Friday, March 27, 2015

10 Tips for Creating a Successful Collegiate Climbing Team

Around this time of year 3 years ago, I went through the most nerve-racking, exhilarating, intense, emotional roller coaster of a ride imaginable. Nope, not talking about a climbing competition. I’m talking about college decisions. Alright, it wasn’t actually all that bad. But at the time, waiting to hear back from the universities I’d applied to by anxiously checking my email every three minutes seemed like a pretty big deal to me.
Still waiting for this letter.
When selecting colleges I wanted to apply to, I focused on schools that could offer a good mixture of what I was interested in: strong academic programs, high student involvement, opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, a beautiful campus, and of course a solid climbing community. Now that I’m nearly finished with my third year at Northeastern University, I can definitely say that attending college in the heart of Boston was one of the best decisions of my life. I’ve found unique ways to incorporate these factors into my life here, all while pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, competing in as many competitions as possible, and sport climbing at Rumney in the fall.
Livin' Astro 5.14c, Rumney, NH. Photo: Ian MacLellan
However, one of my biggest goals prior to embarking on my college career was to try to start a new climbing team to train with and compete in the USA Climbing Collegiate Climbing Series (CCS). At the time, few climbers that had graduated out of the youth competition scene had gone to compete in CCS, and it surprised me that there was such a severe drop-off after entering college. However, I think if enough youth climbers realize the benefits of continuing to climb at the university level, the sport will grow exponentially with these climbers stepping into leadership roles at their respective schools.
“I personally felt really grateful to be able to continue competing once I got to college, and I would like to see more youth competitors enter into CCS and have that same experience.”
-Will Butcher
Of the three levels of team sports available in most US universities, (intramural, club, or NCAA) competitive climbing is right in the middle as a club sport since it’s more competitive than intramurals, but not yet officially recognized by the NCAA. Before I arrived at Northeastern, there was no club sports climbing team in place, but I knew there were a lot of strong climbers who might be interested in forming a team.

Based on my experiences creating a climbing club in high school, I knew there would be a lot of unforeseen obstacles and pitfalls that come with the beginnings of any organization, but that it would all be worth it in the end. One of the biggest challenges right off the bat was overcoming the fact that Northeastern did not have a climbing wall on campus. On top of that, it was necessary to consider recruiting, fundraising, transportation to and from practices, catering to a wide range of abilities, eating and sleeping schedules, club hierarchy, sustainability, and balancing schoolwork and training schedules.
Fremont High School Bouldering Club at the 2011 Planet Granite Bloc Party Championships
Juggling all of these questions, myself and a couple other motivated climbers put together a proposal to Northeastern Club Sports and founded the Northeastern Climbing Team in the spring of 2014. We hosted tryouts and worked out a training schedule for a 12-person team at Central Rock Watertown. After a couple months of intense training, we won the New England Regional Championships and traveled to Florida to compete at the National Championships.

The competition itself was a blast; we got to compete in all three disciplines in qualifiers, meet a bunch of other climbers going to college all over the country, hang out on the beach, and even see a SpaceX launch off Cape Canaveral. When all was said and done, Northeastern placed 2nd! It felt great to see our hard work pay off with success, but the biggest takeaway was that it was the first time I’d ever really felt I was part of a real team since we all lived in the same place, trained and studied together, and encouraged one another in every aspect of our lives.
Northeastern Climbing team on the beach in Melbourne, Florida
After seeing what a positive effect creating a team had on my teammates, our student body, and myself, I realized that the community I’d helped develop was of far greater value than my own personal career. That being said, the process of getting the team off the ground and functioning was extremely challenging to say the least, and if I didn’t have the support of other friends and team members I have no doubt the club would have failed.

The Northeastern Climbing Team is just one of dozens of college teams across the country. In order to understand how other clubs with different approaches in organization function successfully, I reached out to some of the other top climbers at Collegiate Nationals and asked them to share experiences on creating a team as well as any advice they had for the process in general. Here are the athletes and the top 10 tips they came up with:
Will Butcher
UT Austin '14
Team National Champions, 2014 CCS Nationals
National Champion in Sport Climbing, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Sapna Desai
Danny Aleksovski
UT Austin '14
Team National Champions, 2014 CCS Nationals
4th Place in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Cole Alcock
Julian Barker
West Point '16
Finalist in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals

