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Sarah Dowling Climbs High

Veronika Valia

“I love the creativity and just how climbing exercises literally every aspect of your body. Instead of focusing on just one thing, climbing is both physical and mental.”

Maybe you got invited to a climbing party when you were nine? Or your parents paid five bucks so you could climb that tower thing at a street festival? Or you had to scale a fence to play soccer when a field was closed. But there aren’t too many Lovett students who climb on a team. 

While climbing is certainly less popular than, say, football, soccer or basketball, it’s a definite must try for anyone looking to try out a sport that combines adventure and fun with amazing technique and skill. Just ask sophomore Sarah Dowling, who rock climbs at one of the foremost gyms in the country (the Stone Summit Atlanta Location), with a team that has sent members to Nationals and Worlds year after year, led by former coaches of the American teams. 

Sarah explains she got into climbing when she was seven and went on her summer camp’s climbing trip to a cliff over Lake Superior. This experience, coupled with the fact that the camp had a great climbing wall,  inspired her to commit to the sport. She says she was getting tired of soccer anyway and was looking to try something new. “As soon as I got back that year I started climbing more, and then as soon as I completed my Bat Mitzvah in seventh grade I was able to join the team at my [current] gym and I’ve been on the team since then.”

Now, she says that she typically goes to around two high-intensity, three hour practices a week.. “Normally, we warm up with some set exercises for around 45 minutes which include stretching, traversing [climbing sideways], and just doing whatever you can to get your muscles warmed up before you start working hard so you can prevent any injuries.” she says. 

In order to explain what she does for the remainder of practice, Sarah introduced me to some  basic climbing terminology (time to take some notes guys): 

They first begin with onsighting, which is seeing new problems in the walls the coaches set and attempting to do them on their first try. They then work on projecting, which is finding problems that they’ve been working on for a while and trying to get to the top of them. They also work on endurance, which is “just climbing non-stop for a while.” They end with workouts (as if everything up to this point wasn’t working out!) where they must demonstrate extremely high endurance levels of endurance to tackle problems like big boulders. 

Their specific conditioning workouts usually last around 15-20 minutes. For these sessions, they do “4 by 4s” which is “when you find four problems and then you have to climb each of them four times. So that’s a total of 4 climbs in about 10-15 minutes and we usually repeat that exercise 2-3 times.” She explains that in addition to those activities,  the sessions include a combination of core, leg, upper-body, and cardio workouts (whew!).

There are two main types of climbing, indoor and outdoor. All competitions are indoor and can be divided into three separate disciplines: 

“The fall and early winter is bouldering season,” she says. “Bouldering basically consists of short climbs up to 20 feet with no harness, no gear, and just a pad below you.” Bouldering tends to require more challenging, technique-heavy moves on the part of the climber because although the problems are shorter, they are designed to be more difficult. 

The spring and early summer season consists of competitions in the other two disciplines: sport climbing and speed climbing. “Sport climbing is just a different version of the boulder problem.” she says. “It’s going to be easier moves but a lot longer.” However, because of its length, falls are larger and harder. But, “they’re important because it helps better prepare you for outdoor climbing,” she says.

For speed climbing you’re climbing up a “set-route” that’s essentially the same internationally in the fastest time that you can (15 meter wall at a 10 degree angle). In competition, you get 0.1 of a point off for every attempt you use to try and climb the wall and get extra points for achieving a “flash” which is succeeding (getting to the top) on the first try. 

We know that sports can usually be categorized into two groups: team and individual, but these groupings can become hazy when you’re dealing with non-traditional sports such as climbing in which athletes train as a group in one gym, but individuals take on problems on their own. 

“You’re scored individually and you compete for yourself but in regionals, divisionals, nationals and worlds, the scores of individual competitors affect the score of the team [the climbing gym you are a part of]. You could belong to a team that won nationals even if you don’t have a kid that won an event at nationals,” she says.

Since all competitions are indoor she explains that she does this type of climbing a lot more, but still enjoys climbing nature’s creations. “I really, really like outdoor climbing and I would love to do it more,” she says.

I asked Sarah about some tips for new people *hint, hint, nudge, nudