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How My Youth Climbing Team Changed My Life

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In the fall of 2016, I sat with my back turned to the first of the six climbs in my last competition in the youth circuit. It was the Youth Regional Bouldering Championship, my last chance to make it into the next level, divisionals. I had climbed in regionals four times before this, each year placing one slot outside of the total selected to move on. As I rechalked to cover my sweaty palms, I looked out to the crowd. I saw my parents look at me with nervous excitement, my mother mouthing, “You got this.” I saw my coaches, looking sure, confident in my success. The several coffees I drank in iso fought with the butterflies in my stomach for which could make me more jittery. The noisy clatter of the gym disintegrated, drowned out in my brain as the judge beckoned for me to begin with the start of the timer. With confidence, I grabbed the starting hold, and onsighted the climb. 

I barely made it off the ground on the next five climbs and again failed to make it to divisionals by one spot, but that part of the memory barely registers. I never felt as if there was much room for me in the Boulder comp scene, considering walking into each comp meant seeing the likes of Colin Duffy or the Raboutou kids, Shawn and Brooke. As a competition climber, I was terrible, but I never felt as if others judged me by my rankings. At practice, there was no social hierarchy of skill, no climbing proletariat. When we went back to practice the following week, I was treated as the equal of those who moved on to the next levels of competition. Mostly, everyone on the team seemed to gravitate toward those who were having the most fun and laughing the most.

 I had friends on other teams who certainly felt different, that the culture at their gyms was one of competition, but at Movement rock climbing was about exploring together, rather than fighting one another. Each year, we would drive out to Rifle as a team, and spend a week climbing. Someone sending their 5.12 project got the same amount of cheering and excitement as someone sending their 5.14 project.           

For a child, there is incredible value in learning to set goals and then striving to accomplish them.  In school I struggled to find motivation to complete tasks, but through the climbing team, I found the mental game of projecting. Finding a project, working on it for hours and then finally unlocking it is one of the greatest feelings in the world—it taught me perseverance.I would try a climb and deem it impossible. There was simply no way to reach the top. Someone else would come along and fly up it with beta I had never even imagined. I learned to look at the world through different lenses, to examine problems from different points of view. I learned how important it is to not write off the impossible, but to try to view it in a different way.

The author at 13 years old at ABC Kids Climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado. Photo Sawato Aizeki

Growing up climbing in Boulder is a quite different experience from any other childhood sport in any other area. Most sports have icons who live as posters on the wall, exalted to inhuman status, but here, our idols walked among us. It was common to warm up next to Daniel Woods, Meagan Martin, Margo Hayes, or Alex Puccio. The idea of asking A-Rod for advice on your swing is incomprehensible, but asking Daniel Woods for beta was near mundane. The climbers I looked up to existed in my reality, drinking from the water fountain, or joking about pasta. We were both people, they just climbed better.

Our coaches nurtured different mentalities toward climbing. One of my friends, Sam Dorsey, was an incredible comp climber when he was younger, making nationals every year. Eventually he stopped competing, and his mentality toward the sport completely changed. I recall him saying at a practice, “You know that indoor grades don’t count, right? Gyms are only training for real climbing.” He refocused all of his energy on trad climbing and onsighting difficult routes, such as El Delfin (5.13a) in Rodellar, Spain. Some gyms would have been frustrated by this mentality shift, as teams get a lot of their respect from competition finishes, but the coaches at Movement were happy to help him train for that style of climbing. For example, one day they asked Matt Segal to give a crack climbing lesson to those who wanted it.

I had teammates like Devin Wong, who would go to Worlds each year, but hated climbing outside. He would rarely come on team trips, but watching him in a gym was astounding. He was a wunderkind of inside climbing. Another was Max Manson, who couldn’t stay focused in a gym setting at all, constantly looking for running start dynos, or trying 360s in between holds. All his energy went into burly sketch trad climbs. I’m scared even now as I remember belaying him on his send of The Lion (5.12b X), an intense, heady testpiece with the crux squarely in the no-fall zone. The Movement Boulder team fostered all of these mentalities. Jimmie Redo, the head coach at Movement Boulder, wanted them all to have a love for the sport, rather than a resentment of being pressured. So many kids who grow up in other sports quit as soon as they leave high school. I imagine that nearly all the kids on my team will climb for years to come.

My parents got divorced right before I joined the team.I really needed strong adult figures in my life. The coaches were great, healthy role models, who taught me to respect myself, the earth and those around me. A few years back, I was looking at my closet, and realized that nearly all my pants were Carhartt canvas pants. Subconsciously, I had been dressing like my first coach, Dan Dalton, whom I looked up to and respected. Looking at old pictures, I noticed much of my wardrobe was inspired by him. Without knowing it, I had been trying to emulate someone I had respected so much as a kid.

In high school, I struggled heavily with depression and suicidal thoughts. Some mornings, I would wake up and it would be hard to breathe, hard to motivate my chest to take in air. There were days I would tell my parents I was too sick for school because my legs were too heavy to stand. I felt  like my soul was drowning. I was taking on water, but climbing taught me to swim. Freedom came when I could only concentrate on the next move. Training and pushing myself in the sport was the release I desperately needed. I was terrified of heights when I joined the team, and leading up a steep wall was my worst fear. Over the years, however, I learned to love it: With 40 feet of open air underneath you, you remember you have things to live for. I truly feel rock climbing  saved my life. 

Looking back, I remember the first climb of that 2016 Regional Championships more than any of the others because it represented what I love about climbing. For one moment, all of the problems I felt in the real world disappeared, and I focused on that one climb. My friends, family and coaches cheered me on, each move, their cries of “Come on!” getting louder. 

Grabbing the top hold, I felt incredible.

Feature image: Aizeki on Desdishado (5.13d) in Eldorado Canyon. By Max Mansion

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