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Interview: Natalia Grossman is America’s New Comp Superstar

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Natalia Grossman climbs in bouldering finals of the junior women division en route to a second place finish at the 2019 IFSC Youth World Championships in Arco, Italy.© IFSC/Syste van Slooten

Natalia Grossman, 18, has been crushing for years, but this season she has taken her competition results to another level. She won the first two USA Climbing National Cup competitions—the Yank-n-Yard and the Battle of the Bay—and those victories have vaulted her into the spotlight. However, for the dedicated student at the University of Colorado Boulder, the remarkable recent results are part of an ongoing, cerebral journey of self-improvement. I caught up with Natalia in the lead up to the final National Cup event, Southern Grit.

Your name has been in the press a lot lately because of your back-to-back National Cup wins. Does this feel like a breakout year to you?

Natalia Grossman: The past few months have definitely been a lot better than normal. Starting at the beginning of the summer, I started working on my mental game a lot more, and that has really helped me this season. I’d say finding myself and being able to believe in myself—and trusting the process—has been helpful.

What does ‘working on your mental game’ entail?

I started doing some visualization practices. And honestly just having confidence was something that I struggled with—and I still struggle with it. I doubt myself a lot. So, just believing that I can do something has been a very good thing for me. If you don’t think you can do it, then you doubt yourself, and you can’t perform to your full capability. Even if you end up not being able to do a certain climb in a competition, if you think you can do it, you’ll probably have a better chance of doing it.

Was the visualization practice done with a coach or a sports psychologist?

Just on my own. I watched some YouTube videos and I read a couple books. One in particular is called Mind Gym [by Gary Mack and David Casstevens].

Was that desire to work specifically on your mental game prompted by a specific moment in a competition?

I’m not sure if there was really one moment. I think it happened after a couple of moments of not performing as well as I wanted to. I started to look past the performances and ask myself, “What else didn’t go right here?” I realized that it had been a lack of believing in myself. It started at a World Cup last year in Moscow. I didn’t really know what to expect because I hadn’t done any World Cups recently. And I ended up doing a lot better than I thought I would. So that gave me a little confidence. And then the next competition came, and I went into it more confident…and I did better. I realized it was probably because I had actually believed in myself.

From your experience, is mental training something that climbing coaches don’t do with their athletes enough?

I worked with Team ABC last year a little bit, and then I took a break from that team because I thought I was going to be joining my collegiate climbing team here at CU Boulder…which I ended up not joining. So I’m going to rejoin Team ABC. I know [Team ABC] has started working on their mental game a lot more. And they now do a visualization at the end of every practice for ten minutes. When I was first on the team, it was brought up a lot, but I just never thought I needed it. I thought, “Well, that’s not something I struggle with.” I just pushed it aside until I realized that maybe I do need it.

Grossman throws a high—really high—drop knee at the Youth World Championships.© IFSC/Syste van Slooten

Do you mind talking about why you decided to not join the CU Boulder climbing team?

At the end of the summer I got pretty burned out, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do competitions. I’m still not completely sure what I want to do yet. But it has been fun to do a few competitions here and there. So, I decided not to join the college team. I had traveled so much over the summer, and I was just ready for a break. Also the CU team practices—I believe it’s 7:30 to 10:00 at night—and it’s 30 minutes away. It was just a little late for me and didn’t work with my schedule. So I just trained alone, which was fun because it was the first time in so long that I wasn’t training for a competition. I just enjoyed climbing. It sounds cheesy, but I feel like I had been in a rut for the past year, and I really found myself through climbing this year. It’s weird to say because, of course, everyone loves climbing. But I think I love climbing more right now than I ever have.

You mentioned all the travel really wearing on you. What’s the dynamic like among the US Team when there is a long stretch of competitions overseas?

In the past I was with different people for the adult competitions vs the youth competitions. I was [overseas] with my best friend [Brooke Raboutou], so we just had a lot of fun together.

Did Brooke Raboutou play a part in you getting you over that burnout that you mentioned?

Yeah. We used to be training partners before she moved for college. We had spent a summer in Europe together, and she definitely kept me psyched. After the adult World Championships where I wasn’t so psyched, she and I had a pretty good talk. Obviously a lot had just happened for both of us—she had qualified for the Olympics and I was tired of competing. But we were both going to Youth Worlds right afterwards, so we knew we had to forget about what was happening and focus on the upcoming competition. Once we got to Youth Worlds, we just—I don’t know how to explain it. Arco [Italy] is amazing, first of all. So we were able to relax and enjoy the experience instead of going somewhere strictly for the competition. We took it beyond that and went there to have fun.

Do you remember what a Brooke Raboutou said to you during that talk?

