For Joseph L. Simonis, it wasn't a lifelong passion realized, a personal test of strength or a political statement. It was a way for her to guide the rudders of a second puberty, to hang onto a body in the process of the change.
Simonis is one of the first transgender skaters to compete with the Windy City Rollers, the Chicago-based women's derby league ( Simonis points out that she does not typically use labels like "transgender." )
She is in her second year with the league and has steadily moved up in the local derby scene, often unintentionally challenging traditional ideas about gender along the way.
Simonis is relatively new to the sport. She was in her fifth year of graduate school at Cornell University studying ecology and evolutionary biology when a transgender friend of hers told her about his roller derby league in Ithaca, New York.
"He was talking about skating, and I was like, 'that's really cool," Simonis remembered. "For me, sports were a huge thing growing up for most of my life, but in particular during first puberty, it was a huge way for me to belong in a group of people, get a hold of my body as I grew almost a foot in a year," she said. "I didn't realize that's what I was looking for but I was."
Simonis grew up in the small residential town of Mundelein, Ill, the youngest of three kids.
He ( Simonis prefers masculine pronouns when talking about the past ) took after her older brother Andrew, she says. He wrestled and played baseball and football. Around age six, he started to feel different in ways that were hard to understand. His last year of high school, he told his parents he was gay. In grad school, she told them she was trans.
She was at a dance party one night in grad school when she came across a girl promoting local derby tryouts. She took a flyer, pretending it was for a friend.
The next day she confided to a friend that she had been thinking a lot about roller derby. The two decided to try out together.
For Simonis, trying out meant navigating the tricky waters of coming out as trans.
Simonis read the rules. The Women's Flat Track Derby Association ( WFTDA ), the international governing body of derby leagues, had a policy that would allow Simonis to compete. That policy, which has been criticized by some trans athletes, Simonis included, requires that a trans athlete submit a physician-signed letter, stating that the athlete has hormone levels that are "medically acceptable" for a female.
However, Simonis also knew that joining a league might not be that simple. A lot of all-female leagues had yet to see trans athletes and had yet to adopt their own policies. Simonis would likely be a test case.
"I spent about two hours writing the most nervous ridiculous email," she said.
The process took months, and Simonis had to press the issue. After a number of meetings and a vote, Simonis started training with the Ithaca League of Women Rollers ( ILWR ).
Derby proved a new challenge for Simonis, who had never strapped on skates for sport before.
"And then to try skating while you're racing around a track and trying to hit someone, while not being hit, trying to keep track of how close you are to other players and to the track…Getting mechanics and fundamentals right is a challenge," she said.
She worked through trainings, but never made it to competition with ILWR.
That year Simonis accepted a position at Lincoln Park Zoo as postdoctoral fellow in Population Biology, analyzing animal populations.
Simonis moved to Chicago and started over in derby, this time with the Windy City Rollers ( WCR ).
The WCR policy allowed for Simonis to play. That policy was more general than the WFTDA policy, except for inter-league play where the WFTDA policy would take precedent.
"It is the policy of the Windy City Rollers that we will not discriminate based on a woman's sexual orientation, transgender status, or race," the WCR policy states. "WCR members have a right to maintain their own privacy, without interference from WCR as an organization. We will adhere to all WFTDA rules and regulations regarding inter-league play."
Simonis started out with Haymarket Rioters, a farm team for derby newcomers learning the basics.
Megan Twibell ( known as Sara Problem on the track ) was the new skater program coach when Simonis started.
"I like to say that Derby players are like Tang or wine," Twibell said. Some players are instantly good at the sport, while others take longer to hone their skills. "Joe is Tang," she said.
Simonis showed a knack for derby from the start, Twibell said.
Simonis also joined the Chicago Red Hots, a new team that competes under USA Roller Sports.
A knee injury with the Red Hots set her back a few months, but Simonis used that time to start coaching and continue learning about the sport.
In October, Simonis competed with the Red Hots at the USARS National Championships. The team took fourth place.
This year, Simonis moved up in the ranks at Windy City Rollers when she was drafted to the Double Crossers, on the league's four home teams.
Amanda Miller ( Cruel Whip on the rink ) is Simonis' home team captain. ( Miller also competes with Simonis on the Red Hots. )
Miller called Simonis a great addition to the team. Part of that, she said, has been Simonis' patience. But Simonis is also dedicated to learning and discussing the rules of derby, something not every player loves.
"She has the mindset and determination and the understanding that you're not going to be awesome your first year," Miller said.
Simonis said she is in for the long haul.
"I have a feeling that I can be a really good skater, but I'm not there yet," she said.
Having a transgender skater has raised new questions for some in the league, Miller admitted. Simonis is not the first trans skater in the league, but like Miller, many of skaters haven't had personal experiences with transgender people.
"A lot of these discussions just haven't happened before," Miller said.
And while Windy City Rollers has a trans policy that aims to be welcoming, Miller also wonders about the next steps for the league in becoming more inclusive.
Wendy Vestevich sits in the executive board of WCR. She notes that the WCR policy and the WFTDA are different.
"Our policy does allow for self-identified female skaters to try out and be on the league for home team play," Vestevich said.
But for skaters who wants to compete on inter-league bouts, WCR defers to WFTDA policy.
Miller is a representative for Windy City Rollers on WFTDA. In March 2011, The Chicago Outfit, another Chicago derby league under WFTDA, also adopted a transgender policy. Such conversations among different WFTDA leagues have raised questions about the governing policy..
"It seems that we should be getting [WFTDA] to adjust that policy as a whole," Miller said.
Simonis conceded that being the lone trans skater on the track can feel a little lonely at times. But the league has also provided her with an important space, both physically and emotionally.
"I really enjoy being physically active, and I'd way rather be active as part of a team than by myself…It's just more fun to me," she said. "And holy hell to be welcomed into a women's team sport is so empowering and validating, I can't even begin to describe it."