenment begins.
I first did research online and found out I knew so much less than I thought. There are how many components to a roller skate? What do all of these things even do? How many different kinds of skates are there? What do all these new words mean? Cue the fueling of my ever-growing anxiety about talking to these girls.
Despite my complete lack of knowledge and the social anxiety I’ve developed for being shut indoors over the past year-ish of this pandemic, I decided to push on and headed to two skate shops: the one I was redesigning a website for, and it’s main competitor in the area.
To give a little background on the shop I’m designing for, they have been a female skater owned local business for the last 16 years. The shop was opened by roller derby girls in 2005, and although they have expanded their inventory to support skaters of all kinds, they still maintain a heavy focus on roller derby gear and support of that community. I arrived at their little shop in an obscure industrial park in San Diego and paused outside the door, not sure if I could really go in there. After a few minutes and an internal pep talk, I entered and prepared to be uncomfortable and embarrassed.
The shop itself looks more industrial, like a garage or shipping container. There were 1–2 people walking around, someone in the back at a counter working on what I assumed was a repair, and one sales associate mingling about. I wandered for a few minutes and wondered if I would engage anyone at all, or if I should just peek around and head to the next shop. I took a few photos and was then noticed by the sales associate. Here we go.
When I told her I had no knowledge and was just starting out, she was not phased at all, and instead began to make recommendations and show me what inventory was in stock. We had a brief but very friendly conversation during which I learned more about what is important to look for in skates, the different styles, customization options, and how to connect with them and their skate community. I even got to hear a bit about the derby league she is in and where to find more derby skaters to interview. To my utter shock, she was one of the kindest people I have ever met. I left that shop in awe and shocked at how quickly my perceptions had begun to shift. On to the next shop.
The second roller skate shop was much newer, full of color (lots of pink) and imagery of beaches, flamingos, and roller skates painted all over the walls. This felt much more like the local beach boutique layout I was familiar with. Still clinging to my insecurity, I timidly walked through the store as their only customer and was immediately approached. Again I told the associate I was just getting started and didn’t know where to begin. And again, without hesitation, she led me to a few options for beginners, explained the differences with the skates, and offered to pull some out for me to try on — which I did. And although I did not make a purchase, she was incredibly kind and more than happy to talk to me about their rental skate program, her experience with skating, and her roller derby team.
How have I been so wrong about who these girls are?
My last stop was a roller derby training class that evening at a local skate park. Time to find out if the derby girls would obliterate me or just my assumptions. I approached the park near dusk. It was just a patch of gated pavement in the middle of a field — not what I was expecting at all. Like in the shops, there were only a few girls there, so there was no way to conceal my presence or observe discreetly from afar. So in I went.
Awkwardly I approached and expected to be greeted with apprehension, but surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly at this point), they seemed excited that I was there. I told them what I was working on and wanted to observe and ask a few questions — requests which they were more than happy to oblige. The girls learning to skate for derby were of various levels of experience, however the girls leading the class were patient and encouraging. This felt very much more like a coach teaching athletes how to refine their skills. I imagined roller derby to look and feel different from other sports for some reason. Why this dynamic in skating had never occurred to me before, I will never know. The long and short here is that I once again had a great conversation with the girls who were there. They were excited to share their experience, happy to answer any questions (even ones I thought would come across unintelligent), and actually invited me to join a future lesson or attend a match. I will definitely be taking them up on these offers. They were great!
As my research went on, what I discovered is that despite how the sport looks during a match or competition, roller skaters are not interested in competing with one another on a personal level. Instead, they are all looking for something to do that keeps them active; that gets them outdoors; that provides an opportunity to connect with others (particularly with women) and to empower each other to enjoy being themselves at their best.
Roller skaters (and derby girls) are not mean, harsh, or cold at all. In fact, they have found a way to buck the typical female experience of undermining one another to stand out and instead have formed a tribe of women from all over, of all walks and experience levels, and with a plethora of varied skating interests. They are warm and welcoming. They build each other up and hold no expectations of who you should be. They are there to empower and support one another, and I, for one, am here for it and have never been so happy to be wrong. So if you, like me, have been stuck indoors for too long and need an escape, get out there and grab some skates and join in on the fun.