You might never guess that one of Dead Girl Derby‘s most accomplished skater-athletes has not, up to this point in time, played on a team at all. To Dead Girl Derby, she’s Mel Breakdown, one of a handful of Stripes who circles the outer track, keeping things in order, ever-watchful for the odd backblock or stray track-cut.
To her friends and family, she’s Kelly Von Lunen, self-described DINK, culinary enthusiast, founder of the blog Cooking on Skates, and full-time writer for VFW magazine based at the National Headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri.
To the fans, she’s That Hot Referee Nobody Messes With Because They Know Better. (I may have made that up.)
And I may not have.
What you may not know is that Von Lunen is also hard of hearing with what’s categorized as moderately severe hearing loss. Just don’t try telling this scrapper on eight wheels that she can’t compete in the sport of her choice, because as you’ll soon see, not only is it not very smart, it’s also quite wrong. KC Derby Digest recently had the privilege of sitting down to pick the brain of this very accomplished athletic and culinary talent to dish about her derby experiences, her culinary (mis)adventures, and what it’s like for a hard of hearing athlete competing on a variety of tracks and fields.
Disclaimer: all photos featured herein were stolen directly from Cooking on Skates or Mel Breakdown‘s Facebook page. KC Derby Digest claims no ownership pertaining thereto.
On Dead Girl Derby…
KC Derby Digest: First and foremost, how did you come to try out for Dead Girl Derby? What aroused your interest in it, and what was the process like?
“Like so many people that it’s probably cliche by now, I first considered playing roller derby when I watched Whip It. By the end of the movie, I was thinking, “I should do that!” and felt kind of silly. The next day, I looked up the Kansas City Roller Warriors to see if maybe I could try out for them. My impression from the recruiting section of KCRW‘s web site was that they were quite competitive and looking for seasoned skaters. As my only experience skating was rollerblading as a kid, I abandoned hope.
Then a couple months later, I was at Good JuJu on a Friday lunch break and saw a pair of Roller Derby brand white high-top roller skates in exactly my size for something like $12. I took it as a sign and bought them but didn’t know where to go from there. Not long after, I saw a story about Dead Girl Derby in Ink or The Pitch and looked the league up online. I wasn’t sure how to approach it, but I emailed Stormy Trooper, who told me I could come to practice.
I showed up to my first practice with a pair of old figure skates, no gear, and maybe three open skate sessions under my belt. After one practice, I was sore but hooked. A week later, I tried to join an endurance drill, decided halfway through that I couldn’t keep up, tried to come out, skated into a wall, jacked up my knee (tore my ACL and MCL, strained the patellar tendon, bruised the bone, etc.) and was then out for more than six months.”
KCDD: Did you start out as a player and then switch to refereeing?
“My original intent was to join Dead Girl Derby as a skater. This was in May 2010. On June 8, 2010, I tore my ACL. I had surgery in August 2010 and couldn’t start skating again (learning to skate for the first time, really) until December 2010. So I helped as part of the game day crew for the last half of DGD‘s first season.
When I was cleared for contact in February 2011, I had already missed DGD‘s draft and was heartbroken that I wouldn’t be rostered to a team. When Sunny Dee asked if I’d be interested in reffing, I jumped on the opportunity. While most people know it wasn’t what I most wanted to do, it was a great way to stay involved in the league and improve my skating. So I passed my skills test and reffed the last four game days. The 2012 Dead Girl Derby season will be my first as a skater.”
KCDD: As an OSDA referee, do you have a specific title, and what are your specific duties during the bouts?
“I was an OSDA referee for the second half of the 2011 season, and DGD has switched to the M.A.D.E. rule set for our upcoming 2012 season. I was one of four outside refs. Our job on the outside was to watch the outside line and keep an eye out for penalties. Although I did enjoy reffing, I never felt like I got very good at it.”
Yeah, we get distracted too.
KCDD: How did you choose the name Mel Breakdown? (Great job, by the way — there’s nothing worse than a bad derby name.)
“Thanks! I chose the name Temper Storm back in 2010 as a reference to Tempest Storm. In 2011, my league denied my name because it was too similar to another skater in the league at the time. Two Evils had approved it, so I signed over the rights to the name to a woman in Australia who told me she’d been skating under that name for more than a season already.
