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She Beat Janja Garnbret And Got “Random Hate.” Natalia Grossman, The Interview.

In 2019, Climbing dubbed her “America’s New Comp Superstar.” Since then, Grossman has certainly lived up to that moniker.

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In 2019, Climbing dubbed Natalia Grossman “America’s New Comp Superstar.” Since then, she has certainly lived up to that moniker by securing multiple Boulder World Cup gold medals, winning a world climbing championship, and gaining legions of fans around the world. (Her most recent victories came at a pair Salt Lake City World Cups at the end of last month.) In stacking up all the wins, Grossman has become American climbing royalty, statistically among the most decorated American competitors of the modern era. We wanted to hear about all of it directly from her, so we caught up with her as she was leaving for Europe—with the next World Cup set to take place in Brixen, Italy, on June 10-12.

John Burgman: Let’s talk about last season. I think for a lot of fans who didn’t know about your journey, your rise last year seemed very sudden—you made the podium at the first World Cup of the season [in Meiringen], then you earned double golds [in Salt Lake City], and by the end of last season you were a world champion. Did it feel sudden to you?

Natalia Grossman: It was kind of cool going into Meiringen [in 2021] because nobody knew who I was [laughs]. So, there was just no pressure. Then, after every competition, there was more and more pressure. And the past two weeks [in Salt Lake City] were the craziest thing ever. But, for me it didn’t feel super sudden because during COVID, Brooke [Raboutou] and I were climbing together and we were much stronger than we had been. It wasn’t like it just happened over night, there was that one-and-a-half or two years where the world didn’t see us, but we knew what we were doing and what we could maybe be capable of. So, yeah, it didn’t feel as sudden, but when it actually happened and I ended up on a podium at Meiringen, I thought it couldn’t get any better.

Natalia Grossman (right) after taking the Gold in boulder at the 2021 World Cup in Salt Lake City, Utah. Janja Garnbret (left), placed second. This was Grossman’s second gold: she finished in first the week before, also in Salt Lake City, and also in Boulder. (Photo: Daniel Gajda/IFSC)

John Burgman: Was it difficult to adjust to the success?

Natalia Grossman: No. It had always been my dream to be in World Cup finals and travel the world with my team, so when it was happening, I was just so grateful that it was happening—I’m so happy.

John Burgman: I think to many people your big star-making moment last year came when you won gold at the second Salk Lake City World Cup by beating [Slovenia’s] Janja Garnbret. Did beating Garnbret add an extra element to that victory in your own mind?

Natalia Grossman: I think it definitely played into it, but maybe not in a positive way. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you only won because the climbs were too easy.’ Just—a lot of people were saying random things, which really got to my head. So, it just didn’t feel super deserved. And I think, for some reason, people thought that I thought I was better than [Garnbret] after that. But I literally never said anything like that—I knew she was still stronger, but I received random hate. I didn’t do anything wrong, so why were people saying mean things?

Garnbret, often noted as the Greatest Of All Time, is beatable, as proven by Grossman. (Photo: Vladek Zumr)

John Burgman: People actually messaged you mean things just because you won?

Natalia Grossman: I remember reading things—which is my fault, I shouldn’t read things or listen to things about myself, I’ve learned. But some people were like, ‘I can’t wait to watch Brooke and Natalia get destroyed in Innsbruck when they’re not slab climbing.’ People were coming up with all these excuses: That we’re just good at slabs, that the walls were all vert last year and the climbs were really easy. Just really random things like that, which at the time—since I was so new to this—really got to my head, versus now, I just think it’s funny that people would think all that.

John Burgman: Is that part of the process of you becoming more well-known—learning how to filter out that type of stupid or hateful noise?

Natalia Grossman: Yeah.

John Burgman: Speaking of beating Janja Garnbret at that Salt Lake City World Cup last year: Ever since then, and because of all of your additional success, the two of you are mentioned together a lot. So, what is your relationship like with Janja Garnbret on the circuit? I mean, is there a rivalry?

