This past weekend I traveled to the Seattle area with my parents and much of our immediate family to see our baby sister skate her final roller derby tournament. It was a great and wild time, a memory-making bonanza to say the least, and an emotional milestone too. The end of an era.
I’ll write soon about the funny stuff. Today, I want to commemorate Gen’s career. On Sunday as we drove to a late lunch just before her final bout, she indulged me in a casual interview. The weight and beauty of her answers blew me away.
Some Basic Facts About Roller Derby
- Modern women’s roller derby began as a grassroots movement in Texas in early 2000 and continued to Arizona and the Los Angeles area shortly thereafter.
- The sport is not yet a viable money-making industry like it aims to be, but it is also no longer the underground “fishnet subculture” that most people remember from the seventies. (Drinking and smoking before skating is no longer allowed, for example.)
- (But there are sometimes barfights, not that I have any scandalous details.)
- It’s a “pay to play” team sport and not a cheap one. Gen mentioned monthly dues of $50-$100, expensive skates ($600-$700 per pair, plus wheels), several hundred dollars more in miscellaneous gear, plus travel costs to participate in bouts and tournaments. These are rarely and then only barely offset by league funds.
- It’s time-consuming, too. Weekly practices add up to 4-6 hours, plus mandatory volunteering, and lots of travel throughout the year. The women who participate are dedicated and passionate.
- Juniors are girls ages 7-17. Women are 18+, though when Gen started the cut-off age was 21.
- Some women stay on their skates well into their forties and fifties. The average age for active skating seems to be late-twenties through mid-thirties.
- It’s sexy, but it’s not about sex. (I added that part because this is my blog.)
Gen’s first exposure to roller derby was in November 2009. She was a young woman, a self-sufficient, hard-working college grad, living alone in downtown Los Angeles. In an active phase of self-discovery, she walked around talking to people, making friends and seeing the world with her own eyes. One night she met some Los Angeles Derby Dolls in a bar. They invited her to an upcoming bout, and immediately upon witnessing the live event Gen thought, “I have to do THAT!”
Having played various sports all her life, including weightlifting, volleyball, basketball, T-ball, soccer, swimming, and lots of track and field, Gen was already a well-established athlete. But this sport had a new appeal. She liked that it was “faster and rougher than sports most girls got to play.” She was drawn to it, and she pursued it.
Her first tryout for LADD was January 2010, but she had unwittingly fitted her skates with outdoor wheels. The spongier, stickier material kept her from stopping fully on the indoor track, so she did not make the team. (I remember her acute disappointment at this time, as well as her determination to get it right. Looking back now, realizing how fresh the interest was for her then, puts into perspective what an impact that first exposure must have made.)
Gen took lessons to develop her basic skating skills (Derby por Vida), practiced for a few months, and replaced her wheels. In March 2010 she tried out again and made the “Fresh Meat” team! Two other women, Julia and Marit, made that same team, and the three of them would become lifelong friends.
“Wreckonomic Stimulus, #787 Billion”
Always clever, often a little naughty, and a key ingredient to the sport’s entertainment value, skate names are just plain cool. Sometimes they are bestowed on a skater by her peers; other times she chooses an edgy moniker herself. Either way, the new identity is sacred. In my sister’s case, she chose her own name from a brainstormed list of 30 or 40 possibilities. The final choice is exceedingly clever and could not be more perfect for her.
“Wreckonomic Stimulus” is a nod to Gen’s finance-based education and profession in accounting, together with the recent history (at that time) of the 2007 stock market crash and subsequent and much-debated government bailout. Plus, wreck, for all the derby violence, ha! Her actual jersey number is #787 billion, to denote the amount of the bailout. And yes, when the announcers call her name they also provide her number and take the time to say the word “billion,” haha! So funny!
On some of her skate shorts is emblazoned the nickname WREX, which is her full skate name abbreviated to honor our Grandpa Rex. I wish I had been there to see his face when she told him! No doubt he loved that so much and gave a good belly laugh.
Once Gen and Julia (aka “Infinite Pest,” happy nod to the mythical David Foster Wallace tome, because Julia is the coolest bibliophile you’ll ever meet!) had been friends and teammates for a while, Gen decided to propose derby marriage. In derby, having a close and dedicated ally for all the work and travel and much needed moral support, for all the ups and downs, helps tremendously. Having a partner would be indispensable, I think. These women take “buddy system” to a whole new level.
Their engagement story is fun. Gen and Julia were at a bar watching a key baseball game (baseball is Julia’s favorite spectator sport). Gen chose a particularly adrenaline-soaked moment for her big ask, and Julia answered in the affirmative but with what amounted to a mildly annoyed brush-off. “Yeah, yeah… Ok, yes!”
Welcome to marriage, ladies, ha! A small deflation perhaps, but still a yes and a memory made, certainly still a tight bond.
Worth noting is that the very next day at a scrimmaging practice, Gen broke her ankle so badly it required surgery to install metal plates on her leg bones. Julia was there for her derby-wife-to-be in every conceivable way, and she has been there ever since, leading right up to this past weekend. She has become part our Dunaway family, too. We love her for loving our girl, and we love her for being herself.
At an emotional moment during the final bout on Sunday, I glanced to my right to smile at Julia and saw her crying stoically. And later I saw my parents clinging to her, too, and it made me ache with joy. (Julia are we sisters? Say yes.)
It is clear to anyone paying attention that Wrex and Pesty, though both now retired, will continue to be Derby Wives and best friends for many decades. Probably all of the decades. May we all manage to cultivate that kind of friendship.
