Watch Ani hit the track tonight, August 18th, at 11:30pm as the Bronx Gridlock battle the Queens of Pain on NYC life (Channel 25, or 22 on Cablevision).
The ninety-minute broadcast will be available for streaming thereafter at www.ggrd-nyclife.com.
Take a glance at Ani Dispanco’s stat sheet from the last couple years, and it looks more like a surgeon’s daily call list than that of a blocker for the Bronx Gridlock.
It’s enough to cause the heartiest of athletes to ponder hanging up the skates. But on June 12th of this year, number 32 Flavors quietly returned to the track for eight jams in her team’s 141-59 win over Manhattan, and there wasn’t a happier skater that night.
“It was awesome,” said Ani, who was sidelined since a week after the first bout of 2009. “It’s always good to be back. I’ve actually had a lot of injuries in my roller derby career, but after the ACL reconstruction on July 2nd and having to go through all the rehab and recovery for six to eight months, I was just excited to get back out on the track, and to skate again, and to be with the Bronx. I only had one game with the Bronx and then I was out for the rest of 2009, so it was great to be back out there.”
Originally a member of the Brooklyn Bombshells when she launched her derby career in 2007, Ani earned Rookie of the Year honors, but in the final game of the season, she suffered a separated shoulder, kicking off a series of injuries. The following February, she broke her ankle, and then in 2009 it was the knee injury that forced her out of action. Again, there are top-flight athletes who have decided to walk away from their sports for lesser reasons, but Ani wasn’t one of them.
“Having the history of injuries that I’ve had, I’ve lost chunks of each season, and I promised myself that I would see through a full season and do what I can to make myself as strong as I can be to avoid any potential injury that could come around the corner, because it can happen to anyone at anytime,” she said. “And it’s just the love of the game. The game kinda gets in you and you have this forum in which to express that. A lot of people in my external world are like ‘well, why don’t you give it up or do something else?’ My mom, every conversation I have with her now is, ‘well, you should stop now.’ But I’m not ready to stop and I’ll know when I’m ready.”
It’s the heart of a fighter, and a shining example of what the sport means to each skater in the league. It’s not for the fame, money, or glory – it’s for the love of the game, something too often lost in sports that have become over commercialized and infected by the corporate bug. And there’s even more to it than that.
“A lot of it’s camaraderie, it’s the feeling of being involved and around an amazing group of people who have come from such diverse backgrounds and working hard at something we all love,” Ani explains. “We pay to play and we’re doing it because we want to challenge ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
Ani’s return to the track didn’t come without irony though, as her comeback took place just two weeks before her Bronx teammate – and partner – Beyonsláy went down with a broken leg during interleague action in Pennsylvania in late-June. Yet despite the role reversal, there was nothing but support from both sides – and the league – following this most eventful month.
“People genuinely care, and the support that we received from the people in the league after Beyonsláy’s injury has been great,” said Ani. “People coming out of the woodwork, people coming to the door, people bringing us food, it’s such a great environment and I really like that. And she’s been supportive of me through each of my injuries, and she’s definitely supportive of the team.”
But the loss of Beyonsláy, and later key blocker Ginger Snap, the door opened for Ani to contribute more to the cause as the Gridlock pursue another league championship, and she eagerly accepted that assignment.
“I’ve always been trying to prove myself and prove to my managers and my captains that I can contribute a good amount to my team,” she said. “Unfortunately, my injuries have caused a break in my consistency. But I’ve been trying to attend as many practices as I can and trying to get my skill level up, and hopefully I’ll be able to prove that I definitely belong on the Bronx.”
Last Saturday, Ani’s time on the track picked up as she skated in 13 jams, fifth most among her team’s blockers, in the Gridlock’s loss to the Queens of Pain. And though she admits to some early struggles in her return from the sidelines, everything is coming back slowly but surely.
“Your mind definitely comes back before your body does,” she said. “There are things that I want my body to do now that I physically can’t do, either because my ankle won’t let me or my knee’s not strong enough yet, but I definitely feel like I have the mental part down, and that comes back pretty quick. It’s kinda like riding a bike – once you know it, you can always improve on what you know and how you skate.”
Well, like riding a bike while a bunch of other bikes try to run you down, but that’s fine with Ani, considering that she was no shrinking violet when it came to contact sports growing up.
