Thursday, October 31, 2013

Be Your Own Hero: How I Became an Athlete in My Twenties

By Hardkore Lena

How many times have you wanted to try a new hobby or activity, but were too paralyzed by fear of failure or embarrassing yourself to even give it a second thought? How many times have you then quashed that fear, thrown caution to the wind, and tried it anyway?

Photo Courtesy of Hardkore Lena's Facebook Page

For much of my life, my answers to those questions were "all the time" and "almost never". I watched my friends decide to take up swing dancing, debate, ice skating and go at it wholeheartedly--even if they were terrible at their chosen activity. I was both fascinated and horrified by it. How could they so nonchalantly embrace something new, and the very real chance that they might not succeed? To me, the possibility of finding a new passion never outweighed the terror I felt at the thought of failing.

Like many girls, I grew up with a seemingly firm "knowledge" of what I was good at--and what I wasn't. It wasn't that anyone told me I couldn't do the things I wanted to; it was that I knew from a young age that I am a perfectionist, and I have an inherent fear of failure, of disappointing others, of never being good enough. Figuring out what I was good at and sticking to those things seemed like the best way to never seem incompetent or risk humiliating myself. By the time I was a young adult, I knew that I was good at creativity-based things--writing, art, singing, crafts--as well as "being smart", giving advice, helping others. On the other hand, I also knew that I wasn't good at math, science, video games, or anything requiring athleticism, coordination, or any amount of grace. I felt secure in that knowledge, and didn't feel much shame in telling people the things I was bad at, because then I knew that they would have much lower expectations of me if they asked me to, say, mentally calculate sales tax or play a pickup game of sand volleyball.

Everything I thought I knew about being good at things and bad at things changed in March 2012. A close friend, who would soon come to be known as Pimp MaLady, had told me she wanted to get into skateboarding, which I thought was neat; then she changed her mind.

"I want to play roller derby," she said one afternoon. "I saw a poster in the bathroom at Tony's [Tavern] and I want to try it." I asked if she thought it was a good idea, considering the only knowledge either of us had about roller derby was from watching the movie Whip It. "Look," she said, "everyone else I've told has said that, or made bets on how long it'll be before I get seriously hurt. Can you just come check out a practice with me, and be supportive?"
Photo courtesy of the Appalachian Hell Betties Facebook Page

A few weeks later, Pimp & I headed to the skating rink on a Sunday evening to watch the Appalachian Hell Betties, the local roller derby team. I didn't mind going along for moral support, as I was curious what it would be like in real life. Pimp wasn't planning to actually skate that day, but when we arrived, several girls told her she was welcome to participate. That was all it took. She laced up a pair of rental skates, strapped on borrowed pads & a helmet, and did everything she physically could for the whole two hour practice. I was in awe of her moxie. She wasn't great, but she was determined, and more importantly, she was having fun. It got me thinking: Could I try this, too, even though I would probably be awful at it? I decided I could at least try skating again and see how it went.

Later that week, I went to an open skate session and met with Dame Reffin' Pain, the Hell Betties' head referee, who had offered to help me learn some of the rudimentary skills I'd need. I hadn't been on skates in the better part of ten years; she had to tow me to the wall, and there I stayed for most of the evening. The following Sunday, I drove to practice by myself, as Pimp had to work. This was something so far outside my comfort zone, and I could think of a million excuses I could make to not even try--I wasn't athletic enough, I didn't know anyone there, I was horribly uncoordinated, I couldn't even stay upright on skates for very long, et cetera. I did it anyway. I rented skates. Borrowed gear from the team supply. Felt like I was going to die from sheer terror every time one of the veteran skaters zoomed past me with barely any room to spare. Fell directly on my tailbone more times than I could count.

But I survived that first practice. And then I went to another one, and survived that. And then another. Two weeks after my first practice, I committed myself fully and ordered a pair of skates even though I was terrible at even the most basic skills. I then spent as much time wearing them as I could, at two or three practices a week, open skate sessions at the rink, at the outdoor hockey rink behind the community center, and on the bike path. I sweat more than I thought was possible and had sore muscles that I'd never known existed. My progress as a skater was slow; in fact, I'd never struggled so hard to understand and execute anything in my life. For the first time, I was actually sticking with something I wasn't immediately good at, and instead of feeling bad about my inabilities, I simply let them drive me to work even harder.

I began to realize that I had spent much of my life in fear--fear of failure, judgment, feeling stupid, looking stupid. I didn't fully understand yet why I was suddenly able to shrug off those fears that had owned me and dictated all of my actions for so long. It wasn't until I happened upon a Huffington Post article entitled "The Trouble with Bright Girls" that things started to make sense.

You can read the full article here, but the point that motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson makes is that "More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice." There it was, then: I had finally challenged that fact I thought I knew about myself, that I was not athletic and never would be. It was the single most liberating thought I'd ever experienced.

Realizing that my abilities were not static radically changed the way I saw myself. Rather than regarding myself as an awkward, gangly chick who lacked grace but was giving roller derby a valiant effort, I started to view myself as an athlete--something I had never done during years of soccer, basketball, volleyball, and cross country. Once that mindset took over, I found myself treating myself like one, too: eating better, staying hydrated, sleeping more. (Most of the time, at least...sometimes I still need to eat an inappropriate amount of chocolate or stay up too late. Hey, I'm only human!) My confidence in my abilities skyrocketed; I found new determination and drive. Along the way, I chose my derby name: HardKore Lena. It was both a play on my real name and a statement about who I was trying to become.

I had initially thought that I didn't much care whether I was ever rostered for a bout (game), because I was so focused on simply improving my skills, and more importantly, enjoying the hell out of what I was doing. But as I gained that confidence and improved more and more over the course of my first season with the team, I realized that I did care. I wanted more than anything to wear a Hell Betties jersey for more than just photos and public appearances, to take the track with my teammates and play competitively. By the start of the 2013 season, I felt ready, and more importantly, confident that I had earned a place on the roster.

Less than a week before we began our minimum skills testing in February--which I had to pass in order to become roster-eligible--I suffered my first major derby-related injury, badly spraining my right ankle during a drill at practice. I was devastated, terrified that I was about to lose everything for which I had worked so hard and be forced to watch my dream slip through my fingers. I experienced a lot of doubt during those first days spent on the couch with my foot elevated, encircled by multiple ice packs. Had I just been fooling myself into thinking I was really talented enough, strong enough, good enough to play roller derby? What if this injury rendered me physically incapable of continuing, or worse still, what if I was still physically able to play, but couldn't overcome the fear of injury?

After a short but seemingly interminable five and a half weeks, I found my doubts to be unwarranted. While I had indeed lost some strength and stamina, and found that I did have some limitations in what my ankle could handle, I completed my skills testing the same week. I asked to not play in our first bout in mid-April, just to give myself a little longer to heal, but I was rostered for the remainder of the season. In just under a year, I went from barely able to stand on skates to finally feeling like a "real" derby girl, like I'd really embraced my name and become HardKore.

As I prepare for the start of my third season with the Hell Betties, I am still amazed at the ways in which my life has changed because of roller derby. I am stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally. I take bruises and the occasional busted lip in stride. While I accept that I will most likely never play at a highly competitive level, I am confident in most of my skills, and know that hard work & dedication will improve the skills that are lacking. It's not all fishnets & glitter, sunshine & rainbows, though. Being involved in derby is much like being in a relationship. It takes up most of the time I used to spend on other hobbies. Non-derby friends have accepted that they don't get to see me as much; a few have quietly drifted out of my life. I demand more of myself than ever before!

Playing roller derby is great. Having a sense of community is wonderful. Finally feeling like an athlete is amazing. But coming to that realization that I truly can do anything I put my mind to? That's the best part of it all.

HardKore Lena plays roller derby for the Appalachian Hell Betties of Athens Ohio Roller Derby, and is a crafty nerd girl in what little spare time she has. You can follow her adventures on Facebook , Twitter, and the team's website. And of course you can find her here on I Feel Delicious!


  1. This is really inspirational!!! Roller derby is the bomb.

  2. I saw Hell Betties for the first time this year and I had an absolutely amazing time! You ladies were ass-kicking amazing!

  3. I've wanted to try Roller Derby ever since HardKore brought it up to me, but I lack the time, dedication and transportation. My lust for wheels (thanks Hardkore!) recently led me to get a used mountain bike, though, So I'm going to pursue that fearlessly, as per the advice given.


Let us know what you think!!

There was an error in this gadget