Between March and June, Cat Thisius logged hours upon hours in physical therapy, training, and roller derby practice. Her goal: to play in MedCity Mafia’s final bout on June 16. Here’s how she did it.
On March 17, MedCity Mafia played at home against the River City Dames of Anarchy. Cat Thisius was banned from the rink — cheering at a game didn’t align with her doctors’ order to keep her heart rate below 100 beats per minute.
“It was such a traumatic surgery, it really wipes everything out of you,” Thisius said. “Your whole body needs to heal — not just your chest.”
Before her diagnosis, Thisius had played in almost every home game during four years of roller derby.
March was filled with stops and starts, big steps toward regained mobility and the occasional backslide (doing too much, too early).
“I’m not the kind of person who takes anything slow,” Thisius said. “Listening to my body has been the hardest thing.”
Thisius went back to work and roller derby on the same day in mid-April.
The roller derby equipment routine goes like this: swap out purple glasses for a red pair with an old prescription. Remove tennis shoes and lace up skates. Strap on bulky, geometric knee and elbow pads. Elbow guards. Wrist guards. Mouth guard. And the helmet, bedecked with Cat’s derby name (Mad Catter) and a pink breast cancer ribbon.
Through the next months, Thisius had to rely on a piece of gear outside the normal roller derby pads, helmet and skates — her purple Fitbit, which decreed whether she could continue to practice with the team.
“Does it feel awesome to be lacing the skates again?” Hannah “Hannahbal Lector” Von Arb asked as Thisius tightened the pink laces on her skates.
“I’m super nervous,” Thisius answered.
“Did you get a bunch of hugs today?” Dee “Rogue D. Termination” Huntsberger asked.
“From the little ones, yeah. Not from anyone here.”
Jennifer “Green Eggs and Slam” Logelin, Thisius’ neighbor and friend outside of practice, skated up with another breast cancer ribbon clearly visible on her helmet.
“We’re going to wait until we’re hot and sweaty for that!” she said.
Thisius took to the track with Logelin to warm up — a moment that was “earth-shattering” for her friend.
“She looked over at me after that first lap and said, ‘Now I know I’m going to be OK,’” Logelin said. “She’s a rockstar. I’m excited to have her back.”
At her first practice, she struggled to stretch her arms above her head, and broke to skate laps while the team drilled.
“I’m winded. I think that’s the hardest part, and my legs are shaky,” she said. “I’ve always pushed myself, and I can’t do that now.”
But being back on skates was a relief in itself. Until she got up on her skates and took that first step forward, she hadn’t been sure she’d be able to do it at all.
MedCity Mafia meets on Mondays and Wednesdays during the season. By her third practice, Thisius was “feeling good!”
“I’m amazed at the progress from last week to this week,” she said. As flexibility and strength returned, her next challenge was to get over her mental block — the fear of getting hit.
A few years ago, Thisius fell backward during play. She got a concussion and afterward, had to get over the fear of falling and injuring herself again.
“Even before I had surgery, I’ve been hit in the chest before. It stings,” Thisius said.
She plays as a blocker, which is the position in roller derby that tries to stop opposing jammers — skaters who try to lap the other team for points — from getting through the players on her team and making it around the track. Furthermore, Thisius likes to brace — during a block, she often faces the oncoming jammer so she can tell her teammates where the hit will come from, and add “force that makes the block strong.”
But there’s a disadvantage to the position that became increasingly clear as her first contact practice approached.
“If the jammer gets through, the brace will also take the hit to the chest,” she said.
Mackenzie “Kenz with Benfhits’ Rohe, MedCity’s coach since 2012, watched Thisius closely during her first few practices back.
The team hasn’t had a player return from cancer and surgery before, she said — the closest comparison she had was pregnancy (the “nine-month injury”), which also has a six-week recovery pre-derby.
“I’m really hoping she’s going to be honest and communicate her needs. … We have a lot of strong, stubborn women who downplay their injuries,” she said. “We’re relying on her feedback.”
Thisius’ first contact practice ended not with a bang or a whimper — at least not the kind that signaled injury. Before she even started skating again, Thisius planned ahead for contact. She purchased a shield for her upper torso — a piece of molded plastic designed for fencing — and padded it with Wonder Woman felt.
“I think I’ll be fine unless I get whacked a weird way,” she said. “I’m more worried about the sides than the front. I’ve got some room there.”
As the team circled up before drills on May 7, a few took practice bumps against her chest. One or two skated away, rubbing their arm or shoulder.
“If it was a bullet bra, it would have been an issue,” Ashley “Earth, Wheels and Fire” Jones shrugged. But this? “It’s softer than an elbow.”
The real test didn’t occur until drills, when Thisius took up the brace-blocking position against a line of jammers. Thisius took hits to the chest, back, shoulders, arms, and hips.
“I didn’t feel anything, which was great,” she said. “It felt good, it felt really good. It didn’t feel like anyone was holding back, which is what I was wishing for.”
As Thisius’ practices went back to normal, so did her work schedule. As a teacher at Zumbrota Lutheran’s Rainbow School, “Miss Cat” teaches enrichment classes for 3- to 5-year-olds.
In the early days after her surgery, Thisius enlisted another teacher and the students to handle the physical aspects of her job — moving tables and shelves, etc. But the kids didn’t know specifics. She didn’t use the C-word to her class.
“I didn’t want them to relate it to someone they knew who was sick, or … maybe died,” she said. “They don’t need to worry about that kind of stuff.” Especially since, as she says, her diagnosis was a best-case scenario.
A few days earlier, the school sent around surveys for Teacher Appreciation Week. One of the students in her class, when asked about his favorite thing about his teacher, answered “That she’s back from surgery,” Thisius said.
It was a reminder that her cancer affected people all over, she said. Here, in the classroom, and her team, her family and friends, even her trainers at Olmsted Medical Center.
On the day before the final game of the season, Thisius pictured herself on the track. Visualization, she said, is a part of her pre-game preparation.
Husband Terry said she was anxious about the game as well, though.
“She said she just kept thinking about it, no matter what she was doing, it just kept playing in her head,” he said. “She didn’t sleep well.”
In honor of Thisius’ first-and-only game of the season, the featured charity for the match was Join the Journey, which connects individuals with breast cancer to survivors and mentors.
Each of the MedCity skaters wore pink — knee socks, bandanas. Stickers adorned helmets.
A new, smaller chest shield fit under Thisius’ jersey. About 90 minutes before the bout began, she’d found out she was skating on two of nine lines.
“It’s been 103 days since my surgery, which feels like forever ago. So I’m ready,” she said.
Terry Thisius took a seat in the stands, along with Cat’s siblings and in-laws, and a couple of friends from out of town. The Dascher family, whose son, Nathan, attends Thisius’ classes at the Rainbow School, held, “Go Miss Cat” signs.
Thisius is determined and goal-focused, so Terry knew she was going to try her hardest to get back out on the track.
“Let’s just say I’m glad this bout wasn’t any sooner than it was,” he said.
The teams — MedCity and the Minnesota Southbound Rollers — lined up. Then the announcer — “Returning to the track, it’s Number 345, the Mad Catter!”
Thisius played in the second and sixth lines, and MedCity gained a strong lead against the Rollers. By the end of the first half, MedCity was up by nearly 150 points — enough that they could take some risks. With one minute left in P1, Mad Catter got the star that the jammer wears — she was going to try to score some points.
“We told her from the get-go, you get to decide how much you’re in the game,” Danielle “Spaztik Pepper” Riehl, MedCity’s co-captain, said. “If you want it, go get it.”
At half time, the team lined up to thank their sponsors — but there was another announcement.
In honor of an “amazing woman (and) tough fighter,” the team presented a $345 — Cat’s team number — check to Join the Journey.
During the second half, MedCity stretched its lead to nearly 200 points. But Thisius was out nearly one-third of the time — bracing against opposing jammers, blocking points, and occasionally sitting in the penalty box. As the clock ticked down from the last minute, she prepared to jam again. MedCity called a time-out with 19 seconds to go — and a score of 266-91 — so she could get back in.
With one jam remaining in her last and only game of the season, Thisius did everything. She danced around the edges of blocks, and eventually broke through after the opposing jammer, raising her arms in triumph as Terry whooped. On their second lap, both jammers went into the penalty box. Cat re-entered in time to chase the other jammer around the track.
The Mad Catter didn’t put any points on the board, but with a final score of 266-98, the game was still an unequivocal success for MedCity.
And for Cat?
“I got my wish,” she said. “Everything led up to tonight.”