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Gabe Montesanti learned to ‘Brace for Impact’ — and found life in the roller derby arena

St. Louis author Gabe Montesanti is known as “Joan of Spark” in roller derby.
Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis author Gabe Montesanti is known as “Joan of Spark” in roller derby.

Gabe Montesanti owes her career in roller derby to a random conversation. She and her girlfriend were sitting in a coffee shop near Toledo, Ohio, when another woman approached and suggested Montesanti looked like she could play roller derby. Montesanti was flattered, and when she moved to St. Louis for grad school not long after, she acted on the suggestion.

“The first day I had internet, I looked up St. Louis roller derby teams,” she recalled on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

That decision changed her life. Not only did Montesanti find a passion for the sport, but she also found true community on the city’s highly ranked Arch Rival Roller Derby team — and a terrific topic for a writer. Her new memoir, “Brace for Impact,” tells the story of how the sometimes brutal world of roller derby helped her come to terms with the trauma of her childhood and find a new way to live.

Listen to Gabe Montesanti on St. Louis on the Air

As Montesanti explains in her book, roller derby may look campy, but it’s also a full-contact sport where danger is part of the appeal.

“My first roller derby bout was fun like handheld firecrackers are fun,” she writes. “Fun like jumping off a swing when it’s at the highest point is fun: a heady mix of adrenaline, exhilaration and potential danger.”

Montesanti came in wildly unprepared.

“I hadn’t skated since I was nine years old,” she recalled. “I could not skate backwards. I could not take hits, I could not jump six inches, like I was supposed to. There were so many skills that I didn't yet have.” What she had — beyond natural athleticism — was an unwavering toughness, along with a relentless work ethic. Improbably, she made the team. In doing so, she also found the queer-friendly skate family she craved and the joy of skating.

But then she suffered a freak, near-catastrophic injury. Only then was she forced to take a hard look at herself — and her childhood. That meant confronting not just her tendency toward bulimia and her hyper-competitive nature, but also her relationship with her mother.

“Both my parents took it really, really hard when I told them that I was dating a woman,” she recalled. “It was a pretty explosive and disastrous coming out that I wasn't expecting at all. I was not braced for impact, which is what the title comes from, along with just the physical things that you do at a roller derby game to get ready for impact — you know, widen your stance and tighten your core. I wasn't ready for that reaction from my parents.” The accident brought her mom to St. Louis, and forced her to choose between her old life and her new one.

Even so, Montesanti resists turning her mother into a caricature.

“I tried to write this with as much compassion for my mom as I could have, because I do honestly have a lot of compassion for her and what she went through and how she raised us,” she said. “In some ways she was really wonderful, but in other ways, she was really harmful.” The book doesn’t flinch from exploring either.

Montesanti began writing her book while she was part of Washington University’s MFA program, and there found the encouragement she needed to explore not just roller derby but her own life. She was initially devastated when she suffered her injury, assuming the notes she was taking on the roller derby world would no longer make sense as a first-person narrative.

“When I broke myself, I thought the book was over,” she said. Instead, dealing with her injury and coming back from the brink gave the story its dramatic arc.

Montesanti recently moved back to St. Louis after a year teaching college in the Dallas area. She said she missed her community here and could barely wait to get out of Texas after she landed two jobs here: She’ll be working at Left Bank Books and as the St. Louis producer for the Story Collider.

Even as she’s thrilled to be back, she can’t help but think back to the Ohio woman who, more than a half-dozen years ago, first tipped her off to the remarkable sport that helped her find her way in St. Louis, and in life.

“She was openly queer in a very conservative area,” she recalled. “And I thought that was very brave. I was coming to terms with my own queer identity. I was inspired by her.

“My dream is that she'll hear an interview or a podcast or something and say, ‘Wow, maybe that was me in Toledo,’” she said.

Related Event
What: “Brace for Impact” book launch with Left Bank Books
When: 7 p.m. May 26
Where: .ZACK (3224 Locust St., St. Louis, MO 63103)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.