Photo: Cole Alcock
Evan Goldfinger
Northeastern University '18
2nd Place Team, 2014 CCS Nationals
Finalist in Speed Climbing, 2014 CCS Nationals

Photo: Valery Notaro
Francesca Metcalf
Georgia Tech '15
National Champion in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals

Photo: Cole Alcock
Andy Lamb
Stanford University '16
National Champion in Bouldering, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Cole Alcock
Owen Graham
Colorado State University '14
3rd Place Team, 2014 CCS Nationals
2nd Place in Sport Climbing, 2014 CCS Nationals
Photo: Cole Alcock

1) Recruit early with freshmen, club fairs, & tryouts:

“Recruiting freshmen has been easiest, because when they arrive on campus they want to join an organization and get involved in something right away. Finding strong climbers is more difficult, but as the team starts to get more mature and more competitive, we have more interest from strong climbers and we can be more selective in admitting people to the team.”

“We found that hosting a tryout got people really psyched and motivated but it requires already having a decent amount of interest. Getting the word out at student organization fairs helped a lot for that.”

“People aren't necessarily drawn to a page on a bulletin board that says, "Come join the team, it's fun!" They’re much more drawn to actual events. Something like a sort of tryout for the team, or a competition hosted in the campus wall if there is a wall is great to start.”

Northeastern Climbing Team's booth at the 2014 Club Sports Fair
2) Work with your university to organize your club’s structure:

“I feel like starting the team went very smoothly for us. The biggest help was approaching club sports with an organized proposal and budget and explaining to them rock climbing as a whole, collegiate climbing, and the path of where competition climbing is going.”

“We try to maintain a good relationship with the university. We became a sponsored sport club three years ago and now get a small amount of funding, advice on running our club, and get to represent the university. The director of the outdoor center at UT has also been a really big supporter of the team and has been our club's faculty advisor since we started. He also sets up cool events like Reel Rock screenings and athlete visits to campus.”

“As we started to try to expand the club, the first thing we realized is that people don't want what you would expect. Not all climbers want to go outside, some don't want to compete or train, some hate bouldering, some just want to hang out indoors with friends. Balancing this is a challenge, but you really just have to be flexible and open to new ideas and don't make the purpose of your club too well defined (i.e. “this club is for people who want to compete and nothing else”).”

Day 1 of Northeastern Climbing Team tryouts
3) Know your audience to retain student involvement:

“We always get a lot of people interested in the club at the beginning of the year, but participation tends to drop off really rapidly. It's a problem we're still trying to solve, but the main solution we've found is to get the new people involved immediately.”

“For me one of the biggest challenges is finding the right level of intensity. We only got started last year, and have never had tryouts. I guess the main reason is we didn't want to scare people away, especially before we actually had anyone committed to the team, and because we have a reasonably big gym on campus space wasn't too much of an issue.”

“A huge step for us was knowing a lot of the school's climbing community already. We only started a month before nationals so getting immediate interest in the team was crucial.”

Stanford Climbing Club social event on campus
4) Designate a solid leader or coach:

“Having a respectable coach and flexible practice times seems to be very important in college. Students are really busy so we host practices five days a week and have a minimum requirement for attendance.”

“We have been really lucky to have [Collegiate Climbing Series Founder] John Myrick as our coach. Having a dedicated coach provides structure and cohesion and helps motivate people. A coach provides training instruction and people will listen to a coach more than they will to a peer. Having a coach who will stay with the team for several years is also really beneficial as it provides continuity for the club over time.”

“Once you have a solid group of people, you can work on things like recognition and funding by your school, and trying to find a "coach". This person can be a climbing instructor, or a teacher who likes to climb, or just someone who's interested in being an adult sponsor for the team. This can make logistics easier, especially for something like Nationals, where it's expensive to rent a car if you're under 21.”

Coach John Myrick (front left) leading UT Austin to a 3rd-straight National Championship and tower-lighting ceremony

5) Find a place to train either on or off campus:

“Having a climbing wall on campus was also a crucial aspect in the formation of the team, although we don't use the wall often because it is way too small for our team (we go off campus to climb at gyms in Austin). The wall on campus created a community of climbers for the club to start from and ensure that there was already a close group of climbers to build a team around and help us attract new members. Everyone walks by the wall during their first week at UT and tons of people ask about the team when they see our banners in the gym.

“We soon realized that the rec center could not hold the number of climbers and it really was not challenging enough. We decided to move to a local gym where we worked a deal to let the team members in for $5 during practice time.”

