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Anyone who has ever participated in a sport knows that our coaches and teachers shape who we are, and who we will become. They define the limits of what we know as possible, and push us to be the best we can be. Whether you are a kid, or an adult, we all need people to look up to. We need mentors.
Without mentors who believe in us, we are left to crawl our way up hill both ways on our own. Seeing that others have been there before, have accomplished what we hope to, can change our lives. Without seeing people who look like us, or act like us, doing the things that we want to do, it is hard to know it is possible.
For so long, the climbing community has championed the white male climber. He has been the one in all the movies, plastered across every article. And that’s not to say that there have not been many others who have found their place within the community, but it has been more under the radar, further behind the scenes.
It is hard to become what you cannot see. It is important to have women in positions of power within the climbing community so that young girls know what is possible. It is important to show Black women standing on a podium. It is important to show Indigenous women running climbing businesses. It is important to show Latinx women training our youth. It is important to show adaptive climbers sending hard.
These four women are climbing coaches who are stretching the limits of our sport, in their own unique way. From remote, online based personalized training plans, to shaping the future of USA climbing, these women push the boundaries. They are genuine, inspiring, forward thinkers. They know climbing is more than just moving your feet and hands up a wall. It is developing emotional intelligence and mental strength. It is activism. It is relationship building.
Emily Taylor: It’s not about me
Every climbing coach has their own style. For Emily Taylor, of Taylored Fit Solutions, it is all about recognizing and breaking the internalized conditions that everyone walks around with throughout their day-to-day life. “Everybody has a circuitry. It’s our job to open up the circuit board and figure out what circuits are high and which are low and how to balance them. People are simple and they are complex,” says Taylor about her coaching style.
After being a climbing coach for three decades, Emily knows what she is talking about. She has coached top athletes like Kai Lightner. She was the regional coordinator for USA Climbing for 15 years, but it was never the right place for her. “They [USA Climbing] named the Southeast region the Deep South for eight years, and they ignored my letter every year about why that was a problem. But I was the only Black person registered ever out of the Southeast. Ever. In 30 years,” says Taylor.
Now she primarily works with young girls in the Bay Area, through her program Brown Girls Climbing. She also has programs for homeschooled children and children on the Autism spectrum, and runs the Black Climbers Collective. She also offers remote coaching for kids around the country.
Taking Black girls into a climbing gym, and into the competitive climbing realm is not a safe space, says Taylor. During a trip last year to a Bay Area crag with Brown Girls Climbing, two of her girls were called the N word. Taylor says this is just one way that BIPOC climbers are not encouraged to be a part of the community.
“You have to deeply love this sport to risk your life, limb, and body. To come to the climbing gym with all white people. To risk your Black body in white space. You have to love climbing that much to push through generational trauma on that rope,” says Taylor. “Have you ever thought about how it looks for Black people coming into a room full of white people holding ropes?”
Taylor keeps working toward the goal of having a society and a community that is able to have conversations around race within climbing and has the nomenclature to talk about it. She focuses on the kids, and on “coaching the next generation of leaders, on how to have Black joy and Black power, wherever their work may be.”
Juliet Hammer: Empowerment through strength
For Juliet Hammer, being able to be herself while starting her remote climbing coaching business was a big deal. After training and working as a personal trainer for a year and a half at a non-climbing gym, she quit to start her own business as a climbing coach.
“As a personal trainer, I really only trained wealthy white people. Now, I am able to work with people not just in the local area, but with climbers all over the country. A lot more women of color are coming to work with me also,” says Hammer, who believes that her honesty and personality on social media has attracted the types of people she wants to work with.
Hammer specializes in strength training for climbers, which is something that many climbers may not even consider when designing a workout. Hangboarding, sure. But squats? Isn’t climbing mostly about your arms? Hammer sees the field of climbing training as immature compared to other sports. She believes that having a general strength and conditioning base will benefit any athlete—and that doesn’t change just for rock climbing. Her programs entail a lot of lifting with low reps and high intensity to build strength.
