Rock climber Sasha DiGiulian, 19, is making her way to the top

July 19, 2012

By 11 a.m., fans had gathered near the Dominion Riverrock climbing structure for the day’s 1 p.m. finals.

A light rain fell through the Richmond sky as the climbers arrived. Dressed in tank tops, sandals and baggy pants, the Boulder Bash competitors talked and laughed, greeting one another with hugs. Several discussed the dramatic women’s semifinal from the night before, when the climbing route was almost unbeatable — until, with less than five seconds remaining, the 19-year-old defending champion reached her hand, with fingernails painted a glittering pink, onto the top hold.

Sasha DiGiulian was the only female to complete the climb, which left Sunday’s finals almost devoid of suspense. To win, she had to finish the route within the time limit, which, for the Alexandria native, would prove as effortless as walking across the gravel lot, as she did now, head down, iPod earbuds in, flip-flops clapping against the small rocks.

DiGiulian wore a white Adidas hooded zip-up jacket and black Adidas shorts, her long, blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. Standing 5-foot-2 and weighing about 98 pounds, with smooth, tanned skin and clear blue eyes, she looked more Hollywood starlet than pro climber. Several fans lingered nearby, hesitating as they decided whether to ask for her autograph. Her brows creased in concentration as she continued toward the preparation zone.

Two hours later, the announcer yelled to the crowd of several hundred, “Are we psyched?” Of the top 10 male and female finalists, the 10th-place finisher would climb first, followed by ninth place, eighth place, etc., meaning that, on the women’s side, DiGiulian would climb last. Each finalist had five minutes to reach the top. In bouldering, no harnesses or ropes are used — the climber’s tools are his or her own strength, intelligence and agility.

The women’s structure, 25 feet high and named “the Star” for its five-pointed ends, had holds scattered across the surface. Blue mats covered the ground to cushion falls. The first seven women each started steadily, dangling by their arms in monkeylike fashion as they grabbed the next hold, until a pivotal set where an extended reach with a jump was necessary. They all fell at that point and started again, but no one reached the top in time.

“We Will Rock You” blasted from the speakers as third-place pro climber Angie Payne, 27, of Cincinnati began. She reached the top in just under 3 minutes 20 seconds.

“That may be hard for Sasha to beat,” said DiGiulian’s father, John, watching from the crowd, knowing that she wanted the best time.

Second-place female Alex Johnson, a 23-year-old professional climber from Hudson, Wis., moved smoothly from hold to hold, reaching the top in less than four minutes.

“And now it’s Sasha DiGiulian!” the announcer called out, as DiGiulian stood on the mat and the clock began. She paused, looking up and tracing the climb in the air with her hands, reaching for each imaginary hold as if pantomiming. She grabbed the bottom hold, hanging for a split second before extending her slender leg toward an adjacent lateral hold and reaching upward, her muscular biceps and triceps flexing beneath her broad shoulders.

DiGiulian moved gracefully, extending her limbs at a composed and steady pace. At times, she hung by her arms, swinging her leg in the air toward the next hold. At other moments, her arms and legs were stretched in four directions, her body shaped like an X. DiGiulian occasionally reached behind her for the chalk bag tied on her back, coating her hands in white. At one passage, with her right knee bent and her right foot resting on a hold, she swung her hips to the left, her left leg at a 45-degree angle from the ground, mirroring a Cirque du Soleil performer.

When she reached the spot that had troubled the earlier climbers, DiGiulian hesitated for several seconds, mentally reaching for the hold before moving. She pushed her body up and to the left, airborne momentarily before grabbing the hold. Her time was just over three minutes as she reached the final hold. Fans cheered as she turned and, hanging by only her left hand, smiled and waved at the crowd, her legs dangling. High above the ground, she looked almost childlike.

Ten minutes later, DiGiulian accepted her first-place, $2,000 check. She posed for pictures with fans; a young boy requested her autograph on his T-shirt; a girl asked her to sign a poster that pictured DiGiulian climbing a rock face.

