Fresh Meat: The End

Way back in February, I went to my first ever roller derby game (they’re called bouts. I don’t know why, but I stubbornly call them games). Afterwards, I saw a dark-haired girl smoking outside. She had quite distinctive purple Doc Marten boots with a vine pattern, and I heard her mention something to someone about Fresh Meat.

I didn’t know that a few months later, we’d be belting around a track together while someone yelled at us to get lower. I didn’t know we’d be drinking together. I didn’t even know her name.

There were so many things I didn’t know when I made the crazy decision to start derby. I wish I had figured some of them out sooner.

There are a million articles out there about going through Fresh Meat, useful cross-training to do, gear to get and roller derby culture. There’s an entire book on the sport, called Derby Life, that I highly recommend. But despite all the resources, there are a few things I kind of wish I had understood earlier.

I didn’t know what my strengths and weaknesses would be.

I made plenty of assumptions, of course. I assumed I’d be really slow to learn, but at least have a reasonable fitness level. I thought I’d be afraid to fall.

In actual fact, falling wasn’t a problem. I really enjoyed the feeling of being able to bounce off my massive knee pads, and falling in a safe position just didn’t seem that hard or upsetting. I did, however, agonise over my learning speed for weeks before I realised that actually I was learning at a pretty normal pace for a new skater.

What I didn’t realise was that I’d find skating in a group incredibly difficult. While I was happy to fall myself, the idea of knocking someone else over absolutely terrified me and the general feeling of being crowded caused me a fair bit of panic. If I’d known this would be an issue sooner, I’d have been able to start working on it.

I didn’t know how powerful support could be.

I’ve written about transitions before. They’ve been almost everyone’s least favourite thing since we started them. Every open skate featured spontaneous Transition Support Groups, where we’d gather at the side of the track to slowly practice the damn things over and over and over.

Around the same time, we also begin to have mass suicides at open skate. No, we didn’t hate transitions that much – suicides are relay races, in which we’re divided into teams and take turns dashing up and down the hall, doing various skills, before tagging the next team member to go. First team to finish wins. I don’t know who came up with the suicide name, or why.

Every time one of us successfully transitioned during their run, there was a frenzy. We’d scream louder than a hysterical preteen at a Justin Bieber concert. I don’t think we could have been any more excited if one of us had brought about world peace.

I felt like I could do anything when you guys were cheering for me. Thank you.

I didn’t know how mistrustful I was.

I was really keen to do my best when I started. I also had no experience of team sports, and assumed that the coaches would be

I was terrified. I felt like I was a rabbit in a room full of wolves. I was convinced the coaches could smell my weakness (not likely over the pads, mind). I thought they were counting up the faults and failures.

The thing about skating is that it’s really unnatural and awkward before you learn to do it. You can have skills that help, like balance and leg strength (squat, people!) but there is nothing natural about having wheels on your shoes. Until you gain the muscle memory for it, your brain rebels and freaks out at the instability and sheer wrongness.

This means that there is pretty much no way you can screw up that the people coaching you haven’t seen already. Did you fall over 20 times in a row? Nobody cares. Did a bunch of you crash hysterically into each other? It’s happened a million times before and it will happen a million times again. Are you scared of crossovers? Yeah, you and the rest of the entire planet. I literally mounted an assessor like a scared yet horny puppy, and all I got was amusement.

Absolutely, definitely give everything 100%. Do it for yourself, do it for everyone else around you – but do it because it’s right, not out of fear.

On day one, I was terrified that our coaches were watching us for weaknesses. Before the final assessment day, they turned up en masse to an open skate session, divided themselves up, and spent time with every single one of us present to work one-to-one on hitting, transitions and other stuff. There were no predators here after all. Thanks for everything, guys. Even the shoes.

I didn’t know how much potential people have.

I was also nervous of the rest of my Fresh Meat crew. Everyone seemed perfectly nice on day 1, but as I got more and more overly stressed about how slow I was, I felt like they could feel my fear. I assumed that as time went on, they’d look at me as the one who couldn’t keep up and was in the way.

At the start of Fresh Meat, I was terrified of being near the fast skaters on the track. At the end, they were skating laps with me, helping me with getting up my own speed and giving me pointers (I still screwed it up in assessment, though. Sorry).

We’ve given each other strength in different ways. Being there to practice transitions with each other, handing out cake, lending equipment, sympathising with the hard parts and celebrating the victories – do you all know how valuable you are?

We’re not just a team. We’re a strong team.

And yet it’s all pretty coincidental. We all chose to start derby, but we didn’t specifically choose to train together. We didn’t pick our intake based on who we thought we’d be friends with. Fresh Meat made us this close, despite the fact we just happened to sign up at roughly the same time.

