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3:33 Sports Short #58 // Learning to Fall by Jennifer McGuiggan

We started my very first practice with a falling drill. Knowing how to fall correctly is a key part of roller derby. It's not that you want to fall, but you have to accept that it's going to happen, and you need to know how to do it as safely and painlessly as possible. Plus—and this is the real kicker—you need to not fear it. This mental aspect is much harder to master than the physical aspects of falling safely.

Strap eight wheels onto your feet, and everything in your body and mind screams at you: No! For the love of your beautiful bones, don't fall! You must overcome this. You have to trust that all of this gear you're wearing will protect if you just follow the instructions of how to move your body.

As I stood in line, waiting for my turn to fall, I realized that something even more frightening than falling was about to happen: I was going to attempt a physical activity while a bunch of other people watched. Everything in my mind and heart screamed at me: No! For the love of your pride, don't do this!

Me, the bookworm, the goody-two-shoes, the couch potato. I’d never played a sport in my life. I hate to sweat. The idea of going to a gym made me hyperventilate. Yet here I was, a 36-year-old woman engaged in a voluntary, recreational sports activity. Inside, I was still the pudgy, out-of-shape girl in eighth grade gym class waiting in line for one of the stations of the dreaded President's Physical Fitness Test.

We grow up, we change. We try new things, we shift perspectives. We get brave, we get hurt. Decades pass, and we're not the same people. Yes, all of these things are true, but we're also still 13-years-old, stuck in the purgatory between childhood and adulthood.

And then it was time. Everyone else skated out in groups of four: Skate, slide into a one-knee fall. There were an odd number of us that night, and instead of adding myself to a group, I ended up having to go by myself. I felt sick. I felt the kind of panic that makes you give-up before you try. The back-down-the-ladder-on-the-high-dive panic. The sing-too-softly-on-the-solo panic. The turn-your-head-the-other-way-when-he-tries-to-kiss-you panic. The I-want-this-so-badly-I-can-hardly-stand-it panic.

But sometimes you do the thing. You step off the high dive, you sing your heart out, you close your eyes and soften your lips. Eventually you skate, fall, slide. And no one laughs or points or shakes their head. The next group lines up, and the next, and then it’s you again. Skate, fall, slide. It looks easy, but there's not much in the world that's harder than letting yourself fall and get back up again, no matter who's looking.


Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan's work has appeared in Flycatcher, New World Writing, Connotation Press, Brevity's Nonfiction Blog, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Nearly four years after that first practice, she now skates as “Punchberry JAM” with Steel City Roller Derby in Pittsburgh. And yes, she's still simultaneously terrified and exhilarated every time she laces up. Find her online in The Word Cellar.

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