Rolling With the Punches

Local artist and activist Wendi Kent found support to cope with relationship trauma through the fast-wheeling world of roller derby.

Last Halloween, Wendi Kent, a 38-year-old queer photographer, activist, and art teacher, was gliding around the Madison Skate Park in a giant vagina costume. Kent is a member of Madison Wreckers Roller Derby who skates under the name Slaughterhouse Thighs. She has short hair, stylish thick-framed glasses, and a variety of tattoos, including the phrase “thick thighs/save lives” across the backs of her legs. 

Along with fellow skater Critical Tits (aka Hannah Jaber), Thighs was enjoying one of the year’s last outdoor femme skate nights­­, an evening dedicated to creating space for female/femme-identified skaters, who are not always well-represented at skateparks.

The costume covered her torso and head in concentric layers of increasingly deep-pink fabric. Finding it a little cumbersome, Thighs took it off and continued skating in her athletic gear including helmet, pads, and pale blue, rainbow-laced outdoor skates. About 15 minutes into the session, she turned sharply to avoid crossing paths with a skateboarder, and fell awkwardly on the wet pavement. 

As usual, she got up and skated on, down some ramps, over a round, convex feature affectionately dubbed “the boob,” and off the half pyramid, before realizing that something was wrong. Critical Tits helped her to her car, and Thighs made it home and later to urgent care, where x-rays revealed that a tendon had pulled a segment of bone off her ankle: she would need surgery and months to recover. 

Thighs was distraught, but not over the pain of the injury. After facing relationship trauma in 2016, roller skating had become a crucial part of her therapy, both mental and physical, as well as her social home. Not having it for such a long time would be a challenge.

A rocky road  

Thighs started skating in 2016, around the time that her partner, Autumn Kent, came out as transgender. The transition came as a surprise to Thighs, who felt unbalanced by the change.

“It was really hard because I felt like…I had something really stable. And I’ve never had any stability in my life,” she says.

Thighs grew up in Austin, Texas, where her mother struggled with mental health and drug problems and her stepfather was abusive. In 1993, when she was just 13, Thighs became pregnant. Though she wanted an abortion, she was not counseled on that option when she sought help at a Texas Planned Parenthood (this experience later formed part of the inspiration for Thighs’s work as a reproductive rights activist). Receiving little support from her family, she gave the baby girl to her boyfriend’s mother to raise. At 15, she took to the streets and started using heroin, an experience she recently detailed as a guest on the podcast, “Guys We F***ed.”

By her early 20s, Thighs had recovered from drugs and was working as a barista on Austin’s busy Guadalupe Street. It was there that she met Autumn. The couple were married in 2010, six years before Autumn, now an associate professor of mathematics at UW-Madison, came out and began transitioning. Thighs began looking for a healthy way to cope with the challenges of her changing relationship.

“I was feeling really alone, and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she says. “I wanted something where I could take my mind off it in a healthy way.”

Feels and eight wheels  

Enter roller skating. Thighs had recently become fascinated by skaters on Instagram, where she followed groups like Chicks in Bowls and the Moxi Skate Team. Although Thighs herself had never roller skated, she was inspired. 

In late summer 2016, she bought a pair of basic black skates online, with very little knowledge about what to look for or how to skate. She naively got them in her normal shoe size, which meant the skates were too loose for controlled footwork. Thighs tried the skates out in the driveway and, after just a few attempts, fell and fractured her tailbone.

Despite the pain that resulted from her first attempt, Thighs continued to investigate the roller-skating community. At the encouragement of friends, she decided to take the introductory class offered by Madison Roller Derby’s recreational team, Madison Wreckers Roller Derby.

Finding her place  

Roller derby is unlike any other sport: part race and part contact blocking, with a lot of queer, punk, DIY attitude thrown in. The game plays out on a small, flat track, on which players known as jammers score points by lapping members of the opposing team (blockers) who try to impede their progress. 

MRD is a nonprofit with both competitive and non-competitive teams spanning all skill levels and a wide variety of gender identities, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. The teams practice at Fast Forward Skate Center, an obscure facility along a highway frontage road on the southwest side of Madison. The ceiling inside is low, with disco balls and strobe lights dangling over a floor that, until a recent renovation, was pocked by water damage, and in places patched with warping sheets of plywood. (MRD is raising funds and searching for a new, more up-to-date facility to host practices and competitions.) 

At her first practice Thighs stuck close to the wall. Skating was harder than she had thought it would be, and she left wondering whether she would stick out the introductory course. She did come back, though, again and again. According to Thighs, the supportive MRD community made the difference: in her experience, derby skaters are more interested in sharing than in showing off, which makes new skaters feel welcome.

Thighs cites an experience with MRD skater Nat Splat (Natalie Kingsfield) as an example of that attitude. Nat, who skates with the Reservoir Dolls, one of MRD’s home teams, was helping lead the practice when she noticed Thighs struggling with a maneuver called a crossover. It requires the skater to lean her body toward the center of the track, alternately putting one foot directly in front of the other to navigate a curve.

The other new skaters got the hang of it, one by one, while Thighs lost momentum. Nat skated over and offered a few pointers, reminding Thighs that she was covered in padding: even though her body was telling her to be careful, she had permission to contradict her fear. On the next few laps, the crossover finally clicked.

Falling—and getting back up—in love  

Thighs fell more and more in love with roller derby. She attended MRD games in costume, acquiring a giant, three-dimensional blue-and-white “Grade A” milk carton to don when rooting for the Dairyland Dolls (the league’s all-star team) and a unicorn mascot head, which she pairs with silver spandex, to cheer on Team Unicorn. By the middle of her third training session, Thighs knew she had the “derby bug.” Her skills and confidence were improving, and she was feeling better, too. Derby was becoming a new point of stability.

Thighs now serves as the gear pivot for the Wreckers. She distributes free rental equipment to new members who have yet to buy their own gear, a huge job that requires sorting through and cleaning hundreds of smelly skates and pads. 

Thighs is also one of the first faces that new team members get to know. Amperslam (Natsuko Suzuki) is a Wrecker who moved to Madison in 2017 to work at Epic. After living in upstate New York her entire life, Amperslam says joining derby helped her put down roots in a new city. She appreciates that the roller derby community is very queer and trans-positive, a rarity in the world of sports. Another major draw is the sense of empowerment.

“I loved going to bouts and seeing these amazing, inspiring women who are so talented and so fast,” says Amperslam. “They’re such badasses, and watching them made me feel like I could be a badass, too.”

Embracing change  

These days, Thighs also assists at practices. She finds herself offering tips on the basics like the ones she got from Nat Splat when she started. 

Since Autumn came out in 2016, she and Thighs have been co-parenting their daughters and living together in an apartment on the East Side. The couple have separated romantically and are in the process of looking for separate, possibly adjoining units so they can continue to raise their children together. Thighs is also back on skates following her injury last Halloween.

In an Instagram post last fall, Thighs thanked the MRD community for the transformative impact it has had on her life.

“I found a community and a family,” she wrote. “I found something in myself that I’d never known was there. I found a support system that I have so desperately needed to survive very hard times. I’ve found friendship in those I would have never known otherwise. I’ve found freedom, strength, and courage. I found something that will not let me down when I need security the most.”

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