How many people do I walk past every day, barely noticing, who have it in them to be someone I trust and lean on? How many walk past me, and have no idea that I could be cheering my heart out for them in relay races, assuring them their plow stops rock and persuading them to make dinosaur sounds?

I wonder what I fail to see in the people around me. I wonder what they fail to see in me.

In the end, we came through this together. Not everyone stayed on skates from start to finish. Some of us got injured. Some of us maybe decided it wasn’t for them. In the future, who knows what will happen? Some of us may move out of London, or decide they prefer another sport. People might drift in and out. I don’t know.

I do know that whether you finished Fresh Meat exactly at the same time as us or not, or whether you plan to be a skater or a referee, you started with us. In parkour, we have a saying – “we start together, we finish together.” Derby isn’t so different. Instead, we had “no meat left behind”.

Whether or not you integrate into Wreck on the same day as the majority of us, or are heading off to be an official rather than a skater, you are part of us. If injury keeps you off skates for a while, if you move away from London, if you decided halfway through FM or decide at Wreck that this maybe isn’t for you, know that we’ll be waiting. We’re waiting for your injuries to heal. We’re waiting for you to visit us if you’re based elsewhere. We’re waiting in case you change your mind about whether this is for you. We’ll wait forever if we have to, because we’re your teammates.

I didn’t know why open skates were important.

Everyone can tell you that open skates are great for getting extra training in. If I had only gone to Fresh Meat weekly, I think I would have really, really struggled – more than I already do.

What I didn’t realise was that open skates are also a way to get to know wreck league. We’re going to be integrated into regular training very soon, and I’m nervous, but if I didn’t already have friends in wreck I’d be terrified.

Whatever league you’re in, I’m pretty sure your Fresh Meat coaches will be happy to talk to you about what wreck/rec/whatever is like. There might also be social events, volunteering stuff etc where you can meet the regulars. We had an amazing night in a pub that involved too many shots, arm wrestling and human pyramids with a rugby team, but I’m sure it varies from league to league. Not everyone can be as special as us.

However, nothing could compare with being able to see your future wreckmates regularly, making friends and being able to ask them about stuff on a regular basis. I’ve been able to ask what exactly happens at assessment, whether anyone else struggled with the stuff I did, what happens if you’re not scrimmage-ready at the end of Fresh Meat, what the coach is like in their sessions. Nobody but your own wreck league, who have been through the same Fresh Meat you are going through right now, can tell you this stuff.

I didn’t know how unique this was.

We will never go through this again.

Sometimes people repeat Fresh Meat. It’s more common in some leagues than others, because they all do things differently. In some leagues, people have to repeat the full course if they’re not scrimmage ready at the end. Some people move city and start again. Some people might repeat because life or illness or injury forced them out at an early stage – and if injury knocked you down at any point in our FM, first day or last, you are a warrior, and we ❤ you, and you’ll always be one of us.

If you repeat for any of these reasons, the experience won’t be the same. I’m not saying it will be less, and you’ll be an awesome source of strength for your teammates. They’ll appreciate your experience and advice. You can tell them that everyone gets stressed, that transitions truly are a struggle for everyone, and if you’ve experienced injury, you will be there to pick up anyone else who gets hurt. You will be their rock. They will need you.

But whether you quit in disgust after a couple of weeks, get temporarily stopped by a broken bone or are still skating on the final day, whether you had the time of your life or wished it was over for the whole period, there is only one time you walk into a sports hall for the first time not knowing what to expect, and being completely overwhelmed by the newness of it all. There’s only one time you are shocked to learn how awful pads smell after enough training time. There’s only one time you realise with surprise that you’ve become part of a team, when at first you thought you wouldn’t fit in. Whether you loved it or hated it, you were part of it. And now it’s over.

Everyone has times they look back on and remember as totally unique and special – time spent at university, or travelling, or maybe even high school. It’s a period you were often happy, even if you didn’t know it at the time, but not always, because experiences that shape you are often a crucible. It’s a time that you maybe didn’t fully understand how much was changing you, and that life would never be the same again. And that’s what Fresh Meat has been.

I don’t know how many of us will stick around. Every sport has an attrition rate, and this one is full contact. But nothing will ever take away this time and how crazy, frenzied, stressful and magic it has been. And now it’s over. There will never be another London Rockin Rollers Fresh Meat 2015 – we were it, and now we are done.

Next year, there will be another group of confused people falling over and stressing out about transitions or T stops or laps. They won’t be us. But you know what? They will need us, just like we’ve needed the 2014 graduates. Let’s be there for them.

See you all in wreck league.

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