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Take a hit, never quit: Tinker officer builds toughness on roller rink

Nicole Messinger, left, blocks out a teammate during a Victory Dolls practice. Messinger joined the team in 2008 and took the leap into the world of roller derby. (Air Force photo by John Stuart)

Nicole Messinger, left, blocks out a teammate during a Victory Dolls practice. Messinger joined the team in 2008 and took the leap into the world of roller derby. (Air Force photo by John Stuart)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- It was a grueling day in March 2009 when the junior officer learned just what she was made of.

It was a practice like none other for Nicole Messinger, who was an aspiring roller derby skater with Oklahoma City's Victory Dolls. What had started as a routine exercise that spring evening turned into a watershed event in her derby career.

For the first lieutenant, there is her roller derby life before that practice and the life after. The practice proved a figurative bridge, spanning the two realities. One reality in which there were lingering doubts and uncertainties. Can I really do this?

And the other in which all the peripheral murmurings fell away and one central, undeniable truth emerged at the forefront. You're tougher than you think you are; just don't quit.

Messinger has always been at home at the roller rink. Growing up in Portland, Ore., she knew from an early age the sound of rubber wheels on concrete and the feel of lacing her skates at Oaks Park Roller Rink -- the local venue.

"I was a rink rat when I was a kid. You know, parents dropped me off at the rink because it's cheaper than a babysitter," Messinger says with a smile.

So perhaps it was destined to happen to her -- an unavoidable life draw into the fray of roller derby.

At any rate, it wasn't meant to be until she came to Oklahoma, following her air weapon officer training and subsequent placement in the 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker.

This is where she met the Victory Dolls -- an eclectic bunch of girls from all walks of life -- and tasted her first addictive draught of everything roller derby. But it wasn't easy. She still had to get through that March practice.

"That practice we had a scrimmage and it was the more veteran girls versus the newer girls," Messinger says. "And I had to prove myself and earn my spot. I spent a full two-hour practice just getting the snot knocked out of me. I was the jammer, the one trying to get through the pack, and for two hours I never made it through once.

"The girls were just hammering me. My teammates and I were outmatched. But I was like 'you know what, you can knock me down but I'm not going to quit, I'm not going to give up.'"

Messinger, whose roller derby nickname is Ono Notagin, now has an official title for that practice: the Humbling of Ono.

But in a sport that counts on collisions, blocks and falls, the lessons from her Humbling are now with her every practice and every game, helping her to stay true to the cause.

Roller derby is a unique sport, to say the least. Up until a few years ago it was also a sport on its way toward extinction. Buoyed by popularity in recent years, however, the cultic craze has made a comeback nationwide, and several teams call Oklahoma City home.

Several hundred of these derby fans packed Bethany's Roll-A-Way rink March 27 to watch the Victory Dolls go against the Dixie Derby Girls of Huntsville, Ala. Sucked in close to the rink, the scores of home supporters cheered for their red-clad Dolls as driving music bolstered the high-energy milieu. The Dolls put it all on the line, but ultimately came up short 90-77 at the end of two halves.

Messinger came to the sport indirectly, while in training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. While there, the Austin-based team the Texacutioners came across her radar and piqued her interest. But it wasn't until further training at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., in 2008 that she saw a game in person.

"I heard something on the radio about a roller derby match that night and I told the guys in my class 'guys this is awesome we need to check this out,'" Messinger says.
Those initial games as an idle spectator are almost like a distant reality compared to Messinger's active participation on the Victory Dolls today. What first attracted her to the sport still keeps her coming back.

"We're generally not the frou-frou, girly girls, delicate flowers, whatever you want to call it," Messinger says. "We're the tough girls and tough girls come in all shapes and sizes."
Tough is the key word for the Victory Dolls, who boast nicknames such as Mount Crushmore, T Pain, Jem Reaper and Sally Strych 9.

"You don't come here because you're afraid of getting hit," Messinger says. "If someone comes here and says 'oh somebody hit me,' then go do something else. If you don't want to get hit go be an art skater, go be a speed skater, don't be a derby skater."

In basic terms, the goal of roller derby is somewhat simple. Four girls try to help a fifth teammate, the jammer, navigate a raucous pack of defenders. The four block for their jammer in hopes she'll break out in front of the pack and lap back around a short counter-clockwise rink to score points. The opposing team's jammer is doing the same thing, so the advent of playing offense and defense simultaneously is a uniquely challenging one.

Girls fall often, trip, get blocked to the ground and splay out across the floor. Helmets, elbow and knee pads help them get up again, but injuries do happen.

Last May, Messinger seriously sprained her ankle and bruised her tailbone in a game.

"The other players helped me to the floor and I sat on my own skate," Messinger describes her fall. "I didn't realize I was hurt as bad as I was at the time. I tried to get up and my ankle kind of buckled. And after that the other team realized I was injured so they started going for me."

An added challenge is that roller derby has no weight classes, so it's a true cross section of humanity on the rink, Messinger says. Going against the bigger opponents has taught her a lot about herself.

"I can take a lot of beating. I'm not big, I'm not a big girl," Messinger says. "There's no weight division in roller derby like boxing, it's all one game so if a girl's 6-foot-2 and weighs 240 pounds I'm playing her. But I've learned that I'm tougher than I thought I was."

So far the Victory Dolls are 1-1 for the season, which started in February. They're hoping for a better season, as their tournament hopes were cut short last year by the Texacutioners.

Regardless of outcomes, these girls just want to have a good time on roller skates. Despite the falls and bruises they'll be out on the rink to stay.

They just don't quit.