“In terms of actually running the team, I think that flexibility and structure are imperative. Having one or two days a week of mandatory practices, and then one or two more that are optional worked well.”

“I've noticed having a wall on campus is a blessing and a curse: it's great to have practices be so easy to get to and not cost us money, but I think it prevents people from going to a real gym, which really limits their climbing.”
Georgia Tech Climbing Club hosting a climbing competition on campus
6) Be creative with fundraising:

“Funding has actually gone pretty well for us. We're basically treated as a normal student group, so we need to make a budget and request the money. We're supposed to do "stewardship" hours for our funding, which is pretty easy work: writing postcards to alums, staffing Admit Weekend, taking pictures of the team practicing, etc. We also made some money staffing events at the climbing wall, which isn't too bad and pays well.”

“As for making it an official university club, we made it a student organization after jumping through a few hoops, but we have got no funding. Large public universities are usually reluctant to pay out in the first few years. Smaller colleges have had better success with this. Our personal funding comes through annual student dues.”

Colorado State University team photo
7) Plan transportation in advance:

“A definite recommendation is to start planning as far back as you can. As a team in the northeast, finding cheaper flights to nationals, especially on a college student budget, allows people to plan their expenses which hopefully leads to the whole team being able to go.”

“If you want to attend nationals, you will make it happen. That was always my goal. We got to Nationals after a 30-hour drive in a 15-passenger van. It was not pretty, but we would not take it back for a second.”

Northeastern Climbing Team's van at Rumney
8) Delegate out club responsibilities to ensure sustainability:

“Our club has nine officers who manage all club activities, plan competitions and volunteer events, collect dues, organize fundraisers, and do everything related to running the club. Having leadership roles on the team helps maintain structure and keeps a core group very involved in club activities, and they act as role models for the team. It gives officers good leadership experience and makes their time on the team more valuable.”

“I really have been working on is building the club to last. I have recruited new coaches to take over as I graduate this year. We also have built a reputation and name. Those things go far, because it is easy to start, but tough to keep alive.”

“Some form of leadership over the team, like a captain, could be helpful. This person serves as a mentor for the rest of the team, someone other people on the team can talk to. He/she also tries to keep attendance at practices as high as he can, and acts as a liaison for planning between the team and the school, or the school and USA Climbing, and would deal with a lot of the funding issues and planning for trips. Assigning people jobs or roles on the team gives people a sense of responsibility and worth, and can make the captain's job easier as well.”

UT Austin winning the 2013 CCS National Championships
9) Climb outdoors:

“We also made sure to do a few outdoor trips during the beginning of the semester when people aren't as busy or still aren't sure if they want to join the club. It makes them feel included and like they already have a group of friends they can climb with.”
Andy Lamb on the final move of Roses & Bluejays (V13), Great Barrington, Massachusetts
10) Build a strong community:

“Our team is extremely diverse, from beginners to climbers that have been in it for over 10 years. We also have every type of climber from boulderers to alpinists. You just have to embrace this as everybody can look to improve and find a community. The main goal of the team has always been to get climbers together and build a college community around it.”

“One of the things my team does really well is that we're super tight knit. My team is far and away my closest group of friends, and we go out together, climb outside, party, play frisbee and volleyball, pretty much anything. That's definitely something that keeps the team running.”

“Keeping people psyched is really important. We try to climb outdoors whenever we can. We try to make competing fun. There is tight knit community of climbers and we hang out, have parties, and have a banquet at the end of the year.”

Northeastern Climbing Team's 2014 Banquet

Hopefully these tips will serve as valuable guidelines for anyone looking to start up their own collegiate climbing team. One other idea that has proved helpful in the past was to reach out to other club sport teams similar to climbing such as swimming, biking, or triathlon to see what advice they have. This college development kit by USA Ultimate is an excellent resource that offers general recommendations for club startups of any sport. In addition, you can check out USA Climbing’s club sports proposal template here.

The future potential for climbing teams at the collegiate level is huge. If the sport grows enough, climbing has the possibility to become an NCAA sport, which would revolutionize the competition scene at every level. Competitive climbers graduating the youth circuit would be recruited at the National Championships by the top universities in the country with athletic scholarships, and would have access to some of the best athletic and academic facilities in the world.

