There is a sport that you won’t find in the Olympics this year, but has grown so popular that it's on the short list for consideration in the 2020 games.
Rock Climbing has become more than just an activity you do for your kid’s birthday party. It is a worldwide athletic endeavor that tests not only your physical being but your mental strength as well.
McKinney, in fact, harbors one of the country’s bright young stars of rock climbing. Dominic LaBarge has been climbing since 2005 and has become one of the country’s top young climbers over the past couple of years. The 17-year-old climber (pictured climbing a wall) says he got into the sport after a friend brought him into a gym and showed him his first rock-climbing wall.
“I got into it because I had a homeschool friend who was a rock climber,” said Dominic. “One day she pulled me in the gym and thought I would like this. I was just like, ‘Yes, I love this.’ She told me it was cheap too. Just a harness, shoes, chalk, and you are ready to go. And now I am all over the world.”
Soon after deciding to go full force ahead with climbing, Dominic, who is home schooled, had a couple of personal obstacles to overcome before reaching some success on the wall. His mother, Lisa LaBarge, said that he would get nervous before every event because he didn’t like everyone in the crowd looking right at him. She told him that everyone gets nervous being in the spotlight, but that not everyone is looking at him during a race. So, she told him that if he was confident in himself, he could overcome anything on the wall.
“Really it is just battling yourself. You have to overcome yourself,” said Dominic. “The entire sport of climbing is a mental game. If you are 100-percent mental about the sport, you are going to beat out somebody who is just straight brute strength.”
“You have to view it as a personal challenge,” said Lisa. “It is all about being confident in your skill set. His coach tells him to be confident and not cocky.”
So what is rock climbing, you ask? There are three types of disciplines in competitive climbing: lead, speed, and bouldering. Lead is the most classic type of sport climbing and consists of a climber navigating through a route designed by a route setter in which he or she sets out to reach the top. In speed the objective are pretty simple: get to the top as quickly as possible. Lastly, bouldering is when a climber attempts a route without belay ropes attached to his person, but rather protected with engineered mattresses below the climber. The max height of a boulder is only 4.5 meters high, but this discipline differs from lead because the climber can attempt the route more than once. Bouldering is marked by high difficulty in a very concentrated short route.
In terms of scoring, every event has a different range of scores. For example, during a lead a climber has 15 moves on the rock. A point is scored every time a hand is controlled on a hole. A climber can move their feet around as many times as they would like, as the scoring is all about the hands. So if a climber gets to the 13th move and they touch the 14th, they are given 13 points plus what climbers call usable surface. This means that they touch the usable part of the hole but do not control it. Controlling a hole is holding it for two seconds or more. Typically, bouldering competitions have a winner in the 250-point range, while lead and speed events can have anywhere from 400-600 points given to the winning climber.
On the competitive circuit, Dominic is no stranger to the top of the results page. Recently, Dominic finished third in the Sport and National Championship Title in speed for the MYA category. Not only that, but also this month he will be representing the United States at the IFSC Youth World Championships in Singapore. In fact, Dominic finished strong at the recent Adult SCS Nationals, which has given him the opportunity to climb at the Adult World Championships this September in Paris.
However, unlike in Europe, where countries support their climbers much more than in the U.S., all of these competitions are paid out of pocket by the LaBarge family and not USA Climbing. Typically, European countries like Russia or Ukraine will sponsor their climbers financially when they compete at Worlds and other events. But Dominic and the rest of the USA climbers are generally not afforded that luxury.
This is just one of the many reasons why the U.S. is behind the Europeans when it comes to competitive climbing. And while Dominic’s national team, Team Texas, is the best team in the country, as a whole Dominic states that they would be destroyed by some of the European teams.
“We have a couple minors that are very good. As a whole, we usually end up in like 16th or so. The team I am on now in the U.S. has been the best for a few years now. But if you compare that team to any team over in Europe, like the Russians or the Ukrainians, they would wipe the floor with us.”
One of the advantages that Euro climbers have over Americans is simply geographical. France, Russia, and others have more unique and better variety of places to climb and train than just a normal gym in the U.S. For American climbers like Dominic, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky is the most useful and challenging location for them to go. However, for every location like the RRG in America, Europe has three or four just like it or better.
Physically, there is no doubt how much of a grind rock climbing is on your body. But if you thought that the competitions sounded intense, Dominic’s workout routines will sound like pure torture.
“There are things called 4 x 4’s. It when you pick four different routes and you pick the first one and go up it and down it,” said Dominic. “Then you climb the second, up and down, then the third, etc. That is one 4 x 4 and you don’t rest between reps. You can do them in different orders, so you can do the first one then third one, etc.”
“Another thing I do is called triceps, which is off the wall. You do a set of hangs, a set of holds, and a set of pushups. A hang is like hanging from the ledge at the top of a door with one hand. The ledge is only like half an inch by the way. You hang on it for as long as you can.”
As is the case with all athletes who compete over many years, injuries and odd physical deformities start to pile up over time. For Dominic, his hands and feet have taken the shape of a typical rock climber. He can no longer straighten his fingers out all the way and his hands have little to no feeling in them. Also, one slide across his palm and you will feel numerous calyces that have become practically permanent on his skin. With his toes, both big toes have huge knobs at the top of them from the bone pressing up next to the skin. This is formed because of how tight his shoes are tied before every event and how long they stay in that position for.
Despite all of the competitions that he participates in over the course of a year, Dominic does make time for school. It just happens to be at home. Because of the time commitment that climbers have to make to perfect their craft, a lot of kids have to decide whether to attend public school and miss multiple days at a time or just become home schooled.
“This is his first year of climbing as an adult, but most kids can’t afford to go to Singapore and France because they are starting school is August,” said Lisa. “We won’t probably start school until closer to October 1st because he’s not home. He just can’t physically go to public school because he would never be there.”
It is pretty evident in how dedicated the LaBarge family is to the sport of rock climbing and in supporting Dominic’s passion. They even have turned down job opportunities in places like Indonesia because they do not have rock climbing yet.
“The only place we would go for work or what not would be somewhere in Europe because they have rock climbing, you know,” said Lisa.
While Dominic still has many years of climbing ahead of him, the young man is not short of confidence or goals for his career.
“I want to be one of those guys that little kids are like, ‘that guy is really cool,’” said Dominic. “Like Chris Sharma, he was the best climber in the world for a while and everyone knows him who is involved in the sport.”
“I want to become one of the greats in rock climbing.”