Omaha Roller Derby members doing what they love… rollin’. Photo by Jason Orton Photography

Author Crash Hartless is a member of the Omaha Roller Derby, Omaha’s premier flat-track roller derby league.

ORD’s mission is to promote the strength, athleticism, and independence of individuals through the sport of flat-track roller derby and to provide the skills and training necessary for participation at regional, national, and international level.

All Omaha Roller Derby league activities are run on a volunteer basis.

My thoughts keep returning to this one practice Omaha Roller Derby had before the health measures were enacted that effectively shut down the league.

At the time, none of us knew it would be the last practice we would have in a pre-COVID world. We had just started the pre-season with a scrimmage against Flat Rock Roller Derby (North Platte, NE) and the energy was about to boil over, as we had an upcoming scrimmage against 80/35 Roller Derby (Des Moines, IA) right around the corner.

We were also gearing up for a big old-fashioned Skate-A-Thon fundraiser before our sanctioned gameplay and tournaments began. We had just graduated a slew of new recruits who were waiting for their jerseys to arrive and the league was a-buzz with anticipation of the great things the coming season would bring.

This particular night more of a nervous energy had filled the air as teammates would awkwardly say things like, “Hey, you just touched your face” and another skater would nod in recognition and move off the track to pump one of the hand sanitizer jugs and sheepishly say, “Thanks” on the way. Coaches were encouraging us to work on blocking positions that avoided chest to chest contact and we were all trying to navigate safety measures far beyond the standard recommendations and requirements. An email came shortly after that night in The Bunker (our private practice space) suspending league activity “for the time being.” Little did we know it was the last time we would ever skate there together.

We weren’t mad at the Board of Directors, but we were starting to get scared. Anxiety and frustration escalated as additional mandates and new measures kept coming out. We felt guilty for even thinking about derby when people were literally dying, but to go from three practices a week, meetings, and helping with juniors’ practices, to nothing at all – cold turkey – hurt physically and emotionally. Our camaraderie, our physical outlet, the mental processing required to break down strategy and rules, it all just came to a screeching halt with no time frame for a return to normalcy in sight.

Author Crash Hartless

In the past many of us have torn ligaments, broken bones, had children, been deployed and asked, “When can I start skating again?” without hesitation while receiving the news. Now, we didn’t even have that point of reference for looking forward to in these uncertain times.

We tried remote practices and online meetings, but they were somber. A lot of people used derby as motivation to get out of the house, so being stuck inside while talking about the sport we missed so much only compounded how different things had suddenly become.

We trail skated and hit the parks, but it only held up as long as the weather permitted and wasn’t a real substitute for everything the sport encompassed.

We missed our home and each other. When we moved into The Bunker in December of 2010, it was all hands on deck. Every single league member chipped in to strip the carpet off the walls. We had a power sprayer to apply “our colors” in its place and devout members to paint logos and personalize it as “ours.”

Since then, between all the practices, games, league meetings, and events, not many facility projects could be done without interfering with someone’s time slot, so they just didn’t happen. However, during the COVID break, a few skaters and a dedicated (and rather handy) super fan tackled some long-overdue housekeeping projects to try and kill time, be productive, and ramp up anticipation for when we could have our triumphant return to play.

As the “few months” projected break began to span most of the calendar year, so did the scope of the remodel. All the furniture was moved out and replaced with benches, shelves, and tables built and installed by team members and their significant others. The concrete track was patched, new lighting, a door alarm, and an oversized digital clock were installed, the entire space was painted by hand one gallon at a time. We dug up long-forgotten league photos and researched the names of long-gone people therein to make a Hall of Fame, complete with a roster for every single year of the league’s existence, which started in 2006.

Another unexpected blow was swiftly dealt when the landlord abruptly told us we would not be permitted to renew our lease on The Bunker. The grand unveiling and welcome home we had all been anticipating would not ever come to fruition.

Amidst all the struggle, one positive thing that seems to have come out of navigating the “new normal” has been an unexpected resurgence of interest in skating. Jam skating and park skating have historically strong communities, but previously unaffiliated prospects seem to have ordered skates in droves and moved outside their comfort zone into such realms.

Omaha Roller Derby members at the 2021 Cinco de Mayo Parade in South Omaha. Photo Omaha Roller Derby Instagram

Skaters were seemingly incentivized by less populated public spaces or conversely motivated into heavily populated hardware stores to procure supplies to set up homemade rails. YouTube has been flooded with homemade tutorials and Instagram with videos of people proudly demonstrating their new skills in basements, kitchens, back patios, and practically anywhere that has a fairly flat surface.

In a sense, the pandemic has caused a revival of roller skating. For the athletes of a sport that was born during the Great Depression, it resonates deeply. People need levity, hope, and to laugh, whether out of genuine joy or even humility because the videos and photos don’t always turn out as cool as they feel like they must be when they’re taken. At any rate, there’s a new generation of skaters that have unexpectedly joined the veterans, and it’s honestly kind of beautiful.

As I write this we have yet to find a permanent league space. We have found some amazing new community partners willing to rent us a few hours for practice and for that we are incredibly grateful. We are still searching for a space that can accommodate sanctioned gameplay and are currently uncertain if a game arena will be available to us when we can officially return to play.

It is going to require a lot of patience, determination, and time, but we are already starting to rebuild after this series of catastrophic blows. We are stronger together and this time apart has solidified that standing mantra of ours into indisputable fact. We took masked headshots in 2020 to prepare for the new wall in our new home when we find it. The future may be uncertain, but it is strong.

Omaha Roller Derby,

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