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This article originally appeared in Gym Climber No. 4
On August 18, Brooke Raboutou stepped up to the final qualifying route for the Combined World Championships in Hachioji, Japan. The stakes were as high as they get— Olympic qualification.
Raboutou barely moved, her eyes fixed on the plastic land- scape ahead. The wall was 12 meters, but the route zigzagged to total 15 meters of steep resistance climbing. Her expression was quiet and of utter focus—no room for anything else. Her world had distilled down to this one wall, those 40 holds, those 10 motionless draws, and this chance ahead of her.
When she finally grabbed the start holds, she climbed quickly, with precise and fluid movements. Her feet danced one hold to the next while her hands steered the steady ascent. Upon reaching the headwall, she began shaking her way through final moves with gritted teeth and protruding elbows. By the time she was just a few moves from the finish, gravity won out, and it was clear there was nothing left in the tank.
An hour and a half later the results were in—Brooke Raboutou had finished in ninth, not enough for finals, but enough for a spot in the 2020 Olympics.
A week later I sat down with Raboutou at a small cafe in Boulder, Colorado, her hometown. We found a spot outside on a thin wire table with a view of the bustling parking lot and nearby restaurants. It was a warm and cloudy Thursday morning, and Raboutou was dressed in gym-session attire— running shorts, a tank top, and a light sweater.
“I’m headed to the Tension gym after this,” she said. “Then to dinner with friends and then maybe to CATs (another local climbing center) to just hang out with more friends.”
Following the Combined World Championships, Raboutou had become the first American to receive an Olympic invitation for Sport Climbing in Tokyo 2020. She had agreed to meet on one of her few precious days between landing back in the U.S.A. and returning to college in San Diego.
Her thick curly hair, usually in tight braids, was down. Her nails were neatly painted a metallic purple—“They were the first thing I fixed when I got back,” she said. She smiled as she ordered an iced chai bubble tea with a slice of chocolate-chip banana bread.
Names emerged in the corners of my mind while we talked: Debbie Reynolds, Cathy Rigby, Mary Lou Retton, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. Most of these women were or are actresses. Some could sing. Some had talk shows. Rigby and Retton were gymnasts. All were familiar, comforting presences in America’s media. Like Raboutou, they were the picturesque girl next door—tough and honest, strong and delicate, entertaining and sometimes wistful. Raboutou is the type of girl who wears a baby-blue bow in her ponytail while dominating a competition field. In a ruthless comp-climbing world, where only 20 female athletes will get an Olympic ticket, Raboutou was, and still is, bizarrely at ease. Getting her ticket was of course a dream, she said. “But I definitely wouldn’t have been disappointed if it didn’t happen,” she added, shrugging and grinning as usual.
Raboutou, 18, was born in Boulder, Colorado. Her parents, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and Didier Raboutou, were both world-class competition climbers. Erbesfield-Raboutou is a four-time Overall World Cup winner and was the third woman to climb 5.14a. Didier, who attended the first international climbing competition, SportRoccia, in Bardonecchia, Italy, 1985, went on to win Arco Rock Master and international events at Vaulx-en-Velin and Bercy, France. Today, he bikes and builds walls.
“I think they’re why I’m the climber I am,” said Brooke of her parents. “They’ve taught me their wisdom.”
“That was always their motto,” said Raboutou, “like you should be doing this because you want to … Which, thank god, because I love it.”Her parents were helping her up walls at the same time she was learning to walk. Robyn started the competitive youth climbing Team ABC, which her son and daughter both joined. Didier built the team’s training walls. As Brooke recalled at the cafe, the coach- ing didn’t always stop when practice was over. Still, she insisted that her parents never pushed her into climbing.
While her dad was mostly hands-off with the team, Brooke worked to navigate the relationship with her mother and head coach.
“We definitely have had to find a different balance,” said Brooke. She paused. “She’s definitely … She likes her plans. She wants everybody to do 100 percent of each thing, which I agree is important. But she’s … intense isn’t the right word. She’s passionate. She’s very passionate about climbing, and she wants other people to be passionate, too, or else she doesn’t really want to work with them.”
Raboutou and her mother had their disagreements, “but now, looking back,” she said, “I’m glad I mostly listened.”
Brooke’s older brother, Shawn, also served as a seasoned mentor. He progressed over the years with Brooke and has recently put down two V16s, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Off the Wagon Low Start.
