- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

DEKALB, Ill. (AP) - The phone call came out of nowhere.

More than a year after Lee Clark applied on a whim for a 911 dispatcher position in Antarctica, she finally heard back and was asked if she was still interested.

The position, which she had forgotten she applied for, would keep her on the frozen continent for eight months on a one-time basis. That meant eight months being away from family and friends. That meant eight months away from roller derby - a sport that she said saved her vision after a sudden medical issue.

Ten days after the phone call - a mere 10 days to get all her affairs in order and say her good-byes - she sat aboard a C-17 aircraft in route to McMurdo Station from New Zealand.

As the large plane flew closer to Antarctica, Clark looked out the tiny windows.

“It was nothing but white,” Clark said. “Nothing but white, frozen tundra.”

Clark was having struggles with middle age.

In 2012, she went to the doctor to find out how to combat the hot flashes she was dealing with. The doctor told her to limit nicotine and alcohol and to exercise more.

“So I quit smoking, quit drinking and was looking for a workout program,” said Clark, who is now 49. “A friend of mine had mentioned DeKalb had started up a roller derby team.”

She attended one practice for the Barbed Wire Betties in December and that was enough. She was hooked.

Yes, there was plenty of physical contact involved, but it wasn’t just the hitting. She loved the game play. She loved the strategy.

As the oldest member of the team, she took on the fitting skate name of Menopausal Mayhem.

“I think people took it easy on me at first because I’m old,” Clark laughed. “That stopped after a while.”

Like many of the skaters involved with roller derby, Clark has taken her bumps. In the Betties’ season-opening match on March 21, she was relegated to bench coach after a knee injury suffered in practice six weeks earlier.

“I got hit pretty hard - it was a great hit, though,” Clark said. “I’m not an amazing coach. I’d much rather be out there. Coaching is very difficult. You always want to be on skates. If you’re a skater, you want to be on skates.

“I don’t know how long I can do it, but I’ll keep doing it until I don’t love it anymore.”

Clark woke up and could no longer see.

Three months after joining the Betties in December 2012, she suffered a stroke while she was asleep. When she woke up, the vision in her left eye was completely white - “it was like trying to look through a glass of milk” - and everything in her right eye was blurry.

“My biggest concern was how am I going to skate? I need to skate,” she said.

The doctor prescribed steroids for Clark - but it came with a warning. The sight would either get better or go black and if it went black, it would stay that way forever.

“I was totally optimistic,” she said. “There was nothing I could do, it already happened. To dwell on it, is only going to make it worse.”

A month went by before she gradually regained her sight and depth perception - she even jokes that her vision is better now than it was before the stroke.

“The doctor said it could have been a lot worse if I hadn’t been exercising the way I had been,” she said. “Derby saved that, as well.”

Antarctica changed Clark.

Despite the isolation and four of the eight months overcome with darkness, there was a calmness in it.

“(In America), there’s too many places to run away,” she said. “There, there’s no place to go. You have to work it out. It’s a completely different world. It’s so quiet and so calm there.”

When she finally returned as a 911 dispatcher at NIU, she was overwhelmed by the busyness of modern society. The days of having three things on a menu were gone, replaced with a list of items that took Clark an eternity to choose from. The adjustment coming back, Clark said, was harder than the adjustment getting there.

While she had grown accustomed to life at the 142-person McMurdo Station, she had missed the thrill of roller derby. She had missed the Betties, who had a stuffed penguin - Mini Mayhem - in their photos during Clark’s eight-month absence. She had turned a small room in her dorm into a make-shift rink, but that wasn’t the same.

Onboard the plane flying back to the United States, she thought about the Betties. She thought about getting back on the rink. She had scheduled the return trip so that she arrived back into Illinois on a Thursday.

The next day, she was at practice.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to these guys,” she said of the Betties. “Next to my son, they were the ones I missed the most. This is my team.”

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Source: The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle, https://bit.ly/1MZH5jO

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Information from: The Daily Chronicle, https://www.daily-chronicle.com

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