In the past two years, DiGiulian has established herself as the best female climber in the United States and arguably the best female rock climber in the world. America’s climbing industry is looking to her to raise the sport’s profile and move it closer toward the mainstream.

But at 19, is she ready for that kind of ascent?

***

DiGiulian sat in the living room of her family’s townhouse on an early June morning, her skinny legs tucked beneath her. Dressed in short jean shorts and a white tank top, she wore little makeup. Her iPhone, protected inside a pink cover with the words “One Tough Cookie” inscribed on the front, sat on the table near where the family dog, Sarah, a 15-year-old bichon frise, sniffed for crumbs. DiGiulian’s mother, Andrea, a fit blond, walked into the room carrying a tray of cinnamon buns — a “family recipe,” she said.

John, a Washington native and businessman, and Andrea, a stay-at-home mom from Canada, moved to Alexandria before their son, Charlie, was born. For Charlie’s eighth birthday, Andrea invited his friends to a party at Alexandria’s climbing gym, Sportrock. Sasha, 14 months younger, tagged along. Most of the boys had never attempted climbing. When they hesitated, Sasha decided to try. She started slowly, moving from one hold to the next. At the top, she smiled down at the surprised onlookers.

“Try the next one,” someone encouraged, so she moved to a 40-foot wall. She climbed it faster, her gangly limbs threading their way across the brightly colored holds. When she finished, the gym’s staff pointed to a third wall, the steepest, and one rarely attempted by a novice, let alone a 7-year-old.

“I remember so distinctly starting on those two walls,” DiGiulian says. “I did those, so they’re like, ‘Let’s challenge her,’ and they brought me to what seemed like this huge, overhung, steep wall, which is so funny, because now I climb it and it’s not that big. I just remember wanting to go higher — I was never scared.”

That fearlessness was always there, according to Sasha’s mother. “Before she could walk, she constantly climbed out of her crib,” Andrea says. “She was just born to climb.”

During Charlie’s hockey practices, Sasha would climb the beams above the rink. The running joke, when Andrea couldn’t find Sasha after practice, was: Look up.

Sasha grew up skiing and tried many sports: swimming, soccer, ballet, field hockey and figure skating. The latter was a natural fit, given her petite frame. But after her first figure skating competition, she quit. Sasha had landed all of her jumps while her competitor, who tried more difficult combinations, fell several times, yet the judges awarded the other girl the highest scores. “I really didn’t like the subjectivity of it, how the judge would decide who won,” Sasha says.

She began climbing regularly at Sportrock and joined its junior advanced climbing team. One Saturday morning, she arrived at practice to find the gym hosting a regional championship qualifier. Though she wasn’t signed up, the organizers let 9-year-old Sasha enter. She won the 11-and-younger category.

In 2001, she began training with Claudiu Vidulescu, head coach of the U.S. youth and adult national climbing teams, and head coach at Stone Summit Climbing & Fitness Center in Atlanta, the largest climbing gym in the country. “He taught me how to be determined and set goals,” DiGiulian says. They worked together off and on for the next eight years.

“At 12, 13, she started maturing as a climber, understanding movement and focus,” Vidulescu writes in an e-mail. “And at age 17, I started seeing a rapid improvement in her climbing ability and confidence.”

When Sasha was 9, Vidulescu took her and other young climbers to the New River Gorge in West Virginia to try outdoor climbing.

“I loved it,” DiGiulian says. “I remember that I felt way more exposed climbing outside, which I liked and was a little daunted by. I knew innately that climbing outside was the purest form of climbing, and I really wanted to do it.”