This in turn would promote pursuing academic career paths in addition to a passion for climbing, as I believe climbers are some of the brightest and innovative athletes of any sport. If you think about it, climbing itself teaches independence, problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration to achieve goals. We have the skills necessary to approach a formidable project in any field, analyze it quickly, develop potential solutions, and execute with confidence. If these talents are put to good use, we have the ability to tackle the world’s most difficult challenges.

If you have any additional questions, please contact or visit for more information.

Monday, March 9, 2015

3Q's for Alex Johnson & TNF Young Gun Winner Grace McKeehan

The North Face Young Gun Award was created to recognize up-and-coming climbers who truly represent the values of the climbing community. In addition to recognizing an individual’s outstanding competitive climbing achievements, this award honors their commitment to the sport and exemplary sportsmanlike conduct.

For the past two years, North Face athlete Alex Johnson has traveled to the USA Climbing Youth National Championships to present the prestigious award to the next generation of athletes. You may know Alex best for her multiple Bouldering World Cup gold medals or V12 outdoor ascents, but before that, Alex made a name for herself on the youth circuit. She’s won multiple National and Continental Championships in sport climbing as well as two medals in speed climbing at the Youth World Championships.

2015 The North Face Young Gun Finalists
Left to right: Grace McKeehan, Kai Lightner, Clay Gordon, Hannah Donnelly, & Jesse Grupper
This year’s TNF Young Gun Award went to standout Grace McKeehan, who established herself on the competition scene this past year by being the only athlete to qualify for the US Open National Team in bouldering, sport climbing, and speed climbing. She’s made the US Youth National Team 10 total times and trains on Team Texas with world-renowned coaches Kyle Clinkscales and Kim Puccio.

Grace in semifinals at ABS16 Open Nationals
Earlier this week, I was able to catch up with both athletes and get their take on the Young Gun Award from each of their unique perspectives.

1) Grace: Congratulations on winning the TNF Young Gun Award! How did it feel to be selected? What does this award mean to you?

GM: I can think of at least 10 other people deserving of this award, so I am so honored to be a North Face Young Gun alongside some of the best youth climbers USA Climbing has ever had. It means a lot to me to be looked at as a leader in a sport I am so passionate about. Even if just one kid got psyched to rock climb because of me, I would be happy.

Grace in finals at ABS16 Open Nationals
Photo: Robyn Ragins
1) Alex: This year's Young Gun finalists featured some outstanding young athletes such as Kai Lightner, Clay Gordon, Jesse Grupper, and Hannah Donnelly. What made Grace stand out to you when choosing her for the award?

AJ: This was probably the most outstanding Rookie Team we've had so far. Being selected in itself is a huge recognition, and being chosen as the Young Gun Award recipient is the highest honor. With so many applications of awesome kids, it's always a difficult process trying to narrow it down to five, but Grace was a unanimous choice immediately. We all cast our votes for the Rookie Team and Grace was on every single one of our ballots. Knowing Grace a little personally, what makes her stand out is her constant smile, positivity, and amazing sportsmanship.

Photo: Molly McKeehan

2) Grace: You've made a name for yourself over the past year with some spectacular performances in all three competition disciplines. What motivates you to compete in different events rather than focusing on just one discipline?

GM: I have always liked all three disciplines and so I am just psyched about whichever discipline is in season. My motivation comes from my teammates and other gym members most of the time. Training speed with people like John Brosler and Michael Retoff is really fun, and I love it when my coaches decide to climb with us at practice. I also love watching world cups. Since I watch the world cups, I am exposed to all three disciplines and it’s cool seeing people like Mina Marcovič and Adam Ondra being able to hold their own in more than one discipline. Basically, if someone tells me I get to rock climb, I'm psyched.

Grace in semifinals at ABS16 Nationals
Photo: Lori Buhrfeind

2) Alex: You've been in this sport a long time. Since your first days competing in the JCCA (predecessor to USA Climbing), you've seen climbing undergo many major transformations. What's been the most noticeable change from a competitor's point of view?

AJ: The biggest change I've seen personally with USA Climbing is its steps towards professionalism. Having Louder Than Eleven broadcast ABS Nationals live and do such a legitimate job is huge for the sport, and it’s getting eyeballs on the competition from all over the world. We're also hosting the event in huge venues, and not dusty, chalky climbing gyms.

3) Grace: Where do you see yourself five years from now? Ten years from now?

