The Captain: The Rise of Nathaniel Coleman
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The nickname first caught on in Vail in 2015.
It spread among fellow USA Team members like wildfire. The words resounded in whispers across chalky mats, flashing screens, and the grassy field surrounding the Bouldering World Cup walls in Vail, Colorado. The nickname rang true when Coleman took the stage as the sole remaining American male with a shot at the podium: Coleman was Captain America.
And why not? He had just placed second in the past two World Cups he’d participated in, which were also the second and third World Cups he had ever competed in. At 18, he was old enough to look the part of Captain America—a farmer’s build, silky locks of wavy hair and a jawline that could cut paper—but still boyish enough that he could win the crowd with his easy, confident smile. Who is this boy wonder? spectators were surely wondering as he flashed the final boulder and lost to Jan Hojer by just one attempt to a bonus hold on another problem, which is as close as it gets.
At a time when it had been far too long since America had seen a strong male contender on the World Cup stage, Coleman seemed like the hero with the answer.
Like most heroes, Coleman found himself struggling to live up to expectations in the years after he burst onto the scene. Was he even good enough? I caught up with Coleman, 22, one week before the Toulouse Olympic Qualifying event in November, 2019 to find out what was going through his head before one of the biggest competitions of his career.
No question about it, Coleman was America’s top male pick for the Olympics. In 2019 he had the best season out of his compatriots and in Hachioji he missed out on getting an Olympic invitation by just two spots. The whole U.S. climbing community would be watching the livestream when Coleman stepped up to the wall in Toulouse.
At his home in Salt Lake City, Coleman and I sat on large couches across from each other with a coffee table and carton of blueberries in between. Coleman’s girlfriend, roommates and a houseguest sat on the cushions beside us, listening in. In the corner, light bounced off the housemates’ shared wooden kendama shrine, each Japanese toy colorfully painted and neatly stacked.
Over the course of our interviews, Coleman was easy to talk to. While he thinks before he speaks, it’s clear he has a good sense of who he is and what he wants. But when I asked how he was feeling about the pending competition, he looked down at his lap and paused, letting the question hang in the air. He looked older for a second, searching for words to describe the immense pressure of the preceding months. He would need to make top six in Toulouse in order to qualify for the Olympics.
He finally said, “I feel O.K.” After a second pause, he added: “I kinda have been going more day by day with my training. I let my speed get a little bit rusty, so now I’m not as fast as I was a couple of weeks ago. Lately I’ve just had lower psych.”
When Coleman finds himself low on stoke, he said, he tries to reset, often by climbing outside. Little Cottonwood Canyon, nestled in the Wasatch Range in Northern Utah, is his favorite escape. Between pine and cottonwood trees and dense layers of foliage, quartz monzonite boulders are spattered across the landscape in tight tufts. Coleman goes at different times of the year, to see which boulders will go down under specific friction conditions and which he might need to re-work.
“Recently, I haven’t gotten out as often as I should,” he said. His 24-year-old girlfriend, Jane Maus, who runs ultramarathons, drags him out for long hikes, hoping to help his “psych” that way. “He’s not big into hiking or running,” Jane said, laughing. She once took him out on an 18-mile trek that left him sore for two weeks.
When not able or willing to go outside, Coleman relieves stress by playing kendama, a traditional Japanese skill game involving a ball attached to several cone-like scoops. Experts in the game are recognized by Japanese culture as persistent and determined. Coleman practices the craft on rainy days or in isolation at competitions. The ones on his stand, however, had a thin layer of dust.
Coleman’s 12 years of training and competing were all pointing to Toulouse and the chance for an Olympic berth. He had just a few days left in Salt Lake City before he needed to suit up and fly across the world.
“I think it’s tough for me to pursue competition with the rigor I do currently,” he said. “I think that pursuing competition in any regard can be a great blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful opportunity to push yourself to your limits, it can give purpose and direction in life, and it can help you learn a lot about yourself because you’re often forced to confront your emotions.
“On the other hand, I think it can be a trap for your ego. Success at a high level of competition can become how you measure your self-worth. That’s something I struggle with. Maybe it would be better if I didn’t have to fight that battle and instead pursued only outdoor climbing.” Again, Coleman looked down, as if the answer might emerge from the floor.
Did he even want to be America’s hero?
Oysters and Rubik’s Cubes
Coleman grew up in Salt Lake City, essentially an only child. His two half-siblings were already starting families of their own by the time he was born, in 1997. His dad worked as a dental ceramist restoring teeth while his mom was a volunteer English tutor for kids.
