For the first time in 16 years, three-time Canadian National Champion Allison Vest—now 26 and based in Salt Lake City, Utah—is bowing out of competition.
Taking the foot off the gas isn’t easy for any professional athlete, let alone Vest who says she’s always been an all-or-nothing kind of person. As rewarding as competition climbing can be, it also takes a huge emotional toll. Stepping back, Vest says, was a matter of sticking to her MO: staying true to herself at any cost.
To understand Vest’s relationship with climbing, you have to start at the beginning. Picture a young Allison, three or four years old, small and spunky and stubborn. In preschool, she’d spend so long on the monkey bars that she’d come home with her hands bleeding. Then, she’d return to school with taped fingers and do it all over again.
At age 10, Vest started competing. By the time she was a teenager, she’d made the Canadian National Team. During that time, her love for climbing never waned. Other things just started getting in the way.
“I’ve been known to have negative thoughts and spiral,” she says. “Like if there was a boulder in training that I couldn’t do, I would start to think, ‘If that boulder comes up in a comp, I’m screwed. They’re going to beat me for sure,’ and pretty soon I was letting that one moment predict the future and making one comparison reflect my whole identity as an athlete.”
For years, Vest pushed through her self-doubt, taking home gold in the Canadian Bouldering Nationals in 2018 and 2020 and in Lead Nationals in 2019. She made a name for herself not just for performing well but for hamming it up on the competition stage—stoking the crowd, wearing crazy outfits, and, in general, keeping it real. Simultaneously, her Instagram account exploded to over 50,000 followers, largely thanks to her ongoing series of training bloopers and fail videos.
“I was just doing these fail videos for my friends, but I guess other people thought they were funny, too,” she laughs. “It’s been important to me to stay authentic on the Internet—I don’t have an outward persona as an athlete. My brand is who I am.”
Similarly, Vest hasn’t been afraid to stick to her convictions when it comes to health and training. She’s been outspoken about refusing to diet or try to reduce her weight to fit an “ideal” climbing body image. Instead, she focuses on balanced nutrition, eating enough, and keeping her alcohol intake to a minimum.
“Because alcohol affects my performance and my recovery, it’s never been a big part of my life,” she says. But, as always, she’s found ways to balance that discipline with cutting loose and having fun.
“When Alex Johnson and I climb outside, we’ll come home after a day of bouldering and celebrate with a beer from Athletic Brewing,” she says. “The Upside Dawn Golden Ale is my favorite. And because it’s non-alcoholic, we can celebrate and then wake up at 8 a.m. and do it all again!”
Still, despite fueling her body well and training relentlessly over the past few years, Vest felt like she was idling on the competition stage. She was getting stronger with each passing season, but her results weren’t improving. Her body could do the moves, but her mind was holding her back.
“Competing wears you down mentally,” Vest says. “You’re always nitpicking your mistakes and fixating on your weaknesses. And obviously when you’re directly competing against other people, you’re comparing yourself almost constantly.”
By the time she announced her sabbatical from the competition scene on Instagram last November, she says it was a long time in coming.
“I need a year to remember why I do what I do,” she wrote.
Vest does plan to return to the competition circuit, but intends to use this time to follow her many other passions. Currently, she’s most excited about outdoor climbing (she ticked her first 5.14a, Thrown the Houlihan in Wild Iris, just last year). She also plans to work on her mindset. That means continuing to take care of her physical health—eating right, sticking to non-alcoholic beverages like Athletic Brewing, and prioritizing recovery—as well as working on mindfulness techniques.
“I try to acknowledge a negative thought and where it’s coming from, and then let it go,” she says. “I can’t necessarily try not to have negative thoughts, but I can try to stop and disconnect from them instead of dwelling on them and giving them meaning.”
Vest has also been leaning into other longtime hobbies like writing and painting. Showing that athletes, particularly women, can be multifaceted has always been important to her.
“Growing up, I felt like I had to choose if I was going to identify as an athlete or an artist or an academic,” she explains. “But I think a lot of people have many pieces to their personalities, and there are ways in the world where left-brained and right-brained passions can come together.”
Plus, aside from being great rest-day activities, she says her artistic pursuits help her stay true to herself and keep her grounded.
“It sort of reminds me that there are other things in the world,” she says. “At the end of the day, climbing is just about finding the hardest way to get up a piece of rock, and it’s not that big of a deal. There will always be another comp, another chance. You just have to keep moving forward.”
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