“I’ve always been an athlete and competed in contact sports,” she said. “I played soccer most of my life and I’ve always had a competitive and athletic edge. But adding the experience of actively running your body into somebody else on purpose is a little bit different.”
Just a little, but she has apparently adjusted well. And after seeing Beyonsláy sending opponents on “’Sláy Rides” during the 2006 season, Ani wanted in.
“She joined before I did, and I said that I wanted to do this, and she was supportive from the start; ‘You want to do it? All right, let’s do it together,’” she recalled. “We’ve definitely learned from each other, and she’s been able to complement my perspective and the way I look at the sport as well.”
And over the last couple years, there has been ample time for Ani to observe the sport and still become a better skater even without being able to physically hit the track. It’s this adherence to the intricate details of the game that has allowed her to return without having to basically start from scratch again.
“A large part of roller derby is the mental ability to play both offense and defense at the same time and to understand what that entails,” she said. “You can learn a tremendous amount by watching, and I’ve watched a lot of the national level bouts with the All-Star team and have picked up a lot on the nuances of angles and what different teams are using as far as skill and technique and different ideas for strategy. It’s definitely helped me stay focused, and I think coming back, I feel I have a good sense of pack awareness and what that involves and I picked up a lot of that just by watching.”
But there has been more than derby on her plate while rehabbing her injuries. A full-time social worker, Ani has also added the word “mom” to her resume as she and Beyonsláy take care of their five-month old daughter. And that’s in addition to her work for various women’s organizations, making her schedule full, but fulfilling. Even more telling about her character is that while she recognizes the ills plaguing society, she’s gone one step further than most by taking an active role in trying to eradicate them.
“I’ve always had a sense of what it means to be a woman in this country and a woman in the world, and there are a lot of unspoken truths about violence against women and it’s an epidemic,” said Ani. “Every two minutes in this country someone is sexually assaulted, and it’s astounding to me that people don’t pay enough attention to it. So for me, it’s a part of who I am to do what I can to help and be supportive. Right now, I actually just started working for the Joyful Heart Foundation and we work to heal, educate, and empower survivors of sexual trauma. It’s just so rewarding to watch somebody go through a process and visualize and feel this internal strength they may not have known existed until they were faced with the experience. It’s amazing to watch somebody and bear witness to that. That’s always been a huge part of my goal to not only be a good person in life, but to give back in areas that I feel passionately about.”
At the same time though, dealing with such issues, both in her day job as a social worker and in her volunteer work, has to weigh heavy on the mind — seeing and hearing about the atrocities others have suffered through. Luckily, she has her own support team around her in the form of family and friends.
“For me it’s always been about trying to find a balance of taking care of myself, whether it’s through art, or journaling, or being physically active,” she said. “And definitely being on the track and taking action physically has helped my mindset and my psyche. It helps you get through those tough days when you’re just angry about somebody not being a good human. Then there’s my family, and my partner, and now my daughter keep me grounded and focused and give me the support that I need to take care of myself.”
And when it’s time to really let loose, it’s time to put away the “real” world, put on her cape and become Super…I mean, Ani Dispanco, Derby Superhero.
“It’s a lot of fun to be somebody else and trying to come across as being one of the unstoppable skaters and taking on that persona,” she smiles. “In my everyday life, I’m a social worker, and it’s very different.”
But through her work on and off the track, she has a platform that could change someone’s life in some way, shape, or form, and what could be better than that?
“I definitely feel like it’s always good to be a role model for girls and young women and to show your strength in some capacity, whether that’s through expression of art, through movement, through athleticism, or all of the above,” she said. “And the fact is, a lot of the roller derby leagues across the country, if not all of them, are Do It Yourself, and they’ve basically come from the idea of one person who’s like ‘I’m gonna start this’. Chassis Crass is our founder, and she had this vision and we’ve gone with it, and there’s a lot of people behind the scenes in our league that are actively keeping it strong, and I think that says a tremendous amount about the women and what we can do. I wish that we’d had roller derby when I was in high school or middle school. I would have maybe played that and not been injured in my 30’s.”
She laughs, but it’s the laugh of a skater who has gone through Hell when it comes to injuries, emerged from the other side, and is now ready to take on the derby world and show them that Rookie of the Year form once again.
Who said starting over was a bad thing?