I’d been trying to come up with a new name for a while, under no hurry because I wouldn’t be rostered anyway. Mel Breakdown just kind of came to me. I’m often saddened by people who don’t ‘get’ the name, but decided to keep it anyway.”
On hearing loss…
KCDD: On your blog, in the entry entitled Derby in a Hearing World, you mention that you’re not actually Deaf. How do you identify? Has the condition itself been constant from birth, or has it declined over time?
“Technically, my hearing loss is classified as moderate-to-severe, I believe. I wear the strongest behind-the-ear analog hearing aids on the market. With them, incoming sound is comparably ‘loud’ to me as sounds are to other people, but it’s similar to amplifying sound with a microphone and speaker — there’s some distortion and comprehension issues sometimes. Because I read lips, in a face-to-face conversation with no background noise, you’d probably never know I had a hearing problem. On the phone or in a noisy area, it becomes apparently pretty quickly. You can imagine how this might be difficult in the middle of a jam.
My hearing does not seem to be deteriorating any faster than anyone else my age. The theory is that I lost my hearing for some unknown reason after I started talking as a toddler, but before age three.”
KCDD: You mention on your blog that you don’t sign. Any plans to learn?
“I’ve always wanted to learn sign language, but I guess not very badly because I haven’t gotten around to doing it. I’m quite stubborn and find a way to do anything I really care about (see: playing derby after tearing my ACL). When my parents learned that I had significant hearing loss, my mom learned sign language in case she would ever need to use it with me. I attended a deaf preschool for about half a year and learned a little there, but stopped using it and forgot all of that when I started a regular public kindergarten. I was told I was deemed ‘too smart’ and ‘too functional’ for a special school.”
But only because she’s always so serious.
KCDD: Are there any specific adaptations you’ve had to make on the track [due to hearing loss] ?
“I haven’t made any specific adaptations yet, but that may change once I’m rostered on a team. As far as I can tell from my limited experience and some online research, there isn’t much that I can modify. Mostly, I am focusing on improving my visual awareness to compensate for my lack of hearing. What I don’t know yet is how I’m going to hear when/if I’m called for penalties. I can hear whistles and that something is being called, but have trouble comprehending who the penalty was called on.”
KCDD: Roller derby isn’t the only sport in which you’ve participated. What else have you played, and how (if at all) has hearing loss affected your game(s)?
“I started playing t-ball when I was five years old and played softball until I was nineteen. Occasionally I still play on co-rec teams, but I’m realizing that I don’t love it the way I used to. When I played first base, I made sure my second baseman and pitcher knew that if I ‘called’ a pop fly that they better stay out of my way because I wouldn’t hear them call me off otherwise. I did knock down a couple teammates as a result a few times. My base coaches also had to be aware of my hearing limitations because I wouldn’t hear any instructions given behind me.
The advantage, though, was that I became a much smarter base runner and more visually aware of what was going on around me. And I so very strongly didn’t want anyone to think of me as ‘different’ or ‘disabled’ — being a teenager is awkward enough as it is — that I think I tried that much harder to prove that I was as good or better than anyone else.
Tennis was great the two years I played in high school because even if I played doubles, I only had to listen for one voice yelling at me. I have a somewhat dominant personality and probably do most of the yelling anyway. I played volleyball for three years and basketball for two, but that was a while ago and I can’t say that there was anything else unique about those sports that wasn’t covered in the others.”
On culinary life…
KCDD: Clearly, derby isn’t your only passion in life. You love to cook so much, you started a blog called Cooking On Skates in which you detail some of your favorite recipes. How did this culinary obsession begin, and what are your favorite styles/genres/ethnicities in the kitchen?
“I started blogging because I often write about depressing topics for my day job and wanted something fun to write about. Also, I’m the oldest of five children in my family, so when I was younger and living with my parents I would often cook a quick dinner for seven people. Because I like food and want to eat good food, I learned to cook good food. We’re talking very meat-and-potatoes, Midwest cooking here.”
And cookies. Never argue with cookies.
“About three years ago, I became kind of an accidental vegetarian and had to completely re-learn how to put together a meal. Fortunately, I’m not vegan and there’s no meat in cookies. I make it well-known that I will not give up cookies. I’d rather skate more and keep my cookies. I’m constantly trying to come up with quick, delicious meals full of lean proteins, veggies, and whole grains. Not only am I fairly health-conscious, I want to give my body the best fuel I can for derby energy!”
