How to survive a roller derby injury

Anyone with even an inkling of how roller derby is played knows that injuries are part of the sport. It’s an unfortunate, but common, aspect of the game. Whether it’s a painful bruise or an ACL tear, the healing and recovery time can be a long, arduous process that even a stack of swear word coloring books can’t fix. But hearing from others who have gone through a similar process can help.

Bout Betties asked a number of roller derby skaters who have faced a variety of injuries what their experiences were like and what words of wisdom they have to share.

Warning: The following responses include explanations of how these skaters were injured. The responses have also been edited for length and clarity.

Valkyrie

League: Brewcity Bruisers and Brewcity Bootleggers

Injury: Right ACL tear

Valkyrie was doing hits in a paceline, and as she was going through, one of her J-cuts went wrong. Her ankle rolled, her knee buckled and popped.

Valkyrie, of the Brewcity Bruisers, suffered an ACL tear

What I’d wish I’d known: “I joined derby knowing I could get hurt, but I always thought about derby injuries in terms of contact and hits. Fun fact: Most ACL injuries (like mine) are non-contact and related to cutting/lateral movements. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that even basic footwork can be risky if you’re not careful!

“I waited until I was cleared for contact before committing to regular cross training, and in hindsight, that was a big mistake – leg muscle imbalances played a role in my injury, and if I’d known to take strength training more seriously from the start, that paceline drill might have had a much less dramatic ending.”

The hardest thing about my injury: “Recovery is a total mind game. Physical rehab is hard, but doable; getting out of a toxic mental ‘doom spiral’ can seem impossible. I went from gunning for the draft to drifting in limbo in a fraction of a second, after fumbling footwork I’ve done hundreds of times. It takes a lot of work to stay positive and focused on my day-to-day goals so the seemingly endless rehab process doesn’t get me down. Plus, while BCB is a fantastic league and everyone’s made it clear that I still have a place in it while I’m recovering, I still deal with major #FOMO when my friends get carried away talking shop and telling stories from practice. It’s hard to avoid feeling like I’m being left behind.”

My advice for other injured skaters: “Don’t forget that recovery is possible! Whatever that looks like for you, whether it’s a return to derby or not, you can get there. Reach out to other skaters in your league who have been injured in the past. A lot of my prep list for surgery came from Reddit, of all places (shoutout to r/ACL)! Most importantly, don’t forget to be open with your doctor and PT. Your injury is unique, so even as you do your own research, keep in mind that recovery isn’t a one-size-fits-all process – what works for others may or may not work for you.”

“One of the most unexpectedly impactful tools I’ve used to keep myself in check has been to keep a recovery journal. It started as just a PT log where I jotted down what exercises I did that session, but then, I started logging my workouts outside of PT, as well as more general comments about how I was feeling. Journaling helps me process and organize my thoughts, and it’s super motivating to look back at the first few entries to see how far I’ve come.”

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Breaking Back Sunday, of Harrisburg Area Roller Derby, tore her ACL.

Breaking Back Sunday

League: Harrisburg Area Roller Derby, skating for nine years

Injury: “In November, I was skating in an all-gender mixer tournament and in the last jam of the last game, I took a very hard hit and felt something pop in my knee. I turned out to be a torn ACL. I had surgery to reconstruct it on Jan. 10 and am currently in the recovery process, and it’s likely I’ll be able to get back on skates this summer but I won’t be fully cleared to return to contact until the 2021 season.”

What I wish I had known: “I wish someone on my medical team had talked to me about post-op depression and body dysmorphia. It’s really hard to look at my leg and how much the muscles have atrophied, and it is so hard to not be able to do the things that used to seem so normal, like going up and down the stairs. Physical recovery is challenging, but I feel like there isn’t enough discussion of the mental and emotional challenges.”

My advice for other injured skaters: “Seek support for these things! My league has been amazing and I am so unbelievably grateful to them. My teammates check in on me, keep me involved, and even took me to physical therapy when I couldn’t drive. There’s also a great roller derby injury support group on Facebook (find it here!) When it comes to what I’d recommend, I would be lost without my ice machine. It constantly circulates ice cold water to a compress, so you don’t have to constantly change out ice packs.

“The best advice I have is don’t give up, don’t let it be the thing that defines you. The road to recovery is long, but it’s way easier when you surround yourself with supportive people.”

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Crowbar, of the Rose City Wreckers, broke her leg.

Crowbar

League: Rose City Roller Wreckers

Injury: Left fibula break and ankle dislocation with plate, eight screws and a wire for dislocation. Crowbar fell backwards on her leg during plow stop.

What I wish I had known: “My derby injury is not the end of the world. They fucking suck, recovery is harder than the injury itself, and you don’t get better overnight. I am a very low-level skater, so the hardest part has been coming back and feeling like it’s worth all the pain and heartache that has and still is happening. It is. It is completely worth it! I’m physically stronger in some aspects after my break and mentally know I can handle a ton.”

My advice for other injured skaters: “Ask for help, voice your needs, listen to your body but push yourself, and try not to isolate yourself. For me, staying active in the league has made it much easier to put skates back on.”

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Red #5’s skate cast style after breaking her ankle.

Red #5 (“it’s a Star Wars thing!”)

League: Vette City Roller Derby in Bowling Green, KY

Injury: Broken ankle; happened while “jamming in a game against Somer City Roller Derby (a brand new KY Team and a great group of ladies!)”

What I wish I had known: “I’ve never broken a bone ever in my entire life until 2019. I’d like to say I wish I didn’t know anything about injuries, especially in derb lol, but here I am.”

“The hardest part about the injury was, one being my first, I severely underestimated my recovery time. But the hardest part was the feeling of helplessness I had from time to time. I had a difficult time showering and using the bathroom. I had to rely on my husband and other family members to get me to and from work for a few months. But I learned a lot of self-resilience.”

My advice for other injured skaters: “I kept in touch with my teammates. I didn’t just sit at home. I was fortunate to get rides to and from practices most of the time. I made sure that I did what I could to my physical limits to stay active with off-skates. I train a lot in the gym, and I kept connected with my coaches there, as well. They have helped me recover and continue to help me recover. STAY ACTIVE AND CONNECTED WITH OTHERS. It’s easy to let the dark side of it creep in and take over. And to be honest, I’m still scared today. Even though I’m skating again, I’m apprehensive (because the injury really took it out of me with my job too). But don’t give up. I try to tell myself, ‘feel the fear, and do it anyway.’”

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Do you have something to add? Comment below to add your advice or share your experience. And don’t forget Bout Betties has a special “Broken Betties” pack just for the injured skater in your life. Find out more about it here.

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