Natalia Grossman: I hope not! I think it’s the same as with any competitor. I honestly haven’t done that many competitions with her. We did Salt Lake and Innsbruck [in 2021], and Meiringen this year.

Grossman at the World Championships in Moscow, in 2021. She took second in Lead and first in Boulder. (Photo: Jan Virt/IFSC)

John Burgman: You and I did an interview back in 2019—when you were about to sweep that year’s National Cup series. What has been the biggest change for you since then?

Natalia Grossman: There’s a lot of changes. A lot of life changes—I moved out to Utah, and I’m doing school online. [USA Climbing’s] Training Center opened up. I started doing all the World Cups. Those are the biggest.

John Burgman: Also, the last time we talked, you were still with Team ABC—first as part of the youth program, then you’d done some coaching, and you were thinking about rejoining the team. But speaking of USA Climbing’s Training Center, how is training under [US national coach] Josh Larson similar or different than training under [Team ABC coach] Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou?

Natalia Grossman: It’s very different. I’ve been out here in Utah since the end of August 2020, but I didn’t start working with Josh until January this year. He was at the Training Center and he was setting, but I didn’t start doing private lessons or one-on-one sessions until January. And so, when I think of Robyn versus Josh, when I was being coached by Robyn, it was a lot more team-based. It was always as a team, versus with Josh I do a lot more one-on-one and it’s more targeted towards my weaknesses instead of the group’s. When you’re on a youth team, it’s hard to coach 30 kids all at once when you only have three hours—and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses but you’re all doing the same program. Now that I’m older, I’m able to just work on what I specifically need to work on.

Janja Garnbret, The Greatest Competitive Climber of All Time

John Burgman: Can you give an example of an average training day with Josh Larson at the Training Center?

Natalia Grossman: It kind of varies. But if I’m doing a solo session with him—which I try to do once or twice a week—it’s mainly on the spray wall, and he’s just making up climbs for me with stuff I need to work on. He does most of the setting at our Training Center, so he’s able to set certain kinds of jumps or certain kinds of moves that I want to improve on. And when it’s a group session—honestly, this past year, not a lot of people were at the Training Center; it was mainly myself, Sean [Bailey], Miho [Nonaka], Nathaniel [Coleman], and sometimes a few other people if we did rounds. But, the majority of my training this year was with that small crew. So, Josh was always making up climbs for us and I feel like I was able to learn a lot from the other really strong climbers who were there. We were all really psyched and we all kind of had the same goals, which was cool because I think we pushed each other.

John Burgman: In a situation like that, when you’re around other members of the U.S. national team, what do you feel your personal role is?

Natalia Grossman: We’re all just friends; I don’t feel like I really have a ‘role.’ I’m just someone who can bring positivity and psyche to a session

John Burgman: By the end of last season, you had gold medals and a world championship. What were you happiest about—or, conversely, did you come away thinking there was something in particular that you needed to work on?

Natalia Grossman: I don’t think there was a certain moment that I was the happiest about when I was reflecting, but there were definitely some competitions where I learned a lot about myself. I remember Villars. It was my first Lead final, and I could not stop smiling; I was having the time of my life on that finals route. I think that’s a moment that definitely sticks out to me. And also making a finals for the first time with Brooke—that was a really special moment. And the whole World Championship experience definitely sticks out when I think back to last year.

John Burgman: Also at the end of last season, you signed with [management agency] RXR Sports. When I look at some of the other people on the RXR Sports roster, so to speak, many of them have other ancillary media projects—for example, Alex Honnold has been in documentaries, and Chris Sharma has filmed a climbing series for HBO Max. Do ancillary projects like that interest you too?

Natalia Grossman: I think for now I’m pretty content just doing the World Cup circuit, since it’s so new to me. Once the World Cup season starts, you’re kind of going somewhere every week or every other week, so it’d be hard to also do something like that—and especially with school as well. But maybe in the future it would be cool to do something larger like that.

John Burgman: So, this World Cup season [2022] kicked off at Meiringen. What are your reflections of that whole event, now that you have a little distance from it?

