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Q and A with USA Team Member Justin Salas

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Hailing from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Justin Salas has been on the USA competitive climbing team for the past three years. Salas has three National Champion Gold medals, a silver medal from the 2018 Edinburg World Cup and a gold from the 2018 Innsbruck World Championships. He’s also sent several double digit boulders, including Worm Turns (V11) in Joe’s Valley. He’s done all that, after going blind at age 14. 

Salas has  Optic Neuropathy of Unknown Origin—”basically a big fancy title for ‘we don’t know,’” Salas said in an interview with Rock and Ice. He lost most of his vision over the course of six to seven months. His life changed forever— he would not be getting his license like his friends at school, he could no longer ride BMX or play soccer. But Salas adapted. “I was still expected to do school and do my chores,” he said in an interview with R.E.I.

Salas was first introduced to climbing around 2011. He was hooked, but his family, which included four other siblings, couldn’t afford his gym membership. It wasn’t until 2015 that Salas had the funds to spare. He wasted no further time in dedicating himself to the craft.

Gym Climber caught up with Salas to ask him about the Paraclimbing World Championships in Briançon, France, July 16-17. 

Q and A:

How did you prepare for the World Championships (both physically and mentally)?

Well for me, being predominantly a boulderer, I had to completely switch gears into a sport climbing mindset. This looked like three months of almost exclusively being on a rope. I focused on arching, redpoint intervals and perfecting “calling” with my sight guide Matt Frederick. I did some bouldering here and there to maintain strength and power. 

Mentally, I’ve always been a pretty competitive person. But when it comes time to compete on big stages I get a little anxious, more so the anticipation of actually being on the wall. To combat this I’ve learned to be present solely in the moment. Take Innsbruck for example: Several days prior to my qualifying round, I was really feeling the nervous excitement. It was all the standard thoughts of what if and what could be. I remember, I was sitting in the cafe in the Innsbruck KI climbing gym, when my buddy Ben Hannah sat down next to me. He must have known I was in my head because he said something that I’ll probably never forget. He asked me how I was feeling about the comp and I mentioned to him that I was excited…almost too excited. This was my first World Championships after all, and I was beginning to feel the pressure. He said, treat it like any other session with your homies— these are the times when we feel the most comfortable while climbing. By the time I started climbing It seemed as though I wasn’t feeling, I was simply executing the plan Matt and I had gone over in so much detail. It felt like any other day at the gym. I climbed with a calming relaxed presence, listening to my caller as I got lost in the movement, I found what I had been seeking, clarity through the noise. 

How do you feel about your climbing in Briançon?

I came down with bronchitis right before leaving for France, so I wasn’t in the best shape before the competition. The first qualifier was too easy (for most climbers in my category). The second qualifier was accurate in its difficulty, but I simply couldn’t breathe well enough to keep the pump off while climbing. Still, I managed to move into finals just two moves behind the Japanese leader. 

During final route preview, Matt watched a video of the route being foreran and he articulated to me what the climb was like.The route became a 3D image of movement in my head— an image that’s been layered 20 times over with crux sections, transitions in and out of those difficult areas, and all the climbing in between. 

When it was my turn to climb, my body was warm and mind was focused. I also had a cough that kept  bringing with it fluid and haggard wheezing. I thought, this is the last route, give it hell and leave it all there. And that’s what I did. Matt and I worked extremely well together on this final climb. Communication was excellent, and I always knew where to go, and what I was going to do next. Unfortunately rounding the head wall I could hear Matt telling me to get my breathing under control, yet this was of no use, no rest position I could find gave me enough back to stay in a restful stance. The only option? Push! I continued to move despite the fatigue building and when I came to the final crux I latched the solution hold, but my hand was in the wrong orientation. Knowing this I tried to flip my hand and came off. 

I wanted a top. But in this story it wasn’t meant to be. After my attempt, it was the leading Japanese athlete’s turn. He showed his strength well, almost coming off quite a few times but never easing up. He carried his momentum all the way to the top. This was his year and not mine. But that’s how competing works I suppose. 

How did this event compare to the 2019 World Championships in Innsbruck?

Unfortunately this event came nowhere near as close to the grandeur of the 2018 World Championships in Innsbruck. I think we all knew this was going to be the case. But, let’s be real— this was simply a stop on the IFSC World Cup circuit, with the Paraclimbing World Championships taking the back seat. From the beginning of the category it was obvious it wasn’t going to be as special as a standard WCH, but it was amazing to see the turnout! There were so many competitors from all over the world there. Yes, we should have been in Japan. But this didn’t keep the para community at bay. We showed up in force and it turned out to be one of the largest paraclimbing events I’ve had the pleasure of being apart of. 

Favorite part of the competition?

The climbing community is incredible and all the people in it are what makes it so unique. It was great having the chance to catch up with old and new friends alike. After I climbed in the final, Matt and I made our way out to the audience to hang out with the rest of the U.S. team and support our squad in their last battle. It really was something special to be apart of. The energy of that night will be hard to forget. 

What was your post comp treat?

The next day, a few of us from the U.S. met up with some of the Great Britain team to go bouldering! We made our way to an area called Ailefroide, not to far out of Briançon. It was a beautiful day and a great time bouldering with good friends. 

What’s next? What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Thinking hopefully to myself, Redbull climbing team? There is a lot I want to finish up in Arkansas! I love the climbing there, and believe it’s some of the best climbing in the world. The main goal for me this year is the Eclipse Traverse (V12). I tried the traverse towards the end of the season last year and surprisingly made some good progress on it, but with it getting a little too warm for me I had to let it rest for the next season. I’ve been training like crazy to prepare for this project over the year, and have been visualizing every bit of beta I can for it. I’ve even dreamed about it! (Obsessed much?) This will be the first V12 sent by a paraclimber if I’m not mistaken. But more importantly, it will be a huge milestone for me personally. Aside from this, I’d like to continue traveling, There are so many areas I haven’t been to yet, both abroad and domestically. Simply put, I want to continue experiencing life through climbing.

Feature Image by Sytse van Slooten

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