The Climbing Q&A: Brooke Raboutou

How this unassuming college student—and pedigreed super-climber—became the first American climber to qualify for the Olympics
Author:
Publish date:
20200221-Brooke Portrait (1 of 1)-Edit-2

Brooke Raboutou grabs a 23mm edge—just 9/10 of an inch—with her left hand and pulls her chin above the wooden hangboard at the Mesa Rim Climbing Center in San Diego, California. Raboutou locks off with one arm, and then lowers slowly back down. It’s early December 2019, the tail-end of the fall semester of her sophomore year as a marketing major at the University of San Diego where she has maintained a 3.8 GPA. As she rests between pull-ups, Raboutou quizzes herself on economics with flash cards. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon—for which she became the first-ever American competitor to qualify in the inaugural climbing competition—Raboutou can’t afford any downtime.

Of course, in the months that followed, the world was thrown into coronavirus havoc. Climbing gyms, including Mesa Rim, would close. The Olympics would be postponed until summer 2021. (For more on the Games, visit climbing.com/competition.) And Raboutou, age 19, and her fellow Olympians would be forced to wait another year for their shot at a medal (all climbers who qualified will maintain their berth in 2021). But all this upheaval would not change three key truths: Brooke Raboutou is the first American climber to become an Olympian. She is perpetually busy and trains with persistence, whether in San Diego, at the USA Climbing Training Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, or quarantined at home in Boulder, Colorado. And she’s still aiming for Olympic hardware.

Born in April 2001 to professional climbers Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and Didier Raboutou, Brooke started climbing at two years old, scrambling up angled structures that her father built. Brooke’s brother, Shawn, three years her senior, was climbing too, well on his way to becoming one of Brooke’s biggest influences. The Raboutous spent every summer climbing in Southern France, near Didier’s hometown of Toulouse. In the fall and spring, the family would return to their home in Boulder.

Brooke Raboutou at the USAC 2019 Combined Invitational in Salt Lake City where she placed second.

Brooke Raboutou at the USAC 2019 Combined Invitational in Salt Lake City where she placed second.

At age 11, Brooke became one of the initial members of ABC Kids Climbing, a youth climbing program that began in the Aughts in an upstairs room at the Boulder Rock Club and now has its own 7,200-square-foot training center nearby in town. Robyn, who won multiple World Cup competitions in Europe throughout the 1990s and an overall World Cup championship for the 1995 lead season, coached the team. Meanwhile, Didier, a former French national competition climber and among the initial 1980s wave of French sport climbers to redpoint 5.14, retired from competing and became the chief designer of ABC Kids’ spatial training offerings—think obstacle courses, but for young climbers. Brooke climbed with an elite group, including Margo Hayes, Megan Mascarenas, Emily Harrington, Katie Brown, and Shawn. (An impressive climber himself, Shawn, now 22, made the first ascent of Off the Wagon Sit [V16] in Val Bavona, Switzerland, in 2018 and repeated Rocky Mountain National Park’s Creature from the Black Lagoon [V16] in 2018 and Rocklands, South Africa’s Finnish Line [V15] in 2019.)

As a child, Brooke climbed nearly every day. “What stood out the most with both Shawn and Brooke was their passion for the sport and their desire to try hard and take competitions seriously even at the early age of six,” Robyn recalls of her children’s focus at gym competitions around Colorado. The payoffs came quickly: Brooke became the youngest person to climb 5.14b when she sent Welcome to Tijuana in Rodellar, Spain, at 11 years old. Around the same time, she also sent Dead Serious (V10) in Hueco Tanks, Texas. Other accomplishments included Southern Smoke (5.14c) in the Red River Gorge and Fragile Steps (V13) in Rocklands.

Raboutou at age 4 on a climbing excursion to Saint-Antonin Noble-Val, France, just five minutes from the family home in her father, Didier’s, native country.

Raboutou at age 4 on a climbing excursion to Saint-Antonin Noble-Val, France, just five minutes from the family home in her father, Didier’s, native country.

Even though she climbs hard outside, Brooke has always loved competing. “Because [competing] was fun, it became a passion,” she says. In 2015, she earned silver in the Youth B age category for a Combined discipline (bouldering, lead, and speed) at the IFSC’s World Youth Championships. At the following year’s Youth Worlds, she won gold. This was the same year—2016—that climbing was confirmed as an Olympic sport. In the Combined discipline at the Youth Pan- American Championships the next year, she placed first. “I always wanted the combined title,” Raboutou says, crediting her early experience in all three disciplines with landing her the Olympic berth.