***

The sport of rock climbing originated toward the end of the 19th century in Europe. Several disciplines have become popular, particularly sport climbing, where harnesses, carabiners, belays, ropes and set bolts in the rock are used. In Europe, sport climbing has been a mainstream sport for decades, but it didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1980s. Bouldering, such as at the Richmond competition, takes place at lower heights, between 10 and 30 feet, and climbers utilize short, powerful moves. Speed climbing is another discipline, where two climbers race side-by-side on similar routes. (Although DiGiulian competes in many bouldering events, she prefers outdoor sport climbing.)

Each climb is given a grade. The grading system varies among countries and is subjective, based on a variety of factors, including the technical difficulty of the moves, the stamina and strength required, and the element of danger. Most U.S. rock climbing grades begin at 5.1 and go as high as 5.15b. Typically, either the first climber to ascend the route decides the grade, or a group of climbers will assign it.

DiGiulian competed in her first nationals at 11 and finished 10th. The next year, she made the junior national team. She traveled to Mexico City and won the Continental Championships, held every other year. She’d continue to defend that title while pursuing other international championships.

As she excelled at climbing, DiGiulian’s parents emphasized the importance of education. Beginning in kindergarten, they enrolled Sasha in McLean’s Potomac School, where she graduated in 2011 with a straight-A average.

Her frequent absences and international travel schedule meant missing out on some teenage rites of passage. “I didn’t have too much of a life in high school,” DiGiulian says. “I had a life that I would not regret any part of, but I certainly wasn’t going to the Friday night parties. A lot of people in high school are enthusiastic about who’s dating who, and I was more enthusiastic about what competition I had on Saturday.” On the weekend of her senior prom, she was on a climbing trip. Her closest friends are climbers, many of whom are several years older and whom she sees only at competitions and training.

During her junior year, DiGiulian applied to Columbia University. Her interest in the school stemmed, in part, from her favorite TV show, “Gossip Girl.” She also had traveled to New York to train with Vadim Vinokur, a professional climber living in Brooklyn. But the Big Apple isn’t a climbing hot spot, particularly for outdoor climbing, which made her choice peculiar from a sporting perspective. Most climbers who attempt to juggle an athletic and collegiate career choose to do so in Colorado, Utah or California. Chelsea Piers, however, in Midtown Manhattan, has a good indoor climbing facility, and the Brooklyn Boulders gym has served a growing climbing clientele. “I wanted a good school with a good climbing gym and somewhere that I could walk places and not need a car,” DiGiulian says.

She was accepted into Columbia and deferred enrollment for a year to focus on climbing. During that time, she has climbed phenomenal routes, such as the 80-foot Pure Imagination 5.14d climb in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and 140-foot Era Bella 5.14d in Margalef, Spain. She was the first woman to climb both routes, and the first American woman to climb a 5.14d route. She has won three consecutive U.S. Championships as well as titles around the world, including the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s 2011 World Championship.

“She always climbed well, but the last two years have been ridiculous,” says Alex Johnson, the second-place finisher in Richmond. “Something changed, and she’s blowing everyone away.”

***

On a recent trip to Mallorca, Spain, DiGiulian tried a new climbing discipline: deep-water soloing, where she climbed rock surfaces without a rope over water.

“It was a weird experience, because you have to be completely aware of your surroundings and thinking about how and where you’d fall,” she says. “Often when climbing, you kind of detach yourself from your surroundings and don’t want to think about how or when you’ll fall, so this was a paradox.”

The complexities of climbing also draw a variety of athletes: At recent competitions, one of the male participants was a neuroscientist; another, an engineer. A female competitor was a part-time massage therapist.

“Because climbing is such a multifaceted sport, you can’t just be physically strong,” DiGiulian says. “You have to have determination, because a lot of your success is your output from your input. A lot of that is mental perseverance.”

Still, physical strength is a necessary component. Sasha says that she has always remembered being broad-shouldered and that her arm muscles developed over the years through hours of climbing. She runs six to eight miles four to five times a week and is careful about her diet. She doesn’t lift weights or do yoga; in addition to running and climbing, her workouts include push-ups, pull-ups and abdominal exercises. Female climbers often struggle throughout their teenage years as they adjust to their changing bodies, but “my body never really changed that much as I went through puberty,” DiGiulian says.

