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.

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