Gen’s first bout as a new recruit would have been in October 2010, but for that injury. She would suffer another break again in April 2012, a bit higher on her ankle, requiring a second surgery. Both were traumatic and painful events, but she healed beautifully and seems to cope well with lingering pain.
After recovering from that first surgery, Gen was drafted to the LA Sirens, a home team of LA Derby Dolls. It was a cop-themed group who wore navy blue uniforms. I asked Gen about her favorite outfits through the years. She mentioned liking writing on her shorts but not so much wearing tights. “They hurt your knees when you kneel down.”
Then in October 2014, Wrex was drafted to an All-Star team, the Los Angeles Ri-Ettes! (Ask me sometime how I realized the correct way to pronounce the team name.) This is a huge accomplishment, and I remember clearly hearing the news back then. Everyone here was freaking out with pride and excitement for her. The Ri-Ettes are a standout group of athletes, and she had come so far in so few years.
In 2017, Gen was named MVP of Battle on the Bank, the national championship tournament. Amazing, really, especially now to have seen firsthand what it is like on the banked track. Brutal, high energy, relentless isometric strength, precision control, and speed on top of it all.
This past weekend in Seattle, the Ri-Ettes secured their seventh consecutive win for Battle on the Bank. They were apparently so confident in their continued winning streak that they left the traveling trophy at home. That, I have to say, is badass.
During awards and announcements, when it was clear the trophy had been left back in LA, a man standing near me in the bleachers muttered not quietly, “Well that was cocky.” Ha!
Beyond the Bank
I asked Gen what derby has meant to her, knowing it’s much more than a chosen sport, but really a surrogate family. She was eager to share:
It’s awesome. On the whole, it’s an accepting group, (open to) all kinds of women. You make friends with women who you wouldn’t have met otherwise. And body positivity!”
Gen expounded on this a lot, on the inclusive nature of their female network. And you see it at the bouts: Bodies of all shapes and sizes, personalities exhibiting every possible beautiful aesthetic, everyone working and playing hard alongside each other. The women seem mostly un-self-conscious and sometimes deliciously arrogant. It’s a lot of fun to just be in that atmosphere. And Gen’s energy swelled as she shared her feelings. She described the last eight years, what she has learned and how derby has nourished her.
What is teaches you most? Be the woman YOU are. Not the one people tell you to be.
Even the best life chapters eventually run their course. But Wrex’s decision to step away from derby seems to feel good for her. While satisfying in so many ways, the year-round time commitment had become too much. She is ready to focus more on her new job without feeling guilty, and she has some other new projects in mind, too. But she is hardly just dropping out.
In eight years she has experienced serious injuries and recovery, with everything that accompanies both. She has developed herself athletically form a young woman who bought the wrong wheels for her skates into the Most Valuable Player in the national arena, plus team co-captain and more. She is a prized and clearly well-respected player, loved by not just her own teammates but by everyone in the derby community at large. Seeing her in her element, listening to people cheer for her, and reading hundreds of comments from her friends and colleagues about the impact she has made, it all gives me chills.
Gen has cultivated friendships that already exceed the bounds of this sport where the women all first found each other.
She is going out on top of her game, with a full heart.
As our Sunday afternoon interview closed up, I asked my sister how she was feeling on the day of her last skating event. Peering through the rain-streaked windshield, she eased the rental car into the right-hand exit lane, shrugged her muscular shoulder and replied, “So far I’m just excited.” Her voice was energetic but calm. We were all on our way to eat a traditional pre-skate meal of Hawaiian BBQ.
They won that evening, by a thrilling landslide, and there was much screaming and crying. I can’t even describe it all.
Then on Wednesday, she posted a heartfelt retirement announcement on Facebook, and when she and I spoke on the phone a few hours later, I asked again how she was feeling. She was more emotional this time, understandably, with the weekend’s fanfare and adrenaline quieted. She acknowledged that derby will leave a hole in her life but quickly added that she feels lucky to still be close to so many of the women. And, thankfully, she was having no doubts about her decision, even in the midst of some sadness.
With her permission, I’m sharing a snippet of her beautifully written message:
I made several lifelong friends on this team and got to test my leadership skills. I also skated with the LA Ri-Ettes for 4 seasons, which included 4 successful trips to BOTB (Battle on the Bank, National Championships). This team pushed me to my absolute derby best and taught me what dedication looks like, what it can do, and what it can cost.
Roller derby helped me figure out who I am, what I’m capable of, what matters to me. I am so glad that I found it when I did.
What’s Next for our own Personal Wonder Woman?
She said she looking forward to more running (yay!!) and some travel with friends and family.
She might finally get some refreshing proper medical attention, too, ha! Apparently, when a skater sees a doctor for injuries or ailments, she is required to bring the doctor’s clearance before skating again, and that clearance is likely cumbersome if not actually difficult to obtain, so plenty of “little things” just get tolerated for long periods of time. They just rub some dirt on it and walk it off, you know? So let’s all send her some good, healthy vibes and hope that she sees a chiropractor and acupuncturist soon, plus maybe a masseuse. She has earned it!
Thank you, Wrex, my beautiful sister, for answering these questions and sharing your heart. Thank you for inviting us to this special weekend. You are amazing in every way, and I love you even more than the day you appeared in the back seat of the Subaru.
Friends, thanks for reading! Check in again soon for more stories from Seattle.
“You Guys She’s Jamming!!!”
~All of us screaming in the bleachers,
as she took the track
just before the last play
of her final bout.