“He’s always been way stronger than me,” said Raboutou of Shawn. “He guides me. Especially when I was younger, he would help me outside. Since he’s three years older, he would do a hard climb and then tell me I should try it. So I’d usually get on it the next year. And he’d find the climbs that he thought would suit me, especially since I’m shorter. He was helpful in pushing me in the right way to the right climbs.”
At age 9, Brooke ticked a V10 and became the youngest female to climb a 5.13b. At 10, she sent a V11 and became the youngest female to climb 5.13d. At 11, she became the youngest female to send 5.14b.
Still, Brooke was free-spirited. “As a kid, I didn’t train, I just climbed,” she said. “I mean, I still mostly just climb. A lot of people I know do a lot of cross-training and stuff, but I mostly just climb for my training.”
Every summer, the Raboutous would vacation in France. Didier Raboutou had family in Toulouse, conveniently near some of the best climbing in the world.
“We spent three months at a time in France,” said Brooke. “All my grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles lived in Toulouse. And we have a house in Saint-Antonin, which is about an hour away. We would stay there and climb outside all summer. It was so cool having a climbing family because we didn’t go on beach vacations ever. It was just climbing trips, which I loved.”
As Brooke got older, competitions became a bigger part of her life. Her impressive competition results soon mirrored her outdoor ascents. Raboutou was the 2018 Youth A Lead World Champion, the 2017 Youth A Combined Pan American Champion, and the 2016 Youth B Combined World Champion. Unlike many of her peers, she always enjoyed the varied challenges of going for the combined title.
Alongside her training schedule, Raboutou made time for school. As a kid, she attended a charter school that combined two years into one class. Raboutou only stayed in the kindergarten/first grade class for one year, putting her a year ahead of her peers. Last year, at age 17, Raboutou attended her first year at the University of San Diego to study business.
Leading up to the recent World Championships, Raboutou’s momentum slowed ever so slightly. Her World Cup results fell enough that she was technically off the USA Team. She was still qualified to go to the World Championships, however, due to the larger athlete quota at that event.
“I wasn’t happy at any of my World Cups,” she said. “At each one I felt like something went wrong … There were things I knew I could do, but didn’t. It was disappointing because I felt really strong leading up to each one.” Still, she added that she felt she learned from each of her mistakes. She focused on taking fewer tries per boulder and honing in a more confident mindset.
“The climbs themselves aren’t that hard, but sometimes that’s the hardest thing: just executing easier climbs,” she said.
To deal with the pressure better, she enlisted her dad’s help. “He had a really good head as a competitor and could handle pressure,” said Raboutou. “I think that’s what he’s given the most to me. He’d always say that when you’re climbing, It’s just you and the wall.” She added that when nerves are setting in, she does her best to flip pressure into support. “The pressure is really just people also wanting me to do well, so they want to help.”
With her Olympic invite in hand, she can finally, temporarily at least, consider the pressure gone.
“After this week, when I go back to school, I’m going to take like a week and a half off, because I’ve never done that in my life,” she said. “I’ve never taken more than like three days off. Competition season starts when the one before ends. That’s just how USA Climbing works. Most countries get a break. But, yeah.”
Raboutou has never been injured, a rarity among top climbers, nor pushed to the point of being burnt out, also a rarity. Rock and Ice, Climbing, Popsugar and sponsor bios have all used the words “born to climb” or “a natural” to describe her. It’s easy to see why. While Raboutou agreed the description is fair, she was quick to point out her own struggles.
“Every climber and competitor gets annoyed with their sport,” she said. “You can’t always be on top, and you can’t always be happy with your performance … at all. And I’ve definitely had times where I was like, Oh why am I doing this? Wouldn’t it be easier not to? But then like, you learn when to step back. And I just love climbing, so when I step back and stop thinking about what I’m training for and actually just climb to enjoy it, that’s when I’m like, O.K., I remember why I do this. I want to keep doing this.
What is your first memory of climbing?
Ummm, well I don’t know if I really remember, or if it’s just that I saw pictures that make me remember, but in my basement my dad built this little plywood climbing wall with holds on it. I was probably 2 or 3. I was still in diapers.
What was it like growing up with parents who are both world-class climbers?
It was cool, for sure. Having my mom as my coach was very helpful, but it was also hard at times. It was hard to listen at times. Sometimes I just said no, which you obviously wouldn’t say if a coach wasn’t your family member. Climbing has really evolved a lot, like the style is way different now than when they were competing, but mentally, it’s been really helpful to have them.