GM: In five years I see myself in college and pursing a degree in a scientific or medical field. I also plan to continue competing and I hope I will have the opportunity to compete in more world cups. In ten years, I hope that I will be able to balance both climbing and my career. I plan to keep competing as long as I can and also begin to put more effort into outdoor climbing. Climbers like Juliane Wurm and Charlotte Durif are super inspiring because they are pursing such rigorous careers, yet still compete at the top of their fields.

3) Alex: Where do you see climbing in five years? Ten years? Do you see yourself still playing a major role in developing the sport?

AJ: Climbing is definitely on the rise, and I think it will continue to grow exponentially. I hope I'm in the game and playing a role in the continued growth and development of this sport.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games

Ever since I can remember, it has been my dream to represent my country at the Olympic Games. Five weeks ago, that dream became a reality. I had the honor of traveling to Nanjing, China to represent the United States as well as the sport of climbing at the Youth Olympic Games. It was the single most important event I have ever attended, and the implications for the future of climbing are huge. For all purposes, it was the greatest experience of my life, and I count myself as very fortunate to have been able to live out this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

First of all, I would like clear up a few common misconceptions. This was not a climbing competition. I was invited along with 15 other international athletes to promote climbing as a potential Olympic sport through demonstration and initiation for local residents, Olympic athletes, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The Youth Olympic Games is the highest level of competition in Olympic sports for athletes between the ages of 14 and 18 (not to be confused with the Junior Olympics, an event held annually in the United States). In order to qualify for the Youth Olympic Games, you must be ranked amongst the top youth competitors in the world in your respective sport, as well as not having competed in any Olympic event previously. The 2014 Games in Nanjing was only the third Youth Olympic Games to date, the first two having been in Singapore (Summer 2010) and Innsbruck (Winter 2012).

The initial aim of Youth Olympic Games was to accomplish several things: lower childhood obesity levels, foster a growing Olympic movement, and increase cultural awareness in youth athletes across the globe. The program was announced in 2007 by the former president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, who ushered in a new era of Olympians at the inaugural Games in Singapore three years later. The sports featured there and at each successive Games consisted strictly of the events held in their senior Olympic counterpart, which meant climbing had not been a part of the action yet since it was not included in the Olympic program.

Jacques Rogge at the 2001 IOC Session in Moscow.
Climbing has had its share of attempts at Olympic inclusion, beginning with the IOC’s recognition of IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) as an official governing body in 2009. It was demonstrated unofficially in Torino in the 2006 Winter Games, and had initiation sessions at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games. In 2013, climbing bid to become an official sport in the 2020 Olympic Games, but the bid was rejected in favor of wrestling, which had been ousted several months earlier.

Following the 2020 bid failure, progress appeared long and slow for the future of our sport. However, after the 2013 IOC Meeting in Buenos Aires, newly appointed IOC President Thomas Bach presented climbing a huge opportunity: to showcase the sport at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing as part of a “Sports Lab” that would offer both exhibition and initiation to the general public and Olympic athletes alike. Included with sport climbing were rollerblading, skateboarding, and a Chinese martial art called Wushu.

President Bach at Sports Lab in Nanjing.
The concept was simple: take four highly popular sports and have professional athletes in each field demonstrate the sport as well as help children try them out for the first time. It would run the entire length of the Games so that athletes who competed towards the end could still have the chance to try the sports out. In addition, the exhibition could provide insight to IOC officials and sponsors as to how popular each sport was from a viewing perspective.

Upon learning that climbing was going to be included in the sports lab, the IFSC set out to create a team of 16 athletes from around the world who could represent sport climbing in Nanjing. Ten countries in addition to the host nation, China, were selected to nominate one male and one female athlete, of which the IFSC Executive Board chose the final team of 8 men and 8 women. When I got the call from USA Climbing that I would be representing the US at the Youth Olympic Games, it was probably the happiest moment of my life.

Prior to my trip, I made a quick visit to two of my favorite companies, Clif Bar and The North Face. Both have supported my climbing career in numerous ways, and it was great to have the opportunity to check out each of their offices and meet the people I had been working online with for years. It was also great to support local Bay Area brands for their continued sustainability and innovation, which we definitely pride ourselves with here in NorCal.

Clif Bar || The North Face
Before I knew it, I was off to China! My parents and brother decided to join me on my adventure, and even took it one step further by making plans to fly to Tibet after watching me climb in Nanjing for a couple days. I had never visited mainland China before (although I did go to Hong Kong when I was 2) so I was pretty excited about experiencing a new part of the world. The plan was to fly into Shanghai and spend a couple days doing some sightseeing with the family before making the 2-hour high-speed rail journey to Nanjing.