Natalia Grossman: It was my favorite setting. I thought the climbs were really well-set and were very hard and had good separation. So, it was awesome—especially in semis and finals—getting to climb on really hard boulders. And I think that’s something that I noticed last year: When Janja is there, the setting tends to be harder. I think it should be hard either way because I think it’s better to have very few tops than a lot of tops. Who cares if the winner only topped two climbs, if there’s good separation? We want to see what people can do.

But I remember leading into Meiringen, I thought I was the most stressed I’ve ever been—but now that I’ve had these past two comps [in Salt Lake City], I see it was nothing like this. I think leading into it, I felt I had just spent the past four months training, and it felt like I was training for Meiringen because it was the first World Cup of the season. But in reality I wasn’t training for Meiringen, I was training for the whole season. And I think a lot of people were excited to see ‘Was last year a fluke? Is Natalia still going to do well?’ So, I felt pressure in that sense. And, ‘How’s she going to compare to Janja?’ I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself and wanted to do my best.

I remember in qualifiers, that was also the first competition I had done since World Championships. So, qualifiers I definitely felt a little rusty, just mentally being back in that field after taking such a long time off. And then in semis, I remember I did the first climb and thought, ‘OK, I’m back—this feels so good; I love competing.’ And finals was just awesome. I remember I didn’t do the first climb, which I was a little bummed about, and I knew I couldn’t win anymore. But I just wanted to do my best, so I thought, ‘OK, I’m moving on; I’m going to do the next three [climbs].’ I was able to just remove myself from the situation, which was good. And when the comp ended, there wasn’t anything that I regretted—I was very happy with my climbing. I learned a few things that I wanted to work on, but overall I was very pleased.

At the Meiringen, Switzerland, finals in 2021 where she took bronze in Boulder.
(Photo: Vladek Zumr)

John Burgman: Where is the line for you, in terms of good pressure that you can channel into motivation and too much pressure?

Natalia Grossman: I think it’s good to have a little bit, especially from myself. When I was training last year, I didn’t really train for World Cups; I trained for our National Team Trials and ended up making the team and we went to Meiringen a week and a half later, versus this year where I spent four or five months specifically training for World Cups—so, because of that, I put more pressure on myself to do well because I had actually invested time in it. I think it’s good during training because it fuels me and makes me want to work harder to become the best I can be. But when it’s actually competition time, I just need to continue to learn to let that all go. I feel like I had done a pretty good job of that in the past, but I definitely struggled with it this most recent weekend [in Salt Lake City].

John Burgman: Yes, let’s talk about that self-pressure when it’s actually competition time. For example, I think this year’s World Cup in Seoul was one of your best performances because it entailed a mini-comeback in the finals. You weren’t able to immediately dial in the opening jump on the first boulder, so you were actually behind in the scores based on attempts and had to execute perfectly on the rest of the boulders. What’s your secret to staying calm in those moments?

Natalia Grossman: That jump, in particular, I did on the second try. So, just because I didn’t do it in one try, I wasn’t too fazed. And even on the third boulder, it was a jump and I fell going to the finish on my first try, and then I fell on the jump. And for a second I had a thought, ‘Oh no, what if I can’t do this jump again?’ But I just took a step back and took a deep breath and went for it again and it all worked out. So, for me, it’s taking that moment and just stepping back instead of rapid-firing. It’s fun to watch the replays because I have found that when I send or finally stick a move that I’ve been falling on, especially when it’s coordination, when I take a breather and go back, I end up doing it that next try. That even happened in Meiringen last year on the final climb, and in Salt Lake on a jump—and even this past weekend on our first climb, my foot kept slipping. I just had to take a moment. I also had to switch my shoes [laughs].

John Burgman: Is taking a step back in the moment something that has been taught to you, or have you just learned over time that it’s the most effective strategy?

Natalia Grossman: I don’t really know. I don’t think I was explicitly taught it. Maybe I read about it or something. I don’t remember a coach or anyone. I mean, coaches will say, ‘Don’t rapid-fire, keep breathing,’ and whatnot—but I think I just learned it through competing.

