In retrospect, it’s hard to think of a dumber sport to take up in one’s mid-30s than roller skating. I had been lucky to survive childbirth and postpartum with no lasting injuries, and rather than congratulating myself on my good fortune, I thought I would tempt fate. And so one year into the pandemic, when my daughter was almost 2 and my sanity had almost completely evaporated, I spent my summer evenings falling directly on my ass in a concrete parking lot.
It started when my friend Alice texted me to say she had just bought roller skates. She sent me a video of herself skating in a church parking lot near our house, executing a trick called “shoot the duck,” where you squat low to the ground and then extend one leg straight out in front of you as you roll forward. It looked impressive and fun. Immediately, I opened a new tab on my computer and started shopping for roller skates.
By this point, Hot Girl Summer 2021, roller skates had already permeated my subconscious. Who needs Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception when you have the TikTok algorithm, serving up videos of Ana Coto cruising to Jenny from the Block or Oumi Janta dancing in Berlin. I understand where the 1 in 8 men who think they could beat Serena Williams at tennis are coming from because one of my most deranged qualities is that I will see someone executing an objectively challenging physical feat and think, maybe I could do that. Men and I, we simply do not know what we do not know. Never mind that I am terrible at ice skating, the one sport that might give you a foundation in the skills required for roller skating. I was restless and desperate for novelty after a year of monotonous isolation. I found a pair of skates I liked in stock, and I ordered them.
I wasn’t just craving the endorphins of exercise; I wanted to feel something. And it turns out the feeling I was looking for was a pleasurable jolt of mortal terror.
Impulsive online shopping is rarely the panacea that we are seeking when we hit “buy” in a moment of boredom or desperation, but in this case, I actually got what I didn’t even know I needed. The first time I put on my new roller skates and tentatively glided down my hallway, my fingers brushing the walls for balance, I thought: oh f*ck, I’m going to die. It was terrifying and thrilling. After a year of pandemic anxiety that had amplified my preexisting new-mom anxiety, roller skating pulled me out of my brain and into my body.
In retrospect, this was out of character for me. I have always resisted new sports for the simple reason that I find it humiliating to be bad at things. As a kid, my parents let me try any sport that I was interested in — gymnastics, soccer, diving, volleyball — but I always quit once they got competitive and my lack of natural talent became obvious. As an adult, I continued avoiding group fitness pursuits for the same reason. I felt I had missed out on some essential athletic stage of development, the thing that drives other people to really push themselves in spin class rather than only pretend to turn up the resistance on their bike when instructed, as I did in both classes I attended. It’s not that I didn’t exercise at all. I liked riding my bike, doing yoga at home, and picking up my running habit every spring for a few brief weeks — things I could do without constantly comparing myself to others.
After I had my kid in July 2019, I assumed that at some point I would come back to myself. My body would feel like mine again, and I would rekindle my own relationship with it, beyond the demands of a tiny person who treated me like a Pikler triangle. But the post-postpartum never arrived: my maternity leave bled right into the pandemic, which stretched on and on. Even after I stopped breastfeeding and waking up all night long, I felt both confined and insubstantial. I was either a mom in the house or a disembodied presence on Zoom and FaceTime and social media. I wasn’t just craving the endorphins of exercise; I wanted to feel something. And it turns out the feeling I was looking for was a pleasurable jolt of mortal terror.
Exercise, particularly for moms, is always promising to optimize something: it’s going to calm your mind, or tone your body, or help you lose the baby weight. It’s a relief to do something physical that exists outside this paradigm of self-improvement.
I’m not the only person who picked up roller skating during the pandemic: British Vogue declared 2020 “the summer of roller skating,” CBC called 2021 “the year of the roller skating renaissance,” and VICE rolled with outdoor skate squads in the Philippines. In a way, it’s the perfect pandemic sport: the only requirement beyond skates is a flat surface to practice on. But the appeal goes deeper than that. I think people love skating for the same reason they love horror movies, roller coasters, or bungee jumping: it induces eustress, a kind of euphoric fear. It turns out maybe the reason I didn’t like spin class was because I wasn’t afraid for my life.
I did have to overcome my aversion to some of the cornier elements of roller skating culture. The derby names, the grrl-power vibes — they’re not for me. But I appreciate that it’s a sport without any particular baggage about how you are supposed to look, and there is no expectation that skating will transform your body in any outwardly obvious way, beyond the addition of bruises. Exercise, particularly for moms, is always promising to optimize something: it’s going to calm your mind, or tone your body, or help you lose the baby weight. It’s a relief to do something physical that exists outside this paradigm of self-improvement.
A few times a week, after our kids were in bed, Alice and I would meet at the church parking lot to skate. Because of the pandemic, there were no classes we could take; instead, we watched tutorials on YouTube and Instagram and tried to apply what we saw. We took videos of each other and cheered. Eventually, after a few tailbone bruises, I learned to crouch low when I was losing my balance, and to fall forward if necessary, so that my kneepads and wrist guards would break my fall.
If there’s something I want my daughter to think differently about than I did, it’s this: you don’t have to be good at something to have fun.
The big secret to rollerskating — understanding how to shift your weight while keeping your balance — requires me to tune into my body in a wholly absorbed, almost meditative way. At the same time, to do any kind of “trick,” whether it’s a spin or a turn, necessitates letting go and trusting my instincts. Trying to think too hard about what I’m doing impedes me from actually doing it. But I’ve found this lesson is infinitely transferable: at some point, you have to trust yourself, and be OK with falling on your ass now and then. It’s the only way to grow.
I watch YouTube tutorials and run them through the Google Translate of my body, smoothing out the garbled results through repetition. When something I’ve been trying to figure out clicks, it’s magic, but sometimes I give up on the tricks and just glide as fast as I can, feeling the wind lift my hair. I listen to Olivia Rodrigo as I do circles around a parking lot at twilight. I’m never going to be very good at it. I’ll definitely never be able to pull off any of the moves from the videos that hooked me in the first place. But somehow I don’t care anymore. If there’s something I want my daughter to think differently about than I did, it’s this: you don’t have to be good at something to have fun.
Roller skating was an escape from motherhood, but it turns out they have a lot in common, at least for me. Both require all your focus and attention, even when all you’re doing is attempting to stay on your feet. There are no shortcuts: the only way to get better at them is to put in the effort. And both of them offer these sublime pleasures that make the pain worthwhile, which are almost impossible to explain. You just have to experience it for yourself.