When we arrived in Shanghai after a brief stopover in Seoul, we were immediately greeted at the airport by my friend Kai Mu. I met Kai on a climbing trip to Rodellar in 2011, and we had climbed together in Boston while he pursued his master’s degree in engineering management at Tufts University. He moved back to his hometown of Shanghai after he graduated, and was really excited to take us around the city when he found out I would be coming. Needless to say, it was welcoming to see a familiar face after having traveled halfway around the world.

Myself and Kai Mu at center. Two psyched Chinese climbers on the left and right.
The next few days were a whirlwind of exploration. In just two days, we managed to visit the Shanghai History Museum, the Imperial Gardens, the Peace Hotel, a market selling live birds and fish, a couple climbing gyms, and of course some delicious restaurants. Kai even convinced to get us to try some Shanghai delicacies such as pig’s feet, spiced duck blood (had the same consistency as tofu) and stir-fried frog.

The Bund, Shanghai.
Although getting out in the city was great for getting over jetlag, there were several other challenges that China provided. For starters, the Chinese government intentionally blocked most forms of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and anything Google-related such as Gmail and YouTube. If you ever happen to make a trip to China, I highly recommend getting a VPN (Virtual Private Network), an app that creates a false IP address so that you can use these other applications without any problems. Another issue that I wasn’t prepared for was the subpar air quality, which prevented us from seeing the sun the entire length of the trip. Apart from these minor nuisances, our stay in Shanghai was quite enjoyable.

The day of the opening ceremonies, Kai dropped us off at the train station in Shanghai and we made the speedy trip to Nanjing South Railway Station (the 2nd-largest railway station in the world). Upon arrival, I donned my athlete’s badge, which turned out to be a good idea. Volunteers for the Games spotted us instantly by my badge, grabbed our luggage, and shuttled us into our own private bus to take us to the Mingfa International Hotel, our place of stay for the duration of the Games.

After finally depositing my bags in my room, I ventured down the hall to the conference room to meet my 15 other teammates. I knew several of them from my years of competing, such as my Australian roommate Matt Tsang and Sam Stainton from South Africa, but I was not nearly as acquainted with the others. As soon as I walked in and introduced myself, it was immediately clear why each one of these athletes were chosen for their role. They each represented a major country and mostly spoke different languages, but they were all extremely friendly and excited to meet everyone. We all began chatting excitedly (in English) about recent climbing trips and competitions, animatedly miming beta with great enthusiasm. There was no denying it; each and every person in that room was just as psyched as I was to be there.

IFSC Team, Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games.
Once things had settled down, we had a briefing with the head IFSC officials at the event. Those in attendance included IFSC President Marco Scolaris, VP Debbie Gawrych, Chinese announcer Forrest Liu, the President of the Chinese Mountaineering Association, two sports managers, and two world-cup setters. They went over the expectations of the event and presented us with an extensive wardrobe of IFSC apparel to wear, in addition to a welcome bag full of goodies from the IOC. We changed into our new attire for the evening and headed off to the opening ceremonies.

The ceremonies took place at the Olympic Stadium at the center of town, and turned out to be one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever witnessed. It was choreographed by visionary director Chen Weiya, the man who was also behind the extraordinary opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Games. One of the highlights of the evening was an act in which about 100 or so performers, attached by cables to a massive crane, were lifted high into the night sky to execute some of the most amazing feats of choreographed movements I’ve ever seen.

IOC President Thomas Bach concluded the ceremonies addressing the athletes to encourage fair play and sharing passion for their sport, which he followed up with by taking a “YOG selfie” onstage with several athletes from various countries. We didn’t realize it at the moment, but the selfie set the precedent for the rest of the games in which thousands of athletes and fans from all over the world snapped photos of themselves with the hashtag #YOGselfie. I’m not too much of a fan of hashtagging myself, but I could definitely appreciate the power that social media had of bringing people together to share their Olympic passion.

Over the next 10 days, my life was completely consumed by the Games. Each day consisted of waking up bright and early to eat breakfast in the hotel’s luxurious dining area, then heading over to the sports lab at 7am to prepare for demonstrations. The sports lab schedule allowed for each of the four sports to have two 30-minute exhibition sessions (one in the morning, one in the afternoon), both sessions followed by a 30-minute initiation period for any local residents to try them out. We had a break in the middle of the day for lunch, but apart from that, we were climbing from 7:30am to 6:30pm.