John Burgman: So you do watch your rounds after a competition. Do you sit down and closely analyze them?

Natalia Grossman: Oh, yeah. For the most part I watch and—I haven’t actually watched this most recent one [in Salt Lake City]. I haven’t even journaled about it. There’s just so much I feel like I need to break down, and I needed a few days to not think about comps. I think it was just very hard mentally, so I wanted to take a step back for a few days before I got back into it. But I think, yeah, normally I’ll watch the round. And it’s cool to see what other people tried. I’ve heard that I was the only one to go slow on the third boulder this past weekend. So, I’m interested to see how other people did it.

John Burgman: Can you talk a little more about all the pressure you felt recently at Salt Lake City? You’ve mentioned it a couple times in this conversation, and you recently posted about it on Instagram.

Natalia Grossman: I guess it goes back to [the World Cup] in Korea. Actually, in Meiringen—when Janja announced that she wasn’t doing the rest of the World Cup circuit, I was like, ‘Wow, that really just opened up the door for anyone.’ First, I was bummed that she wasn’t doing [the remainder of the Boulder World Cup circuit]. The whole time I was training, I wanted to get better so that I could compete against the best. And it’s awesome having her at the comps because you can see what’s possible. That’s why I like climbing with Sean Bailey. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘Oh, that move doesn’t go,’ and then he’ll just do it. It’s like, ‘That’s who I want to be—I want to be as good as he is.’ So, it’s cool to have someone so dominant, like Janja, that you’re always striving for. Obviously there are other very good athletes on the World Cup circuit. But when you think about the best female climber competing, it’s Janja. It’s cool having that person to motivate you. So, once she announced that she wasn’t going to be there, I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll take this opportunity to carry my momentum from last year and see what can happen.’

Sean Bailey in the Boulder final, Salt Lake City, in 2021, where he won gold. Grossman notes that Bailey, a training partner, shows her what’s possible. (Photo: Daniel Gajda/IFSC)

So, going into Korea, I knew it was anyone’s game since [Janja] wasn’t going to be there. And I didn’t feel much pressure—at least not from other people. But just from myself, I knew I had just gotten second to her [in Meiringen], so I knew it was possible to win if I kept my head together and performed well. And after doing well [in Korea], there were only two weeks before Salt Lake—not very long. And just because I did so well in Salt Lake last year, I felt the pressure to continue that. And I wanted to be able to continue that for myself as well. So, going into the first [weekend in Salt Lake City], it was actually really weird because we climbed in the afternoon. So, I went and watched the men climb in the morning and it didn’t feel like a comp at all. I wasn’t nervous. And then when I was climbing in the qualifiers, I wasn’t nervous. And I was like, ‘Why am I not nervous?’ I wanted to be a little nervous because it gives you that edge and makes you focus and try a little harder. And then in semis, I felt a little better. And in finals, it was, ‘Oh, we’re back.’ I was having so much fun.

I think I have started being extra hard on myself in between rounds. Even if I do the boulders, I’m not satisfied because, ‘Why did I take an extra attempt here?’ I’m learning to be kinder to myself and not get in the way of my own performance. And leading into the second [weekend in Salt Lake City], I kind of just blocked out everything from the first weekend and any expectations. I knew the pressure was on in the back of my mind—pressure and expectations—but I kind of pushed it all down. I think there was just so much pressure to deal with that I didn’t want to deal with, so I just pretended like it wasn’t there. And, in qualifiers, I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit and I was really happy about that round. And then in semis, I didn’t do the third climb—and of course I was really hard on myself after. I got really in my head about that because when I first saw the boulder, I thought it was a climb I’d love: Kind of powerful, my style. So, that got to me, kind of like, ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ I was just not focused on the last climb in semis.