So your mother is your coach and the coach for Team ABC. What role does your father play?
He does a lot of mental stuff. When we were little, he would do a lot of mental training with the team. Stuff like visualization. He’d always say that when you’re climbing, It’s just you and the wall. You can’t change anything else, so just focus on you. I think that’s so true because climbing really is an individual sport. There’s nothing you can do to change other people’s performance, so just focus on yourself.
Tell me about your training.
I mostly just climb for my training. Definitely in the last year or two I’ve been doing more hangboarding and conditioning and more specific things that aren’t exactly climbing, like campusing and stuff like that. But I don’t like having strict training plans because I like to change things up. So I might have a training plan for 10 days at a time, and an overall year plan, but nothing more than that.
What if a comp is in one month? What does your training look like then?
That would be peak training. Before the World Championships in Innsbruck, I was training with Natalia Grossman and Joe Goodacre and a lot of the team. And we were spending a lot of time in the gym, like 10 or 11 hours a day. Combined [as a category] really changes your schedule. You have to find days where you want to focus on an individual discipline or have a combined day. We would usually start with speed because it’s so powerful and then boulder. And then rest and maybe boulder more, or do some leading.
You were the youngest female to send 5.13b through 5.14b. How did you feel about those accomplishments at the time?
As a kid, I didn’t focus on grades. I still don’t. So it was just cool to push myself and see progress. It was like, O.K., I can do V10. And then later V11. And so on. I liked learning and pushing myself.
What are your goals for outside climbing?
So, this year, obviously I will just be doing a lot of training. But after that, I want to go on outdoor trips. I’d like to go to Spain. Oliana, Siurana, Margalef. Maybe I’ll even go there this December. I also want to go back to South Africa.
Do you have a mantra?
I like to focus on my breathing if I’m getting nervous. Just breathe in and breathe out, which grounds me. But never anything out loud. I’ve never been a talker. There’ve been competitions where I’m on the wall and I hear people talking to themselves. [Laughs] It’s funny but you know whatever works.
How and why did you make your college choice?
I wanted a change. I love Boulder, but I know I’ll be here after college, so I wanted to do something different for that time. I just visited the campus in San Diego. And I love San Diego as a place because there’s just so much to do and it actually reminded me of Boulder, but the opposite. Just trading mountains for beach and cold for warmth. Something different. And it’s a good school.
What are you studying?
Business. There’s so much to do with business. I don’t really know what I want in the future. Obviously I want to climb. But I think I want to coach and maybe open my own gym.
Would the gym be in Boulder?
I don’t know. Maybe … yeah. Boulder is definitely in my future. It’s a special place.
What are your plans between now and the Olympics? What’s your training and competition schedule?
I think the best part about qualifying so early is that I don’t have to do any more competitions. I mean, I should, because otherwise I’d be rusty. But I don’t have to do Nationals. There’s so much for the other competitors. To get to Toulouse you have to do the World Cups, and to get to Pan-Ams you have to do Nationals, which lead to Combined Nationals, which lead to the actual Pan-Am invite. All that, I don’t have to do. Which is a blessing.
Will you get to train with other USA team members?
This year, I feel like USA Climbing has really stepped up. We’ve gotten a lot more funding, which has helped to bring us together. It’s really fun to train with everybody. It’s good to get the team together because we can all learn from each other. We did some sessions in Salt Lake and Innsbruck. Sometimes we have mandatory camps before comps. And a lot of times we just train together, which I think needs to happen more. A lot of people are moving to Salt Lake City right now so that they can train together. Salt Lake is becoming more a solid base for USA climbers.
What are your biggest weaknesses?
Standing on volumes and slabs. I think there’s a lot I need to work on. Also pinches and slopers.
I guess that’s what I love about climbing, though—it’s not just competing. Since I love the outdoors, I feel like I get so many chances to accomplish things in the sport. So with the Olympics, I was like, Yeah, it would be amazing, but I wasn’t going to be disappointed if I didn’t make it. It’s just icing on the cake that I did. Almost two years ago in an interview with Rock and Ice, you said, “Olympics, that’d be cool but I’m not, like, set on it. Whatever happens, happens. If I get the chance to try out, of course I’d take it. I don’t actually know that much about it.” Were you downplaying how much you wanted to go?