Growing up, Nathaniel liked the normal kid stuff: riding bikes with his friends, playing video games and, of course, accepting every “ninja” dare that came his way—”It’s just one bite of an oyster, so how bad can it be?” Early on, he showed a knack for problem-solving and abstract reasoning. He solved Rubik’s Cubes and played competitive chess, taking fourth in the state in fifth grade.
In school, Nathaniel was the kid who finished his homework during class. With his analytical mind, he liked math and chemistry the most. When asked about what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “I figured I’d be a chemical engineer or whatever.”
On top of his precocity, what distinguished him from his peers was his athleticism and coordination. “He would stand on top of the monkey bars and jump off them onto the deck, but I was never worried about him falling,” said his mom, Rosane Coleman. He participated in a wide array of sports, including touch football, basketball, baseball, karate and his favorite, soccer.
When Nathaniel was a few months shy of turning 10, a friend convinced him to check out the newly opened Momentum climbing gym in Sandy, Utah, a state-of-the-art lead and bouldering facility. Nathaniel was blown away by the steep lead section, a 40-foot black-and brown-prow towering over the main entrance like a concrete wave. He liked the combination of the physical challenge and the problem-solving aspects of the sport. The thing that really kept him coming back for more, however, was the team, which he joined immediately.
A whopping 62 percent of Utah is Mormon. As Coleman’s parents had discovered while Nathaniel was in soccer, if you didn’t belong to the right church, then you might not be selected for much play by team coaches. Every Sunday, Coleman’s family attended a Unitarian Universalist church—a liberal religion with no creed and no declared god. Because he wasn’t a part of a ward (Mormon congregation), Nathaniel wasn’t given as much game time as his teammates. Climbing, however, allowed him to perform individually while still having a team behind him.
“I didn’t have a really close group of friends through school,” said Coleman. “The climbing gym was the place for me to have a social life.”
The first time Nathaniel got on a rope, he was afraid of heights. With “the cutest girl on the team” on the other end of the rope, however, he was quick to set those fears aside. Within his first month of climbing, Nathaniel was sending 5.10.
As the years went on, he spent more and more time at the gym. With a January 1 birthday, he was the oldest in his category. As puberty set in, he learned to use his natural brawn to his advantage. At 14, Nathaniel took fourth at Youth Bouldering Nationals in Boulder, Colorado. He recalled, “That was the moment when I thought, O.K., if I just stay at this level for the next five years, then when I get into open, I’ll be on the National Team.”
A Dark Horse Rises
Four years later, in June 2015, Coleman flew 1,900 miles northeast to Toronto for his first World Cup out of the country, following his debut at Vail the previous year. The climbing wall was constructed in an ice-rink stadium in the local community center and featured a standard set of slab, vertical and overhung walls. The unique sandpaper texture of the walls sliced traveling tips, elbows, knees and shoulders. Dozens of athletes finished the competition bloodied and defeated.
Coleman would have been thrilled to top even a single qualifying boulder, but he did far better, sending three out of five. Before each problem, he gave his hands one last chalk and his arms one last back-and-forth Michael-Phelps motion. While possessing more than enough power to stick the burliest moves, he climbed systematically, a cause and effect between him and the wall. He made it to the semifinal round in the last possible spot, eking through, and was the only male American to qualify for finals, again in the last possible spot.
This is unreal. I can’t believe I made it here. It’s just all icing on the cake now, Coleman thought.
The final slab boulder was his moment of glory. At the time, Bouldering World Cup final rounds utilized a four-plus time, meaning as long as you were on the wall before the end of your four minutes, you could finish the attempt. Coleman got on the wall at 3 minutes and 59 seconds for his last go at sticking a tenuous rock-over move off a triangular volume. “I kept my nerves down and rocked out onto the right foot. Somehow I stuck it and then kinda floated through the rest. The crowd went crazy.”
He placed the surpise second and was thrilled. “Of course, I hadn’t put in the time and effort that other competitors had, so I couldn’t appreciate how big of an accomplishment that was,” he said.
But it was an accomplishment. Most competitors are lucky to see a podium finish even after years of competing, if ever. Jain Kim, one of the most successful competition climbers of all time, with a staggering 30-plus gold World Cup medals to her name, didn’t get a medal until five years after her first open World Cup.
To those who knew him, Coleman’s ability to perform under pressure was nothing new. “He never shows his nervousness,” said Rosane. “I never see him get stressed,” said Zack DiCristino, the USA Team physio.
Kyra Condie, a fellow USA Team member and Olympian, agreed. “He has always been one of the most impressive climbers in terms of comp mindset. He just knows how to handle pressure.”