Natalia Grossman Wins Bouldering World Championships

Leading into finals, I was super excited. I walked into iso and I was like, ‘Let’s go! Last comp here [in Salt Lake City].’ Then it started and I realized it was going to be a flash round. I slipped twice on the first one and fell once. So, I think I did that on the fourth try. And going into the second climb, I thought the only thing I could do was go out there and flash it, which I did—but so did everyone else. So, that boulder was just kind of a waste. And then going into the third climb, I was really over it. I think [Japan’s] Futaba [Ito] went out first, and I think she did it really quickly. And I was thinking, ‘When are we going to get separation,’ you know? And then [South Korea’s] Chaehyun [Seo] didn’t end up doing it, so I was thinking maybe there’d be some separation and all I can do is go out and give it my best go. I tried to do it dynamically the first two times—I don’t even know what was happening; my hands kept popping off. I’m sure I’ll learn a bit when I go back and watch that because I am curious about that. Then I went slow and I still wasn’t too psyched. Also, the temperature dropped, I think, in between the first two climbs and the second two climbs. I was super cold and wondering if I should wear my sweatpants to do the climb. But I thought, I cannot give up mid-round. I think at the end of that I knew I was on the podium, but I definitely thought I could not win because Brooke and Miho also love steep, powerful climbs and I thought there would be multiple tops on the fourth climb. Kind of the same thing—I thought I couldn’t win, but thought, ‘Let’s just go out there and do this.’

Because the round had been all over the place, I just wanted to go out there and end on a positive note and just have a good ending. So, I went out there [for the last boulder], and while I was climbing I was so psyched, like, ‘This is hard!’ There was a move to zone and a little black crimp. That move was fun, but going to the blue hold, I had to try really hard and I was like, ‘OK, sick, this climb could actually have some separation.’ And in the end it did, and after, I started sobbing because I started to feel all the pressure that I had surpassed. I was more relieved than anything that it was done and I had managed to keep my mind in it and not give up because there were so many times in the round when it seemed over—but it wasn’t.

John Burgman: So, a lot of the pressure comes from yourself?

Natalia Grossman: Yeah, I think I put really high expectations on myself because I know what I’m capable of and I want to be able to showcase that. Even when things go well, or placement-wise, I’m still not satisfied. So, that’s something that I need to work on, just being kinder to myself.

John Burgman: How do you keep a healthy mental baseline and not get too hard on yourself? What’s the strategy?

Natalia Grossman: I don’t really know because I think I am too hard on myself. So, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. But I have a sport psychologist now that I talk to every once in a while. I haven’t really read any books recently, but I still journal and write about my comps and reflect on my competitions. I think just having someone to talk to about what you’re going through—whether that’s Josh [Larson], or another coach, or a friend, or a sports psychologist, or anyone is good.

John Burgman: Can you share any goals that you have for yourself for the rest of the season?

Natalia Grossman: It’s kind of funny, I did an interview the other day and realized although I have high expectations, I don’t really set goals for myself. I had some goals for the season and it was stuff like, make a podium in bouldering and win a bouldering event. When I think results-wise, those were my goals. And I have other goals like staying present and enjoying the moment, having fun with teammates, things like that. But I think it would be cool to win the overall in bouldering and maybe end up on the podium for Lead. I haven’t thought about it too much, but those are my 10-second goals, right there. I’ve thought about bouldering; I haven’t thought too much about Lead performance. I just want to do my best, but I haven’t thought of a placement goal or outcome goal.

John Burgman: In closing, circling back to our previous interview in 2019, I asked whether you had any interest in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and you said: 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 have become burnt out because they have been training for so long…It’s hard training for pretty much a whole year. That’s very taxing. With the Paris 2024 Olympics now looming, has your thinking about the Olympics changed?

Natalia Grossman: That’s funny to hear me say that. Right when we talked, that summer, or September-ish, is when I had experienced what I think—I don’t know if it was burnout, but I definitely needed a break from climbing. So, the thought of having such a big goal like the Olympics, I was definitely not intrigued. But then, after watching the Olympics and hearing all about it from Brooke, I thought it actually sounded pretty cool. So, I think what I’ve learned is, yes, that’s a goal of mine, but it’s not something I need to think about right now because it’s not something I need to train for right now. I love rope climbing and I love bouldering and if I’m still doing both and loving climbing, then of course I’ll go for it—but it’s not something I need to set in stone right now.