Brooke’s—and the rest of her family’s—accolades became prologue this past summer at the Combined portion of the IFSC’s World Championships in Hachiōji, Japan, where she qualified for Tokyo. There, Brooke placed sixth in speed climbing (clocking 9.129 seconds, only 2.134 seconds off the world record) in her second run against Poland’s speed specialist, Aleksandra Miroslaw; tenth in bouldering; and seventh in lead climbing for a total score that placed her in ninth overall. An abundance of Team Japan competitors in the top eight spots surpassed that country’s Olympic quota, which meant that while Brooke did not make the finals, she did punch her Olympic ticket. Other Americans would follow suit­­—Kyra Condie and Nathaniel Coleman qualified for the Games in Toulouse, France, in November 2019, and Colin Duffy qualified at the Pan-American Championships in Los Angeles in March 2020.

In late December 2019, Brooke modeled for her sponsor Adidas Terrex, as well as Sports Illustrated and Southwest magazines, and then did voice-over work for a Petzl video series on her Olympic qualification (the L’héritage and L’ascension videos from Louder Than 11). In between, she also took final exams—including that economics juggernaut—visited Boulder to spend time with her family, and trained at the USA Climbing headquarters in Salt Lake City. “I go to class, then I climb, then usually I have class again, then I come back and do homework and hang out with my roommates, then go to bed … and repeat,” says Brooke. While she values education, she has also decided to take the spring 2020 semester off to train—and continues to do so even with the Games delayed. She plans to return to school this fall, and then take the spring 2021 semester off to train as well.

Competing in the lead event at the 2019 IFSC Climbing World Championships in Hachiōji, Japan, where she secured her slot as the first American climber ever to qualify for the Olympics.

Competing in the lead event at the 2019 IFSC Climbing World Championships in Hachiōji, Japan, where she secured her slot as the first American climber ever to qualify for the Olympics.

The Olympic postponement has brought unique opportunities: a popular takeover of USA Climbing’s Instagram page and a chance to show fans how she trains at home. Two of Brooke’s cheeky videos in March 2020—Tour de my house and Tour de my kitchen—helped spawn a social media craze of quarantined climbers sharing their own furniture-climbing footage. “I wanted to think of ways that I could cheer up my followers without using my home wall, since a lot of people don’t have a home wall,” Brooke says. “I was just thinking of ways that other people can stay active and in touch with climbing around their house without a home wall; the child in me came out.”

Eventually, all the quarantining and training will be preamble to the Olympics themselves, and Brooke will be ready to compete—just like she always has been.     

Interview

You’ve competed in American comps, as well as Youth Pan-Ams and World Cups. When did qualifying for the Olympics become a focal point?

Brooke Raboutou: The Olympics were always in the back of my mind, but there is so much I love about climbing and life, in general, that I wasn’t going to put every single thing into it. And so the closer [Olympics inclusion] got, and the more realistic it got—it made me more attached to it. That’s also one reason why the qualification went so well for me—because I was able to enjoy it. For a lot of people, the Olympics was the only thing they saw. So at that point they weren’t competing for fun; they were competing because they had to. Making it a little more casual helped me in the sense that, when that dream became a reality, it was more like an amazing experience. 

The Olympic qualification has brought you recognition, but you’ve been in the public eye for a long time. What was it like being famous at such a young age—for your hard ascents, competition results, etc.?

I don’t know if I’d say “famous,” but definitely well-known in the climbing community. It was interesting. I don’t like that much attention in general, media-wise. A lot of opportunities came with that, media things, and a lot of things I didn’t really want to do. So some things I said “No” to. I was actually asked to be on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. And I said “No,” which is funny thinking back now. That was obviously a big thing, but at a young age, I just wasn’t ready. But I’ve grown to enjoy [fame] more and be more comfortable with it, and I’ve been able to use it more as a platform to express what I believe. 

Brooke and Shawn Raboutou at the Tension Climbing Center in Denver, February 2020. Here, Shawn is coaching limit power on the spray wall, making up difficult single moves for Brooke to try.

