Stepping into the Mid-Atlantic collegiate divisionals at Sportrock Alexandria, I felt like I had stepped into the stands of a college football (or basketball, considering I attend a school without a football team) game. The energy zapped from competitor to competitor with chit-chat and cheers audible in all corners of the gym. If I wasn’t excited before, I was now. Teams huddled together, their chants growing from whispers to shouts. Parental volunteers and event organizers looked at each other with eyebrows raised as if to say, “This definitely isn’t a youth comp.” The corners of my mouth turned upward, and I thought, “It’s better.”

As a former USAC youth turned collegiate competitor, the experience vastly differed from my younger days. The stress and intensity of the youth circuit had morphed into a fun, encouraging, and relaxed atmosphere. I was competing against other college students in women’s advanced. Yet, I found myself also admiring their strength, getting to know them between climbs, sharing laughs over the difficulty of boulders, and trading beta.

woman climbing a wall

Despite the energetic and encouraging atmosphere, I still fell victim to bouts of nervousness and performance anxiety. As a lifelong athlete, the desire to perform and accomplish goals is everpresent. My goal for divisional championships was to qualify for nationals. I set it over a year ago as a last hoorah in my collegiate career and dedicated myself to training for that goal. Going into divisionals weekend, I wasn’t confident I could accomplish my goal. The Mid-Atlantic region is competitive. I knew I was strong, but it was only a two-day competition – anything could happen, and there may not be enough time or attempts to fix mistakes.

Saturday was a three-hour modified red-point boulder round, and Sunday was flash format lead. I needed to place in the top five in either (or both) disciplines to qualify for nationals. Rope climbing has always been where I shine, but I’d poured my heart and soul into getting stronger on boulders during the past year of training. Only time could tell. At 4:57 on Saturday, with three minutes until the climbing cutoff – I was in 5th place for women’s advanced boulders. At 4:58, a girl made an impressive top; I was 6th. 5:00 arrived, and I was one spot out of qualifying. I hadn’t bothered to check the scores during the competition. A friend fed me the minute-by-minute breakdown afterward. Learning I had been so close to qualifying was exciting but frustrating. Despite ending up one spot off the podium, I realized the first important lesson of the weekend: don’t count yourself out until it’s over.

Sunday rolled around, and the performance jitters were raking through my body. Being so close to qualifying in boulders made the goal of nationals feel much more attainable and increased the pressure I felt to perform in lead. I had three routes to tackle and one attempt on each. My confidence in my ability to flash climbs was thin, but I knew I could try hard. The first route started relaxed, each move boosting my confidence. I felt great as I approached the first big move on the climb, made a micro-adjustment to prepare, and slipped. I was frustrated, having felt in control on the wall, only to find myself back on the ground so soon. But it’s a competition, and with one attempt, anything can happen. I had no more attempts on route 1 and 20 minutes unit route 2, forcing me to look forward. Enter lesson number two: the past is the past. After the competition, you can analyze and critique, but during the competition, you have to be Dory from Finding Nemo, embracing short-term memory loss.

In a flash format lead competition, you tie into the rope, meet your belayer, and wait until your ‘no earlier than’ (NET) climb time. Sitting in the chair before route 2, trying to calm my breathing and focus, I watched the female on the wall deck (fall to the ground) on the climb I was about to try. With a near-deck experience early in my lead climbing career, seeing that happen skyrocketed my heart rate and made my hands clammy. To their credit, the event and gym staff were incredibly professional and calm as they handled the situation. With a new belayer, I tried to remind myself I was safe as I started climbing minutes later. Cruising through the opening sequence, I felt calm until suddenly I wasn’t. As I climbed past where the female before me decked from, I felt my grip tighten and my focus waver, messing up my hand and foot sequencing; I fell. Lesson three: things that are out of your control will happen in a high-level competition. In those moments, your mental tenacity is critical.

As I prepped to begin the third and final route, I knew I could ‘Top’ (send) it. It was a crimpy, mostly vertical face and the only climb some of my competitors had topped. Knowing I could send, I felt the internal pressure rise and mentally battled through the first half of the climb, trying to calm my breathing, think clearly, and prevent muscle shakes. The pump set in about ⅔ of the way, and I panicked. I let the panic set it, overriding my ability to think logically and causing me to make a simple move complicated. To no one’s surprise, I felllearning my fourth lesson of the weekend: just because you know you can complete a climb doesn’t mean you will. Disappointed that I hadn’t sent the final route, I could only hope I had done enough to squeak by in the top five.

I ended the day in fourth and had qualified for nationals. My climbing on the first route, where points were weighted more heavily because of the difficulty, boosted my score. The accomplishment of my goal highlighted the final lesson of divisionals weekend: Go after the goals that scare you; you don’t know how the story will end if you try. So much can happen during a competition, with high stakes and limited attempts. You do your best, try hard, and control what’s in your ability. However, you must also be patient and accept that nothing is certain until the climbing finishes. In the end, I walked away with a ticket to nationals in my name and four valuable realizations that I will carry forward:

  1. Don’t count yourself out until it’s over.
  2. The past is the past – have short-term memory loss.
  3. Things that are out of your control will happen in a high-level competition. In those moments, your mental tenacity is critical.
  4. Just because you know you can complete a climb doesn’t mean you will.
  5. Go after the goals that scare you; you don’t know how the story will end if you try.

Stay tuned for another installment in the stories of a collegiate climber this summer. I travel to Phoenix, AZ, at the end of May 2024 to compete in the National Championships for boulder and lead, and I am certain I will return with more lessons and tales to share.