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Alex Johnson: Am I Still a Professional Climber?

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Photo: Just Fab Photography.

I’m writing again! It’s been a while. I was pretty excited to receive the invitation to be an online contributor for Rock and Ice. I went to school for a bachelor’s degree in English and Journalism, and I used to write regularly on a blog, but that sort of fell by the wayside these last few years. So this first piece is a sort of introduction into where I’m at in my life right now.

Here I am, sitting in Minnesota, the new head coach of the competitive youth team at Vertical Endeavors. My Instagram bio still says “Professional Climber,” which I feel like I’m really not anymore.

I started winning Youth events almost right away, around age 9. At 13 I won my first Youth National Championship event, and then in that same year won an Adult National Championship. Things progressed sort of quickly from there. I was hopping around the country and the world competing in everything there was to compete in: The PCA Championships, ABS Nationals, The Ford Adventure Sport Challenge, The Teva Mountain Games (which eventually became the GoPro Games and then the Vail Mountain Games)—and now hosts the IFSC Bouldering World Cup, which I won in 2008.

After that I went to Europe for a couple seasons on the World Cup Circuit, bouncing on and off podiums. But competing started to feel mundane and robotic to me. I wasn’t doing it for the reasons that existed when I had started competing. It’s possible I was just competing because I didn’t know what else to do, and because I was good at it.

Fast forward a few years and a few more World Cups, and I was living in Las Vegas, predominantly climbing outside. I had fallen in love with the vast desert landscape and the sandstone, and it seemed like I’d found my home.

As many events as I’d won, I felt like I never really fit into the mold for “climbing  pro.” Brands and fans always seemed more interested in hard outdoor sends than competition performances, and I never had that deep seated inner drive to explore far away, which I feel like is not only expected, but demanded.

I’m a homebody. I’d rather stay in and watch a movie than go out to a bar. I’d rather stay in Vegas climbing around the area I know and love than travel to some desolate location on the other side of the world to see if maybe there’s climbing out there. Maybe that’s the boulderer in me—not great at long commitments.

During my ten years as a professional climber, I had a lot of free time. I could go climbing whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, whether it was day trips or road trips. But climbing for myself always seemed selfish, and there was always a subtle nagging feeling of being unfulfilled. Landing a job as a coach—a job that fit into my field of expertise—right in the middle of my existential crisis couldn’t have been timed more perfectly.

Johnson demonstrates a sequence while coaching one of the kids on her team. Photo: Sasha Turrentine.

So here I am, sitting at a desk in Minnesota. My left knee started hurting the day I started working at a desk. I work approximately 42 hours a week. Twelve of those hours are spent actually coaching, which I’m in love with. The rest of those hours are spent doing all the things that accompany and surround the actual act of coaching: I do training research, write workouts and send lots and lots of emails. All from behind a desk.

Surprisingly, I’m still really fit. I guess every time I demonstrate something on the campus board or a boulder problem, I’m training in some way. I’ve coached part-time before, taught dozens of clinics, and have spent hundreds of hours teaching climbing, but I’m green as a leaf as a head coach. Organizing, shepherding, mentoring, instructing, training, and leading; these are things I’ve never really had to do in my life before. But the new challenge is exciting

I have significantly less time to climb, or even just free time at all. But strangely, my life sort of feels like it finally has a bit more meaning. I’m finally making a difference. I finally feel that nagging hole fulfilled.