I was teetering along the concrete track at about 5 miles per hour, a pathetic speed that nonetheless significantly exceeded my comfort zone. “Baseball slide,” barked a blonde pixie in a tiny pink skirt and massive black TSG kneepads over leopard-print tights. I tensed my core, gingerly lowered my left knee, and on impact, slipped the other leg through like a baseball player sliding into home plate. After an awkward couple of meters, I came to a stop leaning on my left hip and elbow, my right leg stretched up in what could only be called a “cheesecake” pose. “Blow us a kiss!” yelled one of the other newbies.
This is what the London Rollergirls charmingly refer to as “fresh meat,” the intake session for roller derby novices: a grueling four hours of falling and skating, and falling, and skating.
I had wobbled in that morning, 10 years off skates and terrified. I had just attended a bout in which an all-star Roller girl was carted off on a stretcher. What possible hope did I have of walking out of here with my ass in one piece?
But I was set to rights by that little pixie, a veteran roller girl named Emmeline May who goes by the skate name “May B. Twisted.” It turns out that staying in one piece in a violent full-contact sport like roller derby isn’t about defensive plays or speed. It’s about knowing exactly how to hold your body–whether you’re skating, hitting or falling–so that it never gets caught off guard. If Twisted is particularly good at teaching us how to hold our bodies, it’s because in addition to being a top notch trainer and formidable roller girl, she has a chronic illness that puts many of its victims into wheelchairs.
May B. Twisted is a nice example of the punny absurdity of derby names, a quick sampling of which includes Vital Sadistic, Smack Daddy and ‘Snot Rocket Science.
Even the refs get in on the action with names like Ballistic Whistle and Sid Officious.
Twisted’s derby name in-joke is that she is double jointed. “But not in the fun way,” she says. “This is my only party trick.”
She can bend her pinkie in this painfully unnatural way thanks to benign joint hypermobility syndrome. Like its distant cousin Marfan syndrome, HMS is a connective tissue disorder whose symptoms fall on a wide spectrum of severity: the lucky ones are just really bendy, and the unlucky ones are left incapacitated. “I have friends in wheelchairs who can’t stand up without dislocating their pelvis,” Twisted tells me. She falls more towards the middle of the spectrum, but not much.
She pays a steep price for that party trick. Her muscles need to work overtime to stabilize her weak joints, which leaves some underdeveloped–such as her triceps–and others, like her calf muscles, completely overdeveloped. “And that doesn’t mean crazy strong,” Twisted says. Instead, they’re extremely tight, which puts them at risk of tearing. Her feet are so misshapen that she has to wear orthotics that look positively disheartening. She has bunions. She lives on ibuprofen.
These symptoms are common among people who deal with HMS, and yet surprisingly, it wasn’t recognized as a real medical problem until relatively recently. As a diagnosis, it’s still somewhat controversial. Symptoms in children were dismissed as “growing pains,” and adults were placed into the “you’re imagining things, complainer” camp with people who have fibromyalgia.
As a result, Twisted had no idea she was sick. As a kid, she hated sports because even moderate activity left her with shin splints and inexplicable soreness. Eventually avoiding the pain became avoiding all exercise, and she became, she says, “quite overweight.”
In 2007, to motivate herself to get fit, she joined the only sport that was worth the pain. “If I didn’t play roller derby, I wouldn’t have anything to work through it for,” she says. But roller derby meant more pain. First came more shin splints, and not just your garden variety runner’s type: in Twisted’s case, the fascia (the connective tissue that connects the calf muscles to the tibia) is under so much stress that it will separate from the bone. “It was an Occam’s razor situation,” she says. “Shin splints, fine. But then shoulder problems? And then a bunch of repetitive stress injuries?” Alarmingly, she stopped being able to grip things right. “My hands just couldn’t grip. How could all these things be going wrong at the same time, but there’s nothing wrong with me?”
Fed up, she went to University College Hospital in London, which houses one of the United Kingdom’s leading rheumatology departments. The science had improved since she was a child, and now there were electrode and muscle tests to confirm what she had suspected her whole life. It wasn’t all in her head. Twisted had HMS.
That was the (moderately) good news. The bad news? Skating had started to do serious damage to her shins. Her doctor insisted that she stop skating. Her teammates too, started to become skeptical. They didn’t want someone competing who would present a much higher risk of injury on the track. “That was a real kick in the bum,” she says.
So she started working with a physiotherapist to find out just how far she could push herself without having to recuperate for months at a time. To stay competitive, she has to understand her body: how to hold herself, how to stretch, and how far to push herself.
Training takes extra discipline. Twisted can neither afford to ignore pain nor succumb to it. Giving in when you feel bad won’t work when you have a chronic pain condition. On the other hand, no matter how good she’s feeling, she can never push past the tricky threshold that separates good pain from bad. If she does, she has to pay, by taking off weeks at a time to let her body recuperate. When time off isn’t not enough, she succumbs to hideous medical massages to unfuse the muscles that have gotten stuck to the tibiae.
But her work has paid off. It’s unlikely for someone with HMS to even compete in such a violent and committed sport. Roller derby isn’t a casual thing. Roller girls practice three or four times a week, all day Sunday. All the women she plays with are impressive athletes by any standards. Twisted excelled–she’s now a sub for the B team, which means she’s in the top 50 percent of the London Rollergirls. “That was a huge moment for me,” she says.
Her hard-won awareness of limits and boundaries also makes her an excellent instructor. “She teaches the new intakes more often than anyone else does,” says London Rollergirl all-star Missyle Elliott. “People really like the way she teaches them.”
“Can you feel it?” Twisted shouts at the floor full of panting, red-faced baby rollergirls wincing into a deep stretch. “If you are not feeling this, you are not doing it right.” Just as she micromanages our stretching, she shows us every minute detail of how to fall. The first thing she tells the 50 newbies gathered around her–all tricked out in our brand-new knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmets and mouth guards–is how to properly throw ourselves down on that uneven, prickly concrete floor. This knowledge fills me with an improbable amount of confidence. In the space of half an hour I go from terrified wobbling to zipping around the track rediscovering the joys of the cross-over. No matter how fast I go, no matter how risky I skate, if I go down, I’m going down right. There’s no feeling like knowing how to fall.
For now, Twisted is on top of the world. But the future is less certain. HMS can progress as you get older, and leaves many people with early-onset osteoarthritis. But Twisted says she’ll keep skating as long as she can stand on her two legs: “I don’t want to become someone who can’t do things,” she says. “My HMS would become part of my persona, and I would take on that role of a ‘sick person.’ Roller derby has made me not give up when my body is trying really hard to give up on me.”