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Chuy and Carlos Vidaurri: Climbing After Cancer

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When Chuy Vidaurri first tried climbing, he immediately thought of his brother. Carlos, following knee surgery, had found himself unable to play the sports he had loved as a kid, and Chuy figured he might enjoy channeling his energy into this new activity—and it was something they could do together. Years later, the pair now works side-by-side at a climbing gym in Indianapolis, Indiana, driven by their passion for the sport (and by just a touch of sibling rivalry). 

The brothers grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. Numbers one and three out of four kids in their family, Chuy and Carlos remember always having been especially close. Both were soccer players, and although their age difference meant that they never played on the same team, the pair bonded over the sport and sometimes played pickup together in the yard.

When Carlos was in middle school, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, in his knee. After going through chemotherapy, he underwent surgery to remove the affected bone, and he ended up with a knee implant. The procedure limited his knee’s range of motion and weakened his leg. It forced him to stop participating in all the sports that he’d previously done: not only soccer, but also cross-country and track. For the next four years, through the end of middle school and into high school, he continued to show up to soccer practices and games, despite not being able to play. “I just wanted to hang out with my friends,” he says.

Chuy knew that his brother missed being active; so when he went to the Bloomington climbing gym with his girlfriend at the time, he immediately realized that this was something Carlos might be able to do. “It doesn’t require the same kind of high impact that soccer, running, or anything like that does,” Chuy says. 

Carlos recalls the moment Chuy told him about it. “I remember him saying, ‘Hey, I think I found something we can do together. Give it a chance.’ And I just remember being excited. It had been a while since I was able to do something that was just active and difficult. So I was really thrilled about finding something that I might be able to do.”

The brothers went to the gym to check it out. “What do you think?” Chuy asked after their second visit. “Is this something that we can get into?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Carlos replied.

Soon afterward, their parents gifted them memberships to the climbing gym—for Carlos, it was a birthday present, and for Chuy, it was an early Christmas present. And the rest is history. “From then on we’ve been climbing just about three times a week every week, for close to nine years,” says Chuy. 

Carlos picks the right hold for his next boulder.

Carlos, now 25, is the head setter at Hoosier Heights Indianapolis. Chuy, 27, is in charge of climbing instruction at the gym. Both are accomplished climbers with big goals and a passion for the sport and the community that they’ve helped to build.

In addition to climbing, the brothers share an interest in kinesiology, the study of human body movement. Chuy has a degree in biology from Indiana University, and Carlos plans to become a physical therapist. When they talk about this interest, their close bond is on display—they even finish each other’s sentences. Carlos says, “With both of our backgrounds, setting is a fun way to apply something we really like to this sport we love, so it’s kind of that perfect mix of—”

“—understanding why individual moves work, and the kind of positions, what enables the body to go from one position into the next and what doesn’t,” Chuy finishes. “Both of us enjoy that aspect of climbing quite a bit.”

Chuy adds another boulder to the wall.

Because of the residual effects of the surgery, Carlos still struggles to do climbs with high right feet. “For a long time with my setting I would clearly avoid that because I didn’t feel comfortable setting it since I couldn’t do it very well,” he says. But recently he’s used it as inspiration. “I’ve been trying to challenge myself a little bit to not limit our customers and community experience based on just the fact that I can’t do a move.”

Since both brothers like to set, they often look to each other for feedback—or, more often, trash-talk. “When we finish a route, we tend to always be like, ‘Hey, come check out what I have! Do you have any suggestions?’ and get feedback. And we ignore it because obviously the other person’s wrong,” Carlos says. “Once that’s all said and done, we get our shoes on…and then do tweaks on Chuy’s route,” he adds, laughing.

When asked about their similarities, an immediate answer comes up: “We’re both stubborn.”

And when asked about each other’s most annoying traits, they’re also both ready with answers. “Carlos likes to watch videos on his phone at max volume, always,” says Chuy. “And that’s been a theme since we were children.”

Carlos returns the favor: “Chuy does this thing where he’ll say a joke and no one will laugh but he’ll laugh to himself, and thirty seconds later he’ll repeat it, and again no one will laugh but he’ll laugh to himself and then thirty seconds later he’ll say it again and at that point you’ll laugh because of what’s happening.”

The banter is all in good humor, and their willingness to push one another has been the key to both of their progression as climbers and as setters. “Any time we’re climbing together there’s definitely that sibling rivalry kind of competitiveness,” says Chuy. “I think especially early on it really fueled our climbing and really pushed us to try to get better and better. So anytime that we’re climbing together it’s pretty much a good time—it’s essentially non-stop trash-talk and trying to outclimb the other as best and as quickly as possible.”

Images by Tristen Mejias-Thompson

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