Rock-Climbing’s 11-Year-Old Stars Hit Bump at Sport’s Moment of Glory

Corporations are pouring money into competitive rock-climbing, fueling a boom in gyms from New York to Dallas where wannabe alpinists scale artificial heights in pricey gear. But even with the sport set to debut in the 2020 Olympics, its governing body says elite contests’ pressure may be too much for the youngest athletes to bear.

In a Wednesday vote, the board of Salt Lake City-based USA Climbing scrapped its national championship for members 11 and younger, citing concern for their physical and emotional well-being. Opponents say the move threatens to hobble the sport’s explosive growth.

“Events like this help children to dream,” said Howard Hain, 47, a writer whose 10-year-old daughter, Francesca Hain, climbs at Gravity Vault in Hoboken, New Jersey. “How many little boys or girls wanted to play center field for theYankees or make the Olympics?”

Though other niche sports have entered the mainstream — slacker-cool snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding are also Olympic events — the rise has been meteoric for climbing, an outdoorsy hobby turned urban indoor obsession.

USA Climbing, whose partners includeVF Corp.’s North Face and closely held Petzl and Clif Bar, is targeting 100,000 members and $2 million of corporate sponsorships by 2028.

U.S. and Canadian commercial climbing spots grew almost 9% in 2019 from a year prior, for 577 locations counted by the Climbing Wall Association, a Boulder, Colorado-based industry group.

Injuries also are on the rise, though it’s unclear whether that’s because there are more climbers. Between 2008 and 2016, nearly 35,000 people were seen in U.S. emergency departments for rock-climbing falls and strains, according toresearch by the Wilderness Medical Society.

“In my climbing career, we’ve seen upticks in popularity and we think: This is it, this is going to be the height. But now it doesn’t look like any sign of it slowing down,” said Mickey Ashmont, 36, a coach for Gravity Vault, which has eight gyms in the New York area, one in Pennsylvania and plans for five more locations.

Even in Newark, New Jersey’s most populous city and one famous for urban decay, a wall is preparing to open in a historic high-rise owned partly byGoldman Sachs Urban Investment Group.

At the most elite youth-training gyms, memberships can run $2,400 a year. Specialty shoes cost about $300 a year for competitors who have yet to score footwear sponsors — yes, gear-makers have their names on the most talented little ones’ piggies. Extra coaching and contest travel can push total costs to $15,000 a year, parents say.

Ocean Zhang, a 42-year-old real-estate investor from Houston, says it’s worth the expense. His 9-year-old son, Logan, is in superb physical shape, and his schoolwork has been boosted by the sport’s analytical demands, as he mentally maps routes up indoor walls as high as 55 feet (16.7 meters). On Feb. 10, Logan won the youngest age group at USA Climbing’s national bouldering competition in Redmond, Oregon, defeating some children two years older.

“Some of these kids really thrive on competition,” Ocean Zhang said in a telephone interview.

Kai Lightner of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was a 6-year-old with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when his mother coaxed him off a flagpole and into a climbing gym. A national competition veteran at 7 and multiple U.S. title winner in youth and adult categories, he inspired the $159.95 Evolv Limited Edition Kai Lightner Signature Shaman Climbing Shoe. He’s now 20 years old and studying atBaylor University on an academic scholarship.

“When a kid is dreaming about being a national champion, dreaming about being on the U.S. team, it pushes them to certain skills, and I don’t know any other way I would have been able to instill them in Kai,” his mother, Connie Lightner, a 47-year-oldFayetteville State University professor and department chairwoman, said by telephone.

For decades, heath advocates have warned of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity among American youth more hooked on video games than physical activity. Soccer and other organized sports promised an antidote — and led some parents to push dreams of college athletic scholarships and professional careers.

But research presented at the 2018 meeting of theAmerican Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggested that sports specialization at a young age increased burnout and injury risk. TheNational Athletic Trainers’ Association, a Dallas-based professional group, in 2019 recommended that young athletes rest at least two days a week and play no single sport for more than eight months a year.

Starting in 2021, USA Climbing’s national contest will be restricted to those 12 and over, and the younger regional champions will be steered to a skills-building festival.

“Our children are not miniature adults,” Marc Norman, USA Climbing’s chief executive officer, said in an email. “We should design their pipeline to ensure their health and well-being.”

At Gravity Vault in Hoboken, some of the youngest climbers and their parents were disappointed at the prospect of waiting for nationals.

Eight-year-old Ella Music of Hoboken attends as many as a dozen competitions a year, at a total annual cost of $6,000 to $10,000, according to her mother, Melissa Byrd, 44, a marketing strategist. Ella, who practices as many as 16 hours a week, otherwise wouldn’t meet so many children from around the country, Byrd said during a training session this week.

“It opens her eyes to a bigger world and community,” Byrd said as Ella, using chalky hands to grab one wall’s “holds,” or outcroppings, plotted the best route.

Another parent, Christie Dreyfuss, 48, of Montclair, a Pilates instructor, said her 11-year-old son, Luke, traded soccer for climbing and is in his first year of competing.

“He draws the bouldering problems he’s trying to figure out all the time,” Christie Dreyfuss said. “He draws them on the steam in the wall of the shower.”

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