Let the games begin.

World Champion Speed Climber Qixin Zhong helping with initiations
During the exhibition sessions, many IOC Executive Board members observed climbing from the viewing area, and it was our job as athletes to explain the different disciplines to them and why climbing would make such a good Olympic sport. One of the major aspects that set climbing apart from other sports is the collaboration between the athletes to read beta during route previews, as well as the sheer verticality of the sport. Furthermore, the motto of the Olympic Games (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”) matched up perfectly to the three disciplines of competition climbing (speed, sport, and bouldering), making climbing easy to integrate into the Games from a marketing perspective.

At the end of every day, there was some time in which the sports lab was closed to the public where Olympic athletes could come participate in sports that were offered. During that time, we also got to try out the other sports, which was a blast. I especially enjoyed rollerblading, which I hadn’t done since I was a little kid. When the sports lab finally closed at 7pm, we would make our way back to the hotel to eat dinner, relax, or go watch some of the Olympic events.

As awesome as all of that was, it wasn’t all fun and games. Our packed daytime schedule left little time for rest, and the fact that we were climbing every day in 40°C weather and high humidity for four to five day stretches ensured we were absolutely exhausted by the end of any given 24-hour period. On top of all that, we had to keep energy in reserve for TV interviews, greeting members of the IOC, and pushing kids up the bouldering wall during initiation sessions.

© 2014 NBC Sports Network

Despite the constant physical exhaustion, we still managed to have a blast on our days off. We explored historical areas in Nanjing, tried out the cultural immersion booths at the Olympic Village, and hung out as a team after a long day at the wall. Being with such a diverse group of athletes was such a unique experience since we were from all over the world, but still had the same passion for climbing and could connect easily with each other. It was much different from being at a competition, since we were supporting each other as teammates in promotion of our sport.

After a couple days of working out the kinks of demonstrations, we faced our biggest challenge yet: the visit of President Bach himself. We all knew that it would be the ultimate test of our skills, since he had personally invited us to be there and could potentially decide the future of sport climbing. Leading up to the day of his arrival, we prepared by splitting up roles evenly between bouldering, sport, and speed. My responsibility was to do the first sport climb and make a dramatic fall near the top, leaving the way clear for my Austrian friend Andi to finish the climb (and throw a bat-hang in the middle) while the President looked on.

When the day finally came, the IOC surprised us by sending previous IOC President Jacques Rogge ahead of President Bach, which meant we got to climb in front of and speak about our sport to two IOC presidents in the same day. It was an experience I know I will never forget.

At long last, our time Nanjing came to an end. With heavy hearts, we bade farewell to all of our new friends at the closing ceremonies, and departed to our home countries the next day. Now that I have had time to reflect on the trip, I can genuinely say that my Olympic journey was the most powerful experience of my lifetime so far, and it allowed me to view climbing with a far broader perspective.

So what does this mean for the future of the sport of climbing? Based on what I've seen, Nanjing could've been the catalyst for climbing’s big breakthrough. If climbing gets admitted as an official Olympic sport, funding would increase significantly across the board, making it more possible to pursue professionally. Additionally, young climbers all over the globe will have a goal to aspire towards from the day they put on their first pair of climbing shoes: standing on top of the podium at the Olympics, a gold medal around their necks and their national anthem resounding clearly for the entire world to see.

However, the most important aspect of the Olympic Games comes from the fundamental concept of the Olympics themselves. The Games stand for more than just excellence in athletic ability; they provide an opportunity for young athletes to share their passion for their sport, meet others from around the world who share that passion, and realize that deep down, we as a human race are not so different from one another after all. If these leaders of the future understand this fundamental idea, the world will be a much better place to live in. For climbing, this global perspective is already ingrained into the culture due to the collaborative nature that sets our sport apart.

Having already been given the chance to experience the Olympics, my biggest goal now is to ensure that the next generation of climbers will have the same opportunity that I had. The current objective is inclusion in the 2024 Games, but given the success of the Sports Lab in Nanjing, we could be seeing it in the Olympics in some form as early as Rio in 2016. Our only option now is to wait and hope for the best outcome. No matter what the case, when our sport gets the break it deserves, I will be there cheering on my fellow climbers as they pursue their Olympic dreams.