Brooke and Shawn Raboutou at the Tension Climbing Center in Denver, February 2020. Here, Shawn is coaching limit power on the spray wall, making up difficult single moves for Brooke to try.

What was it like being in a climbing family? When did you first realize and appreciate that your parents were the best of the best?

I didn’t really realize that it was out of the norm until I was older. People would say, “Oh, your parents are amazing world-class rock climbers—isn’t that cool?” I would say, “Yeah, I know. That’s cool.” But getting older, I realized—wow—that’s actually crazy! No wonder I am where I am today. I would not be the climber I am without my parents and the opportunities they gave me.

Did you ever have periods as a child where you burned out?

There were ups and downs between seasons. But never really a big one. I’ve always just enjoyed the sport. I think you hear a lot with kid prodigies that they grow up to realize that they really don’t enjoy what they’re doing—because their parents pushed them. But I love climbing and I always have, so I guess—no, I haven’t really felt that.

What was that sibling relationship like with you and Shawn?

Growing up we bickered, like regular siblings. But he has always been one of my greatest supporters. He would show me the climbs that he thought I would enjoy and do well on, and he would show me how to do them, which was awesome. I’ve never felt competitive with him. He’s always been stronger than me [laughs], so he kind of teaches me.

Does being in a climbing family, surrounded by climbing and being coached by your mother, ever become difficult?

Yeah, it can be. Sometimes I have to be like, “OK, Mom, this is Mom-time. Let’s just enjoy it and not talk about what I have to do in climbing.” But we learned quite quickly. Sometimes it was hard growing up—especially in the teenage years—because I’d be like, “I don’t really want to listen to you, Mom.” But looking back on it, I’m really grateful for everything she’s done for me. We’re still working on that perfect balance. Going to college helped too. Being away—where I’d come home to friends and roommates and it wasn’t all about climbing. I’ve enjoyed that. 

What went through your head when you heard that the Olympics were postponed?

Obviously it was released on a certain day that they had been postponed, but it wasn’t a big surprise because of everything leading up to it—I couldn’t have imagined them going forward with the original dates. So, honestly I was pretty relieved, although I was disappointed. They made the right decision, and it was good for the health of the athletes and everyone could then focus on themselves, their families, and their communities. So, in a way, I definitely knew beforehand, even though I wasn’t really told beforehand. To me it was just kind of clear that it wasn’t going to go forward, so it wasn’t as much of a shock. But it does kind of change all of my future plans. It’s a big adjustment.

I think it had to be a long postponement because even if things returned to some degree of normalcy fairly quickly, all the Olympians—yourself included—would have still lost a lot of training time, in terms of optimum performance, right?

Yeah, and I think everyone’s situation is different, which is also something that’s hard. I’m pretty lucky—in my home I have the climbing wall that my dad built, as well as hangboards. I can go for a run and do things like that, whereas other people, the restrictions in their town or their state are a lot harsher; they might live in an apartment where there is no access to any sort of climbing, even if it’s on tabletops or whatever. 

Was there ever frustration with the postponement since you’d been working toward this goal for so long?

Yes, but luckily the Olympics are not taken away, they’re just pushed back. And that’s really the biggest thing. I’m just very thankful that they’re not cancelled. Obviously it’s my dream to compete there, and hopefully everything gets better and I will get to do that. It’s just a year later, which just gives me more time to train, which I’m excited about. The only thing that does frustrate me is that it changes my plans with school because I love school and I miss school. It sets me a full year behind now, which is kind of unfortunate, but kind of expected as a professional athlete.

Can expound on how the postponement has caused you to recalibrate your goals?

It gives me more time, and especially as a young athlete, I think that will be good for me to have more experience and really just more time to train—maybe not even to get stronger, but to get a little smarter in my training. I think that’s exciting. 

What do you mean by “get a little smarter” in your training?

I think since this is the first year that climbing is in the Olympics, everybody has their training plans and what they want to do, but it’s not—the Combined format is pretty new for climbers, so I think there is a lot we can still learn about training and how to peak in all three disciplines at a certain time. We have more time to figure that out—and see what works…even if it’s just nutrition-wise; I’ve been playing with different protein-replacements and stuff like that to just know my body a little better and what works for it in training and performance. So more time is good for that, to get to know what works best for me.