She said that it’s normal. It’s OK to feel burnt out sometimes.

Grossman finished in sixth for her division at the Arco Youth World Championship, and second in the combined ranking.© IFSC/Syste van Slooten

So that sets you on the track to the present day—to the National Cup wins. But let’s go in the other direction and talk about your childhood. You’re not originally from Boulder, correct?

Right. I’m from Santa Cruz, California.

I read that you first went to a climbing gym with your parents when you were really young—you wanted to climb, but the gym had a rule that the minimum age was six years old. So you waited until you finally turned six. Then what?

I started climbing at Pacific Edge and did the once-a-week-on-Fridays, the recreational class. And then some people told my parents, “Your daughter is really good. She should join the team.” So I joined the gym’s team—I loved it, obviously. Then I did a youth league, and then I think a few months after that I started competing for USA Climbing. I met a lot of people and started progressing and climbing more. And I learned about Team ABC through competitions because I had become friends with a lot of the girls who were on that team at the time. I knew that the Team ABC program was really good. So once I was older, probably about 14 years old, my family moved to Boulder so that I could join Team ABC.

Pacific Edge in Santa Cruz is also where Chris Sharma learned to climb. What was it like learning how to climb at the same gym that a legend like that had once called home?

It was pretty cool. I only saw him there once or twice because he was living in Spain at the time. But it was cool just knowing a legend had been created here.

Let’s talk more about the process of your family leaving California and moving to Boulder, Colorado, based on your desire to join Team ABC.

I don’t really know when I came up with the idea. I want to say it was in the fall one year. My parents don’t climb, but they know how much I love it. And I went to a Montessori school, and my mom is a Montessori teacher. And Maria Montessori always says to follow the child. My parents believed in that. I didn’t have to do any convincing. My parents were more like, “If you want to do it, we’ll do it.” So I really just had to think about it, and about whether I wanted to leave my best friends [in Santa Cruz]. At the time I was only climbing twice a week, maybe three times a week. But my best friend happened to be my neighbor, so I had kind of stopped climbing as much when I met her. My parents told me, “You’re going to be climbing a lot more if you’re on Team ABC. Are you ready for it?” I was still performing really well at national competitions, but I wasn’t used to training because I was climbing mostly by myself; I would just go to [Pacific Edge] and project by myself. So, we made the decision and visited Boulder in February, and that summer we moved. My dad worked from home, so he was able to continue his job. And my mom was able to find a new job in Boulder.

Did you want to join Team ABC because you saw them as the elite American team and wanted to be part of that? Or was it more because you had become friends with a number of people on the team?

I would say it was a mix of both. I wouldn’t have joined Team ABC if I hadn’t been friends with some of the people. But I’d go to the national competitions and Team ABC was always getting first place. So I knew that team was doing something right. The team had all these amazing athletes like Megan Mascarenas, Margo Hayes, Shawn Raboutou. So I was drawn in by all that. And they were all super close and really nice people. And Robyn [Erbesfield-Raboutou, the owner and director of Team ABC] is really nice, so it was just something that I was interested in trying.

You wanted to be with the best so that you could be the best. Is that a character trait that you see in yourself beyond climbing?

At the time I had just finished up doing gymnastics, which I had done for seven or eight years. So I was pretty used to the competitiveness of sports. I generally don’t have a deep desire to be the best, I just want to be my best.

It’s interesting that Brooke Raboutou also has a background in gymnastics. Do you think that sport provides a good foundation for kids who want to become competitive climbers?

I think so because in gymnastics you’re always at the gym—five days a week, doing hard conditioning, doing upper body stuff, and getting overall fitness. And you get super flexible. So when you transition to climbing, you’re just missing the finger strength and the technique aspects.

When your family made the move to Boulder and you joined Team ABC was there any difficulty in adjusting?

I feel like I was accepted right away. That summer I did a trip with some kids on Team ABC—and Robyn. We went to her house in France. And then we competed at Youth Worlds. Just being able to spend time with them outside of the Team ABC gym was super helpful because I deepened some friendships. I love them all. And we all went to the same high school in Boulder. I think the biggest adjustment of climbing with really strong teammates was that I had to learn how to not compare myself to others in a negative way. I found it really easy to just base myself off of other people—which is not a good idea. It was like, “Oh, I don’t feel strong right now because this person is out-climbing me.” Or, “I feel good because I am out-climbing this person.” That is not what you want to be doing, so I was able to turn that around, luckily.

What’s your relationship like with some of the other competitors—not on Team ABC—who you’re often on a podium with? How about Cloe Coscoy, who placed second at the Yank-n-Yard and placed third at Battle of the Bay? The two of you have been really closely linked in results. 

With Cloe, in particular, I had never really talked to her too much until this year. We would always say “hi,” and we would always make small talk. But at the last National Cup, a group of us stayed at her house and it was so much fun. I’m excited to have made that deeper connection. A lot of times we do training camps and a lot of the strong athletes attend them. That’s always a great place to meet people. I’m obviously closer with some people than others, but there’s no one that I dislike. Everyone in the climbing community is very nice and supportive.

In terms of the climbing community at-large, how do you balance and reconcile climbing outdoors and competing indoors?

I don’t climb outdoors that often. In Boulder, everyone climbs outdoors. But I’m really into the competition scene more right now.

That almost seems like a European mindset…to be so accepting and exclusive with competing. You’re kind of an American outlier in that sense of strictly loving to compete.

I love climbing outdoors too, and it’s something that I definitely want to do when I’m not competing. But at the same time, I find that it’s really hard to do both regularly. There aren’t too many athletes who can go win a World Cup and then go send a 5.15—or at least it’s hard to balance it. When you’re outdoor climbing, you definitely gain some finger strength. But when you go to a bouldering competition these days, you need to be ready to jump. There’s all the modern routesetting these days. Outdoors and indoors don’t relate as much as they used to, so I think it’s harder to do both at the level that I would want to do them.

Especially if you are competing in something like the combined discipline, where you would also have to train for speed climbing, right?

Yeah, about the combined…I’m not sure if I’m doing the Combined [Invitational] this year. I have not touched a speed wall since August. That’s something I need to decide.

Why the indecision?

I hurt myself this summer, and doing speed…it hurts to pull down a lot. So I feel like speed climbing wouldn’t be the best idea. And training for everything is also mentally exhausting. Now that I’m in college, I don’t have as much time. I don’t do a competition unless I feel like I’m prepared. It’s OK if I’m not at my best at a competition, but I want to feel like I at least put in the time and effort, and I want to feel like I’m in shape. I don’t know if I’ll have that time this year.

In terms of the combined discipline, were the 2020 Olympics ever a goal for you?

Not really. I think it’s really cool, but it’s the same sort of thing: If I make something a goal, I need to put the time and effort into it. So many athletes who have that 2020 Olympics goal are probably not in school, or they are just dedicating a lot of their time to climbing. And a lot of those people [training for the 2020 Olympics] have become burnt out because they have been training for so long. The first qualification event was in August, and then one in November, and then in March. It’s hard training for pretty much a whole year. That’s very taxing.

Did you ever think about taking a break before college to train full time?

No, I never really thought about that because I know a lot of people who have taken a gap year, and then they end up taking more time off, and then they just never go to school again. Or they hurt themselves and suddenly they can’t even climb. I feel like there are a lot of factors that can go wrong, and also I feel like I could not ever be solely a climber. I love climbing. But I need something else in my life. I love being at school and having friends who don’t climb; it’s nice to have a separate world where I can take myself out of my training mind. If I’m always thinking about the next competition, or always thinking about training, I’ll just get burned out again. Having school to distract me and not have my full attention on climbing has been really helpful. It’s hard sometimes to see other athletes training all the time because they’re either doing online school or they’re not in school or they’re done with school—and I’m over here and I have class every day. I feel like I’m at a disadvantage. But when I think more in depth about it, I think it’s a good thing for me. Something that I really admire about Brooke is that she made the Olympics while she was in school. I think she shows that you can do it all. She’s a good role model for a lot of people. You don’t have to pick one or the other, climbing or school. You can do both.

It sounds like having a healthy fear of burnout is a big thing for you.

I’ve known quite a lot of people who used to compete and don’t climb anymore. It’s scary because I don’t want that to happen to me. I always used to say that it won’t ever happen to me because I love climbing. But then I experienced it a little bit for the first time. So, now, trying to avoid that happening is a big priority of mine. And when I say “burnout,” I don’t really mean from climbing or from competitions. I don’t think I could ever get burned out on just climbing, going to the gym with my friends, having fun and having a good session. It’s more the training that competitions require.

Is there any added pressure now, following your big wins at the National Cups events?

I haven’t put any pressure on myself. I don’t know if other people think of me more highly now. I feel like as long as I don’t put pressure on myself, I won’t feel a difference. I’m not really taking it as pressure, it’s just another thing that I can use to remind myself—if I’m having a bad day—that I still know how to try hard, and that trying hard can result in really good things.

The concluding National Cup event, Southern Grit, will kick off on December 6. Watch the livestream of the finals at 5:00 P.M. MST on Friday, Dec 7 here.

John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing. Available March 3, 2020.