KCDD: What inspires you in the kitchen, and where do you get your best recipes?
“Most often, I’m inspired by a dish I ate in a restaurant or something I read online. I read about a dozen cooking blogs each day and bookmark any recipes that sound interesting. Occasionally I’ll make one of those recipes as-is, but usually I’ll combine elements I like from a few different ones. Some days I just come home from work ravenous (a common derby girl problem, I’ve learned) and throw things together as quickly as possible in hopes that the end result will be edible. Sometimes it’s barely palatable. It’s never been impossible to eat. Every once in a while, I get a surprisingly delicious meal and blog it.”
KCDD: Any culinary disasters or horror stories you’d care to share?
“When I was in high school, I teamed up with my two best friends at the time to make cookies. We were all National Honor Society members, and our school’s chapter was going to be Christmas caroling and handing out cookies in the neighborhood. We didn’t want to sing, so we volunteered to bake. By the end, we learned that chocolate chip cookies are not a three-person job. When we went to eat one apiece at the end — jokingly, to ‘test’ them, I’m sure — we discovered that we had left all the sugar out of them. They looked fine but tasted terrible. We didn’t have time to make new ones, so we contributed them to the project the next day anyway. I can’t imagine how whoever received those cookies must have reacted.
I can’t think of any good recent disasters. Mostly I just break or drop things because I’m a klutz.”
Which could never happen here.
KCDD: Hang around the sport long enough, and you’ll meet many women who say, “Roller derby saved my life.” The impact it has on the lives of the women who participate really can’t be overstated. Do you have a similar story? How has it positively impacted your life?
“I do sometimes say ‘roller derby saved my soul,’ but that may be overdramatic. When I graduated from college in 2007, I had a job right away, which I am thankful for. Then my boyfriend-at-the-time (now-husband) and I bought a house. Then we got engaged. Then we got married. We weren’t ready for kids yet, but I didn’t know how to slow down and enjoy life without having that next big thing to focus on. I’d stopped playing sports because it’s surprisingly hard to jump in as an adult.
I tried running but didn’t want to admit that I didn’t really like it. Most college friends drifted away. I gained weight. I didn’t think I should be depressed because I was thankful for a wonderful husband, family, friends, home, dog, everything. But something was missing.”
“Much like college friends, I know that most derby friends won’t be lifelong soulmates. I think it helps knowing that up-front. But they’re the best ‘second family’ I could have ever asked for. I hate to think ahead to the eventual day when I’ll give this up—either by choice or otherwise.
My close friends have commented that I’m now happier than I’ve ever been, and I think it’s because I have a physical activity that I really love. It’s the part of my life that I was missing. Roller derby isn’t for everyone, but I really believe that every person needs that one thing they LOVE doing that gets the body moving.
Already I’ve found myself doing things on skates that a year and a half ago I didn’t think I was physically capable of. I hope that if I keep skating 5 days a week, I will keep improving. Rather than shrinking my body, I’ve got muscles I didn’t know I could have. And I am damn proud of my thighs and ass. They may not fit in most clothes, but they help me play a sport that is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”
KCDD: What advice would you give to women — Deaf, hearing, or hard of hearing — who are considering trying out for roller derby?
“Again, roller derby is not for everyone. You’ll know right away if it’s for you, but you won’t know unless you try. It’s the best and most fun workout I’ve ever gotten, and it’s allowed me to meet the greatest group of people. I’ve read about skaters who were completely Deaf and one who skated on a prosthetic ankle. We all have our limitations, and the derby community is indescribably supportive of helping each of us overcome those. Don’t let yourself make excuses.
And if you find out you don’t love derby, find something you do love. Run, bike, swim, dance, anything. At the risk of sounding completely hippie, I really believe that it’s important to challenge our minds, bodies and souls. For me, roller derby helps with all of those. I am very fortunate and thankful that my husband, family, and friends are so supportive of this.”
Visit Mel Breakdown‘s extraordinary cooking blog at Cooking on Skates (dot com), where she regularly features delicious meals and treats she’s whipped up, as well as recipes from a handful of guest writers who add their spice and expertise to the mix.
Be sure to keep in mind Dead Girl Derby‘s 2012 season, the schedule for which has already been posted, and whatever else you do, keep a close eye out for the incomparable Mel Breakdown in the coming season. You can bet we will.