This article was published in the summer edition of Gym Climber, available free at your local gym.
Aix-les-Bains, France, 1995. The American climber Robyn Erbesfield, who was living in Southern France, had won the overall World Cup title each year since 1992. But that season Laurence Guyon of France had come on like a meteor: with two wins and a second—to Erbesfield—in the previous three World Cup events. Guyon, 25, also won the Masters of Serre-Chevalier and Arco that year, the best of her career.
“The women’s scene is changing,” Baptiste Briand, a climber-writer on the French team, wrote in Climbing at the time, “with Robyn Erbesfield no longer always winning.” No one wins forever.
Erbesfield entered the grand finale trailing in points for the first time in four years, but she had won strong in Birmingham, England, just two weeks earlier. For her part, Guyon was in her home country and had the World Cup practically in hand. To keep the crown, Erbesfield, 32, would not only have to win, but Guyon must place an unlikely fourth or below. Still, Robyn was always up for a fight.
In finals, Guyon missed some shakeouts, and fell low, for fifth. Erbesfield won the event—and the World Cup.
Four consecutive World Cup wins and the ability to thrive when the chips are down? Erbesfield has a lot to offer.
Team ABC, which she founded in Boulder in 2005 along with, and within, the broader-based ABC Kids Climbing, comprises 120 athletes and has fielded one half of the U.S. Olympic team: Colin Duffy, 17, of Broomfield, and Brooke Raboutou, 20, the daughter of Robyn and her husband, Didier Raboutou of France, also a former world titleist in climbing. Their son, Shawn, is one of the few ever to climb 8C / V16. Didier built the original facility walls and continues to create and adjust training equipment.
“Ask Didier,” Erbesfield Raboutou (her married name, or simply Raboutou) says whenever a team member requests, say, a new pulley system. “You’ll probably have it tomorrow.”
Team ABC (for Agility, Balance, Coordination), an arm of ABC Kids, has won nine national-championship team titles. Asked how many individual national titles her crew has won, Erbesfield Raboutou does not venture to estimate. The head coach, Ryan Arment, says when asked, “I count eight first-place nationals medals from 2017 to 2020 for individuals at youth comps” in different age groups and genres. Colin Duffy alone is a 10-time National Champion.
Other title-holders include Megan Mascarenas, who with her mother traveled twice a week—an hour and 45 minutes each way—from Colorado Springs to be on the team, and who won two Bouldering World Cups at Vail starting at age 17; Margo Hayes (also the first woman to climb confirmed 5.15); and Joe Goodacre (speed). That doesn’t count the earlier champions Angie Payne and Emily Harrington, whom Erbesfield Raboutou coached before founding the team.
Staff is a who’s who as well, and she adamantly credits the members as outstanding: “I didn’t create this program on my own. We’re a team.”
Past coaches there include Matt Fultz, Meagan Martin, Alex Puccio, Nina Williams and John Brosler. Daniel Woods has guest-coached, and he climbs and trains at the facility. The 12 current coaches (13 if you count Robyn) are Arment, Claire Gordon, Connor Dykes, Joslynn Peterson, and Max Burgess. Chris Danielson, longtime international route setter, has also become part of the pre-Olympic coaching apparatus for Colin Duffy and Brooke Raboutou.
Also read: The Idiot’s Guide to Olympic Climbing
Over the years at least two kids’ families have moved to Boulder for the program. Natalia Grossman, 18, was born in Santa Cruz, California, but came to Boulder in 2015 for the climbing friends she’d made and to join Team ABC. Olivia Kosanovich, 16, and her family moved there from Breckenridge in 2016.
Grossman has now aged out of the program, but is full bore: She won the 2020 Bouldering Open Nationals and, in March, the bouldering event at the National Team Trials, in Memphis.
Youth and promise
Team ABC is youth-only, ending at age 18.
“Then we usually recruit them as coaches,” Erbesfield Raboutou says with a chuckle.
The team has also drawn in the children of peers: such as the up-and-comer Bayes Wilder, age 10, son of Matt Wilder, former pro climber-boulderer-American Ninja Warrior. Erbesfield Raboutou says Bayes is “as amazing or more than Brooke or Ashima”—Ashima Shiraishi, a national champion and top rock climber from New York—“were at that age.”
Another promising climber is Campbell Sarinopoulos, in the program since age 4, who has just made the U.S. Team, at 17 one of the two youngest on it.
“I have been on Team ABC for pretty much my whole life,” Campbell says, calling it a second family. “Our coaches always know the right balance of training hard and having fun …. Growing up at ABC among such strong climbers really made me want to strive to be better.”
Every year she looks forward to the training camps, she says: “It was always so fun to travel and just have fun all together as a team.” She calls practices with her peers fun as well, and says she’s learned “how to be a part of a team and be supportive and encouraging even though we often compete against each other.”
Asked for climbing takeaways, she points to the emphasis the coaches place on visualization in practices, “which is now something I use all the time in my own climbing.”
Four consecutive world cups and the ability to thrive when the chips are down? Erbesfield has a lot to offer.
Colin Duffy, soon to pack his bags for Tokyo, started at the program at age 8, training with the team weekly. He says, “I think Team ABC has been so good for me because it is such a motivating environment with great coaches, strong athletes, and an excellent facility. The constant motivation helped me excel at a fast pace and helped mold me into the climber I am today.” He is preparing for the Games with the team, “since I have a structured training schedule and I’m constantly surrounded by other psyched athletes.”
Asked her operating philosophy, Erbesfield Raboutou says, “We really are trying to initiate success through capturing this young person when they’re psyched—making up games, keeping it fun, making the kids want to be there and work hard.
“Number one is building great humans, celebrating who they are as a person and as a teammate first and foremost.”
Kids are expected to develop a variety of skills and are not permitted to focus on one discipline outright. Unlike the regular climbing gyms where most teams are based, the facility is not open to the public.
Be a Champion
Back to Aix. Reflecting upon it now, Erbesfield Raboutou says, “What I learned at that event was we can only manage what we can. I couldn’t control her result. I could give my best effort, and that was enough.” She recalls awaiting her turn, telling herself, Now’s the moment. You do it. Get out there. Be a champion. She doesn’t remember the route or even whether she topped it, only that she climbed with confidence.
Starting Team ABC years later was a convergence of elements, meshing her history, a longtime interest in children, and the fact that her own two loved to climb and would want to be with friends. Erbesfield Raboutou herself has always kept climbing nails hard. Over the years she has done some dozen 5.14s including (Didier’s) route Bad Attitude, at St. Antonin Noble Val, France, and Welcome to Tijuana, Rodellar, Spain, a 5.14b. In recent months she has sent four V11s.
Asked whether she was born to compete or teach, Erbesfield Raboutou pauses, then says, “I would say teach, but I wouldn’t be a coach without being a competitor. I am just really strong-minded and determined … [with] strong mental aspects for climbing that I teach my kids.
“They’re the champions. They come to us with the drive, and we help them.”