She credits some of her rhythm and balance to her figure skating experience and two years of ballet, but says that ultimately her skills have stemmed from practicing and working on her craft for so many years. Sport climbers are generally lean with strong upper bodies; bouldering competitors often have bulkier muscles and bigger overall builds.

“In climbing, you need to have a strong upper body and not too much excess weight because what you pull up the wall is your weight,” DiGiulian says. “I’ve always been able to pull up my body weight.”

DiGiulian negotiated her first sponsorship contract when she was 11, with climbing shoe and gear company Mad Rock, and has inked several deals over the years (she declined to say how much money she earns). She is financially independent from her parents and plans to pay for her entire Columbia education.

In June 2010, DiGiulian signed a three-year contract with Adidas Outdoor USA, becoming the first major American climber to be signed by the international brand. (When she first learned of Adidas’ interest in signing her, via e-mail, she was sitting in her AP Calculus AB class, checking her phone.) Adidas has since signed other U.S. climbers, but DiGiulian is the only U.S. climber branded worldwide.

“Sasha had everything we were looking for: young, fast, articulate, smart and pushing the boundaries,” says Greg Thomsen, managing director of Adidas Outdoor USA. “She was so perfect that we decided that even if she didn’t win world championships, if she finished in the top 10, we’d still prefer her over anyone else.”

Adidas filmed her ascent of Pure Imagination in October, an 81 / 2-minute video that Thomsen says has been viewed on Vimeo more than 500,00 times. As the cameras rolled, Sasha was playful, laughing and free-spirited off the rock. While climbing, she was focused, determined and, at times, frustrated. After the second day, DiGiulian showed the camera her fingertips, bloodied from scraping the sharp holds.

On her sixth try, she found her rhythm, reaching for the rocks, tearing off the tape covering her fingers’ cuts. As the sun went down, she reached the top. “Oh, my God!” DiGiulian exclaimed, swinging on the rope as she clipped her final hold. “No way! Dude, I’m so stoked. I can’t believe that just happened.”

Although she is a remarkably accomplished, internationally sponsored athlete, DiGiulian can still display the girlish demeanor of a recent high school graduate. Her wallet, iPod, iPhone cover, bedroom wallpaper, favorite childhood stuffed animals — including several FAO Schwarz dogs — are all pink, a color she favors for its “optimism.”

She broke up last year with her boyfriend of three years, a Norwegian professional climber. She says the relationship had grown more serious than she wanted; she also acknowledges that this past year, she has been able to focus only on climbing — to incredible results.

***

On Memorial Day weekend, Bridget Hajjar traveled from her home in Fairfield, Conn., to Brooklyn with a few co-workers to attend a class taught by three professional climbers, including DiGiulian, at Brooklyn Boulders. For $149, enrollees spent three hours rotating between stations, listening to instruction while having their climbing critiqued.

“I stalk her,” joked 23-year-old Hajjar, motioning toward DiGiulian inside the high-ceiling, colorful environs of the gym. “Well, I follow her blogs and climbs.”

Before the 8 a.m. session began, several participants asked DiGiulian for her autograph and photos. During a break, she walked to the food table and picked up a cup of yogurt, but before she had time to eat it, more fans swarmed her. Two 12-year-old girls bounced up and down, peppering her with questions.

“Her climbing ability is what’s made her famous, but she’s also a role model,” Hajjar said. “She’s had a lot of opportunities in life and has chosen climbing and is improving the image of climbing.”

That elevated image is being noticed by more recreational climbers as the sport’s popularity has grown. “Something changed in the last five years, and we’ve seen an exponential growth in climbing,” said Kevin Jorgeson, a 27-year-old professional climber and the weekend’s event organizer, who spent the day overseeing the clinic. “When I was in high school, no one else was climbing. Now, you’ll see groups of high schoolers climbing together.”

While the number of climbers in the United States is difficult to track, the proliferation of climbing gyms, coupled with the fact that kids are starting to climb at younger ages, has increased interest in the sport. “The sport has changed fundamentally from a traditional activity done by backpackers to people like Sasha,” says Duane Raleigh, publisher of Rock and Ice magazine. “And that’s mostly because of climbing gyms. They’ve made climbing accessible to people who don’t want to go out in the woods; you’re in a climate-controlled, safe environment.”

Citing numbers from the Climbing Wall Association, Raleigh estimated that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 climbing gyms in the country, and about 10,000 buildings that have some type of climbing wall.

But what could give climbing its biggest boost is certification as an Olympic sport. In 2013, the International Olympic Committee will determine which sports to add to the 2020 Summer Olympics. Eight sports are on the short list, including wakeboarding, softball and sport climbing. DiGiulian was elected by her peers as one of two climbing representatives on the board of the International Federation of Sport Climbing. If the IOC chooses climbing, DiGiulian says, she’d like to be an Olympian representing the United States. She would be 27.

For now, though, she had her students to focus on. After breaking into groups, DiGiulian instructed them to sit in a circle. She sat closest to the climbing wall, traces of chalk on her left cheek. The participants were organized according to skill level, and this group, comprising six women and one man, were all older than their teacher.

“I want each of you to go around and tell us your favorite thing about climbing,” DiGiulian said.

“Problem solving,” offered one participant.

“The way climbers work together,” said another.

“I don’t really know why I like climbing; maybe it’s just the atmosphere,” said a third.

“Well, you’re here at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, so obviously you like climbing,” DiGiulian said, as laughter rippled through the group. “One of the things that I like best is that you’re in complete control.”

DiGiulian talked about the mental aspect of climbing before participants began a lateral climb and she offered pointers.

With the second group, DiGiulian had the participants try the lateral climb twice: first, as fast as possible without thinking it through, and then a second time, with a slower, methodical approach. “Remove yourself from that nervous state and take a breath,” DiGiulian said. “Don’t use dancing feet.”

After that, the climbers sat in a circle.

“What did you notice the second time?” DiGiulian asked.

“Efficiency — that I actually did it,” said one heavy-set man with multiple tattoos, as the group laughed.

One of DiGiulian’s students was 11-year-old Eli Frankel. The Brooklyn resident has been climbing for almost two years and finished 11th at nationals this past year. Frankel was familiar with the accomplishments of his teachers, particularly DiGiulian. “Sasha is so good at the mental part of climbing, at not rushing and staying focused,” he said.

Starting next month, that focus will be more important than ever as she begins college. She hopes to study sports business, and she’d like to be more involved in student life than she was in high school — to be as “normal” a college student as possible. She’ll also be the only freshman who returns from a World Cup event in Munich for orientation, flies to Paris for a week of climbing, comes back to school for a week before flying to a Seattle event, returns for a week at Columbia and then flies to Atlanta for another World Cup competition.

“It’s this mental battle, because I keep convincing myself that everything will work out fine,” DiGiulian says, “that I’ll be training religiously and be at all the competitions, but at the same time, I know Columbia will be quite rigorous. Sometimes I’m completely fine, but then I’ll go through spurts — like the other night, it hit me, and I got really nervous. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.

“Most of my competitors, in the World Cup circuit especially, are just climbing,” DiGiulian adds. “But I decided to go back to school. Because I know that, in the long term, I can’t be a climber forever.”

After leaving New York, DiGiulian’s summer schedule included climbing trips to Spain, Iceland, Austria, France and Germany. On her plane flights, she flipped through climbing magazines and added climbing photos and updates to her Facebook fan page. She also read “The Iliad” and Plato’s “Republic,” required texts for college orientation.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a frequent contributor to ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. She lives in Charlottesville with her husband. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com

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