In terms of training and performance going forward, who will be your coach…or will you be mostly self-coached?

Mostly self-coached, with a lot of help. [USA Climbing’s head coach] Josh Larson is a really great resource, and I’m always in contact with him—what I’ve been working on, goals, stuff like that. And I like to go to Salt Lake City to train with him and the other teammates. But since I don’t live there, I wouldn’t say he makes my training plans for my daily climbing.

And my mom is just very knowledgeable. She’s my mom and my coach, so that’s helpful. But at this point, I would say most of it is just self-coached, although my brother has been helping a lot recently with just gaining power. So it’s really a team thing. 

With the postponement and lockdown, how do you stay positive?

I think it can definitely be hard to stay motivated when goals are so far away. But I think it’s making little milestones that keeps me motivated along the way, whether it’s thinking of outdoor projects that I’ll hopefully be able to do later this summer if things clear up, and just changing up my training at home so it’s not all the same. I FaceTime friends and workout, that’s always fun. I try free online yoga classes. It’s nice having my parents here because my mom and I train a lot together too.

I think ways to change things up are always good because when you’re stuck at home, you can get into a routine that brings your morale down. Changing it up, reaching out to friends, staying positive—even if that means just not staying in your PJs all day and getting dressed as if you’re going to the gym. Little things like that help me.

Brooke working one-arm lock-offs on a hangboard at the Tension Climbing Center during the same power-training session.

Brooke working one-arm lock-offs on a hangboard at the Tension Climbing Center during the same power-training session.

You’ve said elsewhere that one of your goals in participating in the Olympics is to help spread climbing to the world. How would you like to see the sport grow?

The scary thing is that a lot of sports grow and sometimes become more corporate. I’m hoping climbing will grow but continue to hold its camaraderie. I just hope people can enjoy it the way I do—in a very natural way, including outdoors and in competitions. The best part of climbing is that feeling when you walk into a local climbing gym where everybody knows each other. It’s very natural. I love that about climbing, and I hope more people can enjoy it like that.

Brooke's Indoor Boot Camp

If the quarantine has taught us anything, it’s that we should always have a good at-home training routine ready. We can’t all be Olympians, but here is an at-home exercise routine from Brooke to help keep in shape during the quarantine and beyond. 

  1. Warm up: Stretching, lunges, jumping jacks, and various exercises—arm curls, leg extensions, and standing squats—with a resistance band for at least 30 minutes.
  2. One-arm dead hangs: Brooke uses the 20mm edge of a Tension hangboard for all one-arm exercises, though any hangboard or doorway edge will suffice. After she warms up with shoulder shrugs and a few standard pull-ups, Brooke’s first goal is to do five reps on each arm, hanging for 5–7 seconds each time with 2–3 minutes rest between reps. “Listen to your body,” Brooke advises, and adjust the duration and the width of the edge accordingly—or take weight off with a pulley system.
  3. Endurance hangs: On the same hangboard, Brooke switches to a 15mm edge, choosing the thinnest edge possible without provoking a finger injury or compromising form. Hang from both hands shoulder-width apart, staying on for 10 seconds, with 5 seconds of rest in between; do that five or six times and then rest a couple minutes. Repeat the sequence, aiming for four sets.
  4. One-arm trainers: Using a bar or a hangboard, Brooke aims to do five one-arm pull-ups with each arm. Didier devised a counterweight system for Brooke, in which a rope, pulley, and barbell provide mechanical aid; you can also hang an elastic band from the hangboard or bar, pulling on it as needed with your free hand.
  5. One-arm negatives: Brooke uses the same setup as the one-arm trainers, but starts each sequence from a locked-off position; she then slowly lowers herself until her arm is almost straight. The goal is five reps on each arm. (Use the counterweight pulley or elastic band as needed.) Brooke admits she’s not scrupulous about adding the same weight every time: “I don’t really like being stuck in a plan, so that’s why everything is kind of ish,” she explains.
  6. Afterburn: After the hangs, Brooke eats a post-workout snack (favorite: a slice of bread topped with avocado, smoked salmon, and a fried egg) and then does circuits on her home woody. If you don’t have a home wall, conclude the routine with a jog, yoga, or even planks. Stay hydrated and stay stoked—and remember that quarantines don’t last forever.

John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing.