Kaylah Lalonde describes roller derby as a football game on roller skates combined with full-contact chess. In other words, there’s aggressive physical contact but players also must think and strategize quickly throughout the game.
Thinking and strategizing come naturally to Dr. Lalonde, who spends her workdays at The Center for Hearing Research at Boys Town National Research Hospital as the director of the research lab. While researching her Ph.D. dissertation in speech and hearing sciences at Indiana University Bloomington she began searching for “a good outlet for social and physical activity,” she says. After a pause and a grin, she adds “and aggression.”
She attended a skills camp with a friend offered by the local roller derby team. “I was a delicate flower,” jokes Lalonde. “I’d never played sports before, and I didn’t think I was going to compete and fall in love with it.”
Although she did not play sports, she enjoyed exercise—going out dancing with her friends was one of her favorite activities, and she once began working towards running in a half-marathon before she began hurting from a lack of proper training. But roller derby was different. Primarily, she discovered she loves being part of a team, and the challenge and camaraderie that came with competing.
After the skills camp she moved on to the boot camp offered by the team—a common sequence of events for roller derby athletes. Boot camp is where would-be players learn the minimum requirements of the game as governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
The Omaha Rollergirls host a similar boot camp where women can learn the skills they need to join the team. “It’s one of the few sports you can start as an adult and play competitively,” says Lalonde, adding that the boot camps are for all skill levels. “Even if you don’t know how to skate—even if you have to grab the wall to stop, we’ll teach you.”
Finding a local roller derby team was a high priority for Lalonde when she moved to Omaha. She’d competed with teams in Indiana and Seattle. These days, she’s known as Swamp Thang on the Omaha Rollergirls. It’s a nickname she earned from her upbringing in southern Louisiana.
“If you’ve ever seen the show Swamp People on the Discovery Channel—that’s where my family lives,” says Lalonde.
The team is a tight-knit group and active within the community. “Most of my friends are roller derby friends,” says Lalonde. “It’s a great way to meet people.” Her research colleagues sometimes attend games to cheer her on, and her boss loves to tell people about Lalonde’s pastime.
When not playing, she does a great deal of cross-training and weightlifting, which helps her avoid injuries. So far, she’s gotten away with an impressive collection of bruises and one broken finger (which happened in boot camp, not during competition) and estimates that she dedicates around six hours a week to training and competing.
Luckily, her employer encourages a well-rounded work-life balance, so she has time to research during the day while spending her time off competing or preparing to compete. She’s also become more confident.
“There’s also something very empowering to learning to take up space in derby,” Lalonde says. “In our daily lives, I think it’s relatively uncommon for women to literally be told to take up space. And I’ve seen that mentality transfer to my daily life. On crowded sidewalks, for example, I think it’s fairly well known that women are more conditioned than men to move aside to make room for others.”
And she has become more assertive.
“We train ourselves/each other not to apologize for things all the time when we’ve done nothing wrong,” Lalonde says. “Derby has helped me learn not to apologize unless I truly feel that I’ve wronged someone. That’s a skill that transfers well to being a woman in science. I guess they both are: not apologizing, being more assertive.”
But her favorite part of derby is that it is inclusive.
“My favorite thing about roller derby is that you get to use the body type you have,” says the petite Lalonde. “Every body type can do something.” If that means being a scientist by day and Swamp Thang by night, Lalonde is not likely to give up her sport anytime soon.
Visit omaharollergirls.org for more information about local roller derby.
This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.