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When Hammer launched her coaching business, she also created a scholarship fund—the high cost of coaching can be prohibitive for many. She puts 15% of every sale toward the fund and some people have donated directly. Through this, she was able to provide free coaching to two clients. When choosing scholarship recipients, Hammer looked for people who would use the opportunity to give back to their local climbing areas.
Her first scholarship recipient was a Bangladeshi British man who lives in the UK. He observed that climbing gyms are often built in lower income areas, to benefit from the low rent, and yet, they are not really serving the nearby communities. He hopes to use the knowledge from training with Hammer to teach lower income kids how to climb. “That is the epitome of what I feel like I can do as a coach,” says Hammer, “to give knowledge to other people so that they can affect change where they are.”
But unlike traditional fitness coaches, instead of creating a dependency on her coaching, Hammer hopes that she can empower people with the knowledge to continue training, with or without her. She also plans on continuing to make her services accessible for a variety of income levels.
Meg McDonald: One of the first
Fourteen-year-old Meg McDonald, who had just learned to belay, was climbing in the gym and noticed a woman who was not belaying safely—her brake hand was all over the place. Meg talked to the belayer and gave her some tips. The woman mentioned the experience to the manager of the climbing gym, who offered Meg a job. She has worked at a gym ever since.
McDonald started her first climbing team after college in 2006, at The Rock Club in New Rochelle, New York, which was a new gym at the time. She put out a call for anyone who wanted to join, getting applications (that she still has) from kids whose climbing resumes read, “The hardest thing I climb is V0+, and I just did my first 5.7 this year.” Now, after coaching the same team to multiple national podiums, the same age kids have climbed 5.13 or V8.
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McDonald became involved with USA climbing around the same time she started her team. “In the beginning I was one of just a couple female coaches at the time,” she says, “it was really difficult to break into what kind of felt like a boys club.” She felt like she needed to prove herself, and represent all women within the industry, to make it into an industry that women wanted to be a part of as athletes and as coaches.
Luckily, it has gotten there, at least for women. McDonald says now that the numbers within USA Climbing are similar for both male and female coaches, because many young female athletes decided to continue on to become coaches. But that isn’t the case for other types of diversity within the community. “If you are just looking at competitive climbers in the US, you are pretty much only going to see white faces,” says McDonald, “there is the opportunity for USA Climbing to do a lot of work to start shifting those priorities to get more young people involved with the sport who look different, and who come from different backgrounds.”
As a part of the USA Climbing Coaching committee and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee, as well as someone who has experienced homophobia as a LGBTQ+ climber, McDonald sees her position as a coach as a “responsibility and opportunity to create what we want to see in USA climbing, in climbing generally, and in our society.”
Chelsea Murn: Women train differently than men
When Chelsea Murn was a routesetter, she was told that she was the “weakest link” on the setting team. She worked hard to prove to herself, and to those around her that she could be strong enough to keep up with the boys. Unfortunately, it’s a story that many can relate to. So Murn started Lady Beta, because she realized that what men need is not always what women need, especially when it comes to training.
Women and men’s bodies are just not the same—especially when you take into account hormones, which Murn does in her training plans. She takes a holistic approach, creating plans that include bodyweight strength training, hangboarding, climbing, nutrition, and hormone fluctuations.
She also focuses on mindset work and approaches her coaching clients with a “fierce love” mentality. “We don’t just talk about climbing, if it is affecting you then it will affect your climbing,” she says of her coaching style. Murn sees how much mindset affects herself and her clients. If you go into a session with a good mindset, she says, it will totally change the outcome of the workout.
Murn appreciates the freedom of owning her own business instead of working under a gym, because it allows her autonomy. She is able to spread the message that she wants to spread, and raise money for causes that she believes in, like Black Lives Matter. She feels that she has the ability to be more impactful than she would be if she were working for someone else.
“I want women to recognize how incredibly powerful they are,” says Murn about what she wants her message to be as a coach. She sees all of her work as trying to tear down the expectations that have been built up for many women from a young age: take up less space, eat less, but work more, do more, and be more, but also be less. Climbing, for many, is a way to turn off that messaging, and fully step into their own power.