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Alex Johnson and the Gift of Not Going to the Olympics

If you had asked any of us, fresh out of middle school and going to Nationals in dark, dusty old rock gyms, if climbing would ever join the Olympics, our answer would have been, “Not in our lifetimes.”

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This article was published in the summer edition of Gym Climber, available free at your local climbing gym.

I remember the first time I read an article in a magazine about competitive climbing. It was a 1999 issue of Rock and Ice and the article was written by a young athlete trying to explain what the “JCCA” was. She made a few jokes about what the acronym stood for, things like “Jumping Cheese Cows Assemble,” and “Juicy Cowgirl Collaboration Army.” I was 10 at the time, and had just received my official JCCA membership card in the mail. Kate was just a few years older than me, but I looked up to her. She was the daughter of Jeanne Niemer, the executive director of the JCCA at the time. I thought it was so cool Kate was writing about youth comp climbing for a magazine, and I felt a surge of pride as I read those words, because I was part of the organization.

JCCA stands for Junior Competition Climbing Association. It was founded in 1998, and would eventually grow into the USCCA, and ultimately become what we all know today as the national governing body of our sport: USA Climbing.

The JCCA is where many of our climbing heroes started. Athletes like Emily Harrington, Beth Rodden, Ethan Pringle, Angie Payne, Daniel Woods—all of whom now have legend status, but in the late 90s were just bright young talents with big dreams. Why is this relevant? Because back then if you had asked any of us, fresh out of middle school and going to Nationals in dark, dusty old rock gyms, if climbing would ever join the Olympics, our answer would have been, “Not in our lifetimes.” Turns out we were a bit off; it just wasn’t in our competitive lifetimes. Or was it?

Competitive climbing being a part of the highest level of sport on the world’s biggest stage is a monumental achievement, and something the IFSC and USA Climbing (and its many names preceding) have been striving towards since I was a young girl. In fact, that was Niemer’s vision even in the late 1990s: “I remember our first meeting with the AAC (American Alpine Club) asking them to let us take over as the governing body so that one day we could make climbing an Olympic sport. Initially people thought climbing would first get into the Winter Olympics with ice climbing, so at the time, the AAC made sense.”

I had written off the chance that I might be one of our sport’s first Olympians years ago. I’d wager everyone on my list of JCCA originals did as well. In 2016, when it was first announced that climbing would be included, I did some quick math and thought, In my 30s? No chance. I won my first Open Bouldering Nationals in 2003 at age 14, my first Bouldering World Cup in 2008 at age 19, and after quitting the international circuit in 2012 with a fourth place finish at the Bouldering World Cup in Vail, I thought I had peaked. I was the strongest I’d ever been at that event, and if I couldn’t podium then, what chance did I have at qualifying for a coveted spot on Team USA eight years later?

Watch Alex Johnson send Luminance (V9)

At that moment, I ruled the Olympics out as an impossibility for me. I continued to dabble, but spent most of my time climbing leisurely outside. I was burnt out.

I’d been climbing professionally for years, and disliked the trend of trying to continually reinvent myself to push limits and stay relevant. I needed a break from the sport, the industry.

So in 2016, I took the time off that was much-needed. I thought my best climbing days were behind me, and the feeling left me a bit lost and stagnant. I was living in Las Vegas, and was spending more time in clubs than at crags, so when a job offer came to move home to coach at my old gym, Vertical Endeavors, in Minneapolis, I decided it was probably best to leave Sin City in the rearview.

Johnson was the second American to win a Bouldering World Cup abroad, and the first to win one on U.S. soil. Photo: Bree Robles

Coaching reignited the fire in me. My team had little crushers ranging in age from 11 to 18. Their love for the sport and training, and their hunger for learning, were inspirational. I began climbing for fun again, which led to training. Soon I felt stronger, fitter, and better than ever. It was the summer of 2018, and I approached my mom with the idea of diving back into competing to try to qualify for the Olympic team.

“I think I’d always regret if I didn’t at least try. Really try,” I told her.

She whole-heartedly agreed, and my journey back onto the comp circuit began.

I fought hard throughout the 2019 season, and was reminded of how mentally and emotionally taxing competing is. The combined format was new to all of us, and our strategies varied on whether to focus on all three disciplines equally, or throw all our eggs in our specialty. When Brooke Raboutou became the United States’s first qualified Olympian, at the World Championships in August 2019, she showed us that it really was possible. Of course, it meant that with one spot taken, only one remained. But instead of seeing it as lessening my chances by 50 percent, I saw it as increasing my chances by 100 percent! Brooke made the possibility of qualifying a reality. It was no longer a dream out of reach. I thought, if Brookie can do it, maybe I can too!

I moved to Salt Lake City that summer, along with several other U.S. Team athletes, to train together and take advantage of the world-class local gyms and USA Climbing’s exclusive training center. Unfortunately, I didn’t rank high enough to get an invite to the Toulouse Olympic Qualifier. I remember waking up at 3 a.m. to watch the live stream of that event, rooting for my friends who had qualified, but also crying. My Olympic chance had passed me over, but being back on the comp circuit even for just a year was an experience I’d never take back. My friends who qualified deserve it. Brooke is hands-down one of the most talented climbers out there, a lifer coming from a family of incredible athletes. Nathaniel Coleman, the pensive, inquisitive, perfectionist with a mind of steel. Kyra Condie works harder and wants it more than anyone I know. And Colin Duffy, the young, up-and-coming all-around talent with an unmatched competitive drive.

Read about Alex Johnson’s incredible 10-year attempt to send The Swarm

After my failure to qualify, I immediately capitalized on my newfound fitness on outdoor boulders. My lifestyle changed a lot when I made the decision to try for the Olympics. My training got extremely precise, my diet honed, and I stopped drinking alcohol. My body was performing better than ever, and riding out the strength, skill, and fitness I gained from being back on the World Cup circuit allowed me to send hard new climbs and finish projects I’d written off. Ultimately, I returned to a long-term project of mine, The Swarm (V13/14) in Bishop, a consolation prize almost parallel to an Olympic qualification for me. I had first tried this boulder in 2011 after a season of missing every World Cup final, and what followed felt like a decade of public failure in comps and outside. It was incredible to finally stand on top of The Swarm and get that win, as if every loss I’d experienced in my career led me to that one moment of success.

As cliche as it sounds, everything happens for a reason. The journey of trying to qualify changed so much for me. I rediscovered my love for climbing. I love living in Utah with my little family. I put a decade-long nemesis to rest … all because I tried and failed to qualify for the Olympics.

Read Alex Johnson’s Q/A about her surprise homecoming, and coaching youth climbers