In the subsequent Vail World Cup, Jan Hojer—with whom Nathaniel was neck-and-neck—messed with him with comments like, “Dude, you know if you flash this boulder, you could win?” Coleman remained unfazed. “I just didn’t care about winning,” he said.
Beginning in 2016, Coleman started studying computer science at the University of Utah. He wanted an education and to have the skills to program remotely while still climbing.
Near the end of his first month at school, Coleman packed his bags for Madison, Wisconsin, where he went on to win his first National Championship. In the women’s field, 17-year-old Megan Mascarenas took gold ahead of Alex Puccio. It was the first time in nine years that neither Puccio nor Daniel Woods had won Nationals.
He returned to the U of U and struggled to balance his studies and climbing career. After a disapointing spring semester and an even more disapointing fall, Coleman decided to put academics on hold in exchange for the freedom to climb professionally, at least for a year. One year became two years, which became indefinite.
Soon after dropping out of school, Coleman was faced with another adult decision. Early in January 2017, he took a trip to Moe’s Valley, a sandstone bouldering area four hours south of Salt Lake City. He put down Crusaders for Justice (V13) and saved another V13, Dirtbag, for a flash attempt.
When Coleman pulled onto the low roof start of Dirtbag, he yarded a little too hard on a three-finger “jug.” With a subtle snap, his pulley tore. It was a month and a half before the next U.S. Bouldering Nationals. “I was super bummed the rest of the day,” he said. But while most competitors his age might have given up, he resolved to still do what he could to go to Nationals. “I knew I was able to compete, so I wanted to in good sportsmanship, but I knew I wouldn’t win,” he said.
Coleman sought the guidance of a local PT, Carrie Cooper, well-known in the climbing world for her expertise. Coleman started with eccentric lowers on the injured finger with light weight. He progressed to isometric holds, then to light hangboarding and finally climbing.
Nationals took place at the Salt Palace Convention Center in downtown Salt Lake City. Despite his still-injured finger, Coleman sailed easily from the qualification round into semifinals.
After that his performance went steeply downhill. “I sort of wondered if this would happen given his injury,” said the MC—Coleman was dropping left and right to protect his hand. “No Nathaniel Coleman in finals. We’ve had a lot of upsets here for the men,” the MC predicted repeatedly. The MC, however, was wrong. True to form, Coleman made it into finals in the last possible spot.
“In finals, I felt good and just lucky to be there. I don’t remember noticing my finger at all,” said Coleman. He flashed the first boulder. “I tried to ignore it, but I could hear how other people were doing. And I knew that not many other people were flashing it,” he said. The next boulder involved a Mario Kart-style swing, bounce and jump off a low volume to a faraway jug. Coleman styled it with confidence to achieve his second flash. From then on, he was on another level. He flashed the third and fourth boulders as well to defend his National Champion title.
“It wasn’t until my friends ran up and were like, ‘Dude, you won!’ that I realized what had happened,” he said.
Only afterwards did Coleman remember his finger was hurt. The following weekend he participated in the Hueco Rock Rodeo competition, where he got destroyed. After that he took the proper time to heal.
For the remainder of the year, Coleman did a lot of the normal 20-year-old figuring-shit-out things. He moved out of his parents’ house. He found Jane. With school out of the way and more free time than ever, American climbing’s boy wonder grew up. And for the first time in his climbing career he began to struggle with questions like Why do I do this? How do I stay motivated?
Upon his friend and Petzl athlete manager Dave Burleson’s suggestion, he started developing boulders at Buckhorn Wash, located 100 miles northeast of Moab—replete with ancient monoliths frozen in time across rolling hills. Over several trips, Coleman established approximately 50 boulders; most were V4 to V6, and a handful were V10 to V14. Within the Wash, there were between four or five mini areas that offered over 100 boulders in total. In the first area they jokingly christened many problems with anti-Trump names, such as Tiny Hands and Alternative Facts.
Between trips and training, Coleman spent time practicing handstands, slacklining and thinking about his place in the world. His future, as well as that of the planet’s, weighed on him.
“Something that really impacts me a lot is seeing how much our society wastes materials, kinda without a thought,” he said. “I try to use the least amount of disposable products possible and buy as few new products as possible.” He added: “I’m not vegan, but you could call me a fan of veganism. I do my best to stay away from dairy, and I make a big effort to eat meat very rarely.”
On his instagram account, below links to his sponsors, a web address directs readers not to Coleman’s personal, professional site, but to globalclimatestrike.net.
