By Zach Wright, Director and Head Coach of Team Touchstone
Stepping out of the airport in Atlanta, the heat and humidity hits you like a punch in the face. As you walk outside, there’s a grace period of approximately 0.7 seconds during which you think, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” before you realize that yes, it is that bad. Competition stress is replaced with the more immediate worry of how anyone could possibly exist in this heat. Welcome to Nationals.
In competition climbing, your year is divided into two seasons: bouldering in the Fall/Winter, and sport & speed in the Spring/Summer. Each season culminates in a national championship, in which the country’s premier youth competitors convene to compete for a shot at making the US National Team and the title of National Champion. This summer, five of our very own Team Touchstone climbers, along with their coaches and families, made the trek to Atlanta to compete in the 2017 Sport & Speed National Championship.
Walking into Stone Summit, the host gym, you immediately grasp the magnitude of the event. 500 of the country’s best climbers (50 from each of the ten gender/age categories) are packed into the gym, which has been shut down and completely reset for the competition. The walls feature routes crafted by a team of elite routesetters, designed to challenge competitors with sequences that range from technical, to cryptic, to downright burly. There’s a small army of gym staff and USA Climbing officials running the event, which is a logistical behemoth. Everyone in the gym is buzzing with energy, and anticipation rather than humidity thickens the air.
Over the four-day competition, the groups of competitors are whittled down from 50 per category, to 20 in semi-finals, to ten in finals. In our case, three of our climbers didn’t make top 20 after the first two days of qualifiers, meaning they were done competing after the second day. Despite not making the cut for semi-finals, they weren’t deterred from showing up to the gym bright and early every morning (climbing started at 9am East Coast time, meaning 6am our time) to cheer for their teammates. After watching their teammates compete, they headed over to the other Stone Summit location in Atlanta for—you guessed it—more climbing.
Perhaps the best part of the whole Nationals experience, and the team experience in general, is the bond between everyone on the team: climbers, coaches, parents, friends, etc. Flying across the country to a new location to compete in a high-stress event, you quickly realize how grateful you are to have the support of your team during the trip. At Nationals, almost all of your experiences are shared: you spend 12 hours in the gym together, eat together, and hang out together at the end of the day. You share stress, share the joy of success, and share the pain of failure. Having these experiences as a team gives you the opportunity to connect with each other in a way that is completely distinct from normal team practice. It’s these opportunities to form connections that bring the team closer together and ultimately make us stronger.
Going into the last day of competition, we had one climber, Claudia, who had finished top ten in semi-finals and earned a spot in finals. The finals round was, predictably, extremely tough, and featured a surprisingly steep top rope route up a very sustained wall. Like every route at the competition, it demanded technical precision and a sound understanding of body positioning in order to navigate the 50+ moves to the top. The progressively difficult route saw climbers falling at a variety of cruxes, both technical and physical. Claudia fell around three-quarters of the way up the route, making a small mistake in foot placement that ultimately spit her off the route. Much of the time, there isn’t a catastrophic failure that results in a climber falling; rather, one or two small mistakes are enough to cause a climber to fall. If I had to characterize the nature of the routes at Nationals with a single word, it would be “unforgiving.”
When all was said and done, Claudia finished 10th in finals, and our team finished 24th in the country. These placements, however, do nothing to encapsulate the experience of the competition. Sure, we love to see our climbers succeed, but the biggest reward of the competition is the experience itself. Flying across the country to compete with the best of the best is a hard-earned opportunity, and it’s an experience that dramatically changes the way you understand climbing, training, and competing. It’s an experience that brings teammates, coaches, and parents closer than almost any other event during our competition season. We’re very proud of how everyone on our team performed this year, and we’ll be back next year to do it again!
Here’s the full breakdown of our team placements at the 2017 Sport/Speed Nationals:
- Sarah Pearce (FJR): 24th
- Leila Deschepper (FYA): 43rd
- Elizabeth Endo (FYA): 26th
- Lauren Berry (FYB): 17th
- Claudia Ryckebusch (FYC): 10th