As a child, I was athletic. Not athletic as in “naturally exceptional at one sport,” but athletic as in “pretty okay at participating in a few different sports.” And when I say a few, I actually mean just about every sport that exists. Gymnastics (didn’t like the leotards), ballet (didn’t like the pink), soccer (didn’t like the running), football (didn’t like the fear of death), and the list goes on. I even almost joined a laser tag team. Yes, those exist, and yes, I’m using the term “sport” loosely. Just when I was beginning to consider buying a laser tag gun (don’t judge me, I was 11…and I was good!), I found climbing.
Like I said, I was “athletic,” which actually just meant I was small enough and young enough to scamper up the slab at RockQuest a few times. But that was more success than I had found in just about every other sport, so I immediately signed up for lessons with my older brother. I was taken under the wing of Lynnette, who would become one of my early coaches, and I soon joined the RockQuest youth team. One thing led to another, and I found myself at my first competition. I won (although I’m pretty sure the field was only a few deep) and next thing I knew, a climbing wall was erected in the Payne garage.
When I wasn’t climbing at RockQuest with my dad, I was out in that garage. I set my own little training circuit and always ended my “workouts” with a hangboard routine. Sometimes I even got really serious and tried to stay on the wall for as long as I could, climbing back and forth and back and forth. Of course, this was hard on my hands, so I decided I would wear bike gloves. I thought this was really resourceful, you know, since the bikes were right there in the garage. Eventually, they deteriorated into tape gloves held together by patches of fabric, but I kept wearing them to try to set new personal endurance records.
I kept climbing and competing throughout grade school and junior high, and I found relative success at JCCA Nationals (yep, JCCA…back before USA Climbing was even around). I made weekly trips to train with two of my coaches, Rene and Margarita, at their personal wall, The Shop, in Dayton. Every once in a while I traveled to the Red River Gorge, just a few hours south of Cincinnati, but I was mostly a gym rat. My dad and I had a weekly climbing schedule that we followed religiously. I loved those days in the gym, even when they included the Midwestern heat and humidity that leave you dripping in sweat. When we weren’t climbing, we were having pull up contests on the hangboard in my room. The competitor in both of us loved our “one up” challenges, and I did enough pull ups in those few years to last a lifetime.
Seeing that I was in Ohio, with few rocks to be found and subsequently, few climbers, my friends at school didn’t exactly understand what I was doing with this “climbing” stuff. They came over and saw the wall in the garage, but for them it was mostly just an obstacle to avoid during reenactments of WWF moves on the mats below. And so, I had two worlds: the school world and the climbing world. Although sometimes I secretly wished that my sport would be more “recognized” in my school world, I also enjoyed being involved in something that was unique and slightly mysterious to my peers. The people of the climbing community became my friends and undoubtedly had an influence on my climbing development. The Ohio climbing community was small, but close, and was composed of self-deprecating, genuine, humble Midwesterners. No one took anything too seriously, but everyone cared. There is no community in which I would have rather grown up climbing.
And so, climbing became an integral part of my life and my identity, as it does for so many people. Around the age of 16, I was burnt out on the junior competition series and needed something different. Bouldering was it. I went to the local bouldering gym, Climb Time, and flailed away on the problems. I was bad. Seriously, bad. But there was something about it that I loved, maybe the frustration, maybe the fact that I could boulder any time I wanted to drive myself to the gym, maybe the “rebellious” feel that of it all. Whatever the reason, I fell in love with bouldering.
The transition marked, at least in my mind, the end of my climbing “youth.” And although I have gone on to pursue bouldering almost exclusively, I was undoubtedly shaped by those early years climbing routes with my dad, those JCCA competitions, those long “lap” sessions in the garage in my bike gloves. I will always be grateful for those climbing memories from my youth, and I will thank my lucky stars that I found climbing…..
…….although laser tag is pretty cool.