The Man Behind the Cape
In January 2019, Coleman, 22, qualified for the Combined USA Team during the US Combined Invitational in Salt Lake City. It was the first team created specifically to prepare members for the 2020 Olympics. In qualifying, he gained the opportunity to compete at every World Cup leading up to the first Olympic qualifying event, in Hachioji. Coleman was off to the races for his longest season on the international circuit to date—11 Bouldering, Speed and Lead World Cups prior the World Championships. He made it to semifinals in every Bouldering World Cup and placed better than 50th in every discipline. His best performance was in Vail, where he was just two spots out of finals. At the World Championships, he finished just two spots away from an Olympic invitation.
Starting in September, he began preparing for the Toulouse Olympic Qualifier with the most detailed training program of his career. He consistently put in six hours in the gym for two or three days before taking a rest day. He had an alarm for when he needed to turn his phone off at night and when to wake up. He paid Jane to prep meals for him so that his diet was clean and controlled. He had quinoa bowls, burritos and soups. “I was very structured in my whole life. My climbing structure kinda mirrors what I have going on in the rest of my life. Maybe I was too structured….” he said at home in Salt Lake City.
In the homestretch of his training cylce, he found his motivation started to dip. Instead of getting outside or playing Kendama to reset, he turned to Netflix and YouTube.
“I’m always beating myself up about not maximizing my potential,” he said, admitting his time in front of screens had become excessive.
“I’ve been so blessed to grow up the way that I did and be presented with the opportunities that I was … The fact that I was naturally good at climbing and I’ve somehow found my way into this professional-athlete lifestyle … with a lot of downtime … and I waste most of it.”
With training his priority, Coleman hasn’t taken more than a day or two off from climbing in a couple of years. “When the Olympics is all over,” he said, “I’m planning to take a break.” Not a relaxing trip to the beach, as you might expect. “I kinda would like to spend time at home just to see what my life would be like without climbing. Just to see if I could be productive.”
When Coleman eventually retires from competition climbing, he hopes to work for a nonprofit or organization that’s trying to help the world. “Something involving climate change or like the Honnold Foundation,” he said. “It may not give me the fulfillment that I’m looking for, but I think that it’s worth a shot.”
As to whether or not climbing gives him fulfillment, he said, “I have no idea … It makes me happy, and gives me a direction with goals to pursue. But it doesn’t address directly issues that weigh on me like environmental injustice, wealth inequality, unnecessary waste in society, etc. … Eventually I’ll have to confront those issues in a more meaningful way.”
In Toulouse, France, on the morning of qualifiers, Coleman’s focus was on Speed. He felt surprisingly calm, “like it was any other World Cup.” Coleman’s first run was good, but his second was his best to date, with a time of 6.728, putting him in sixth place for the discipline.
In the Bouldering round, Coleman went right after Sean Bailey. Bailey was doing well, and Coleman fed off his energy. “We just kinda kept the ball rolling and psyching each other up through the rest of the round,” Coleman later said. Coleman and Bailey ended the round in fifth and sixth, respectively.
Coleman once told his teammate Kyra Condie that he really enjoyed Lead comps even though he wasn’t as good at them because they make him feel nervous again. He liked the added pressure because he had gotten so good at handling the pressure in Bouldering rounds. In Toulouse, however, if he was nervous in Lead, he was the only one who knew it. Coleman climbed with a steady, deliberate pace, taking smart rests and moving quickly through crux sequences. “By the time I fell off, my forearms were absolutely aching with pump,” he said.
Even after he knew he had made it into finals and secured his Olympic invitation, he refused to celebrate. That evening, he and Jane talked over all the possible scenarios to see if there was a chance he wouldn’t qualify. “Turns out there wasn’t, and a part of me knew that, but another part of me couldn’t believe it,” he said. Nathaniel Coleman became the first and only male yet to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Kyra Condie and Brooke Raboutou will represent the U.S. in climbing in the women’s bracket.
The morning before finals, Coleman broke his Kendama out of his bag and had one of his best sessions in a long time: peace returned.
Four years after his initial World Cup podium finish, Coleman still is Captain America, but not just because of his looks and his Olympic-qualifying results. Like a true superhero, he holds himself to an impossibly high standard. Despite his success in climbing, he never stops thinking about bigger ways he can contribute to society. “I bring my tupperware to comps and I always have my spork in my climbing bag. I never let myself waste food,” he said. While he dreams of saving the world, for now he’s back to the gym training for Tokyo 2020.
Feature Image: Nathaniel Coleman at the Combined World Championships in Hachioji, where he placed 12th. Photo Eddie Fowke/IFSC
This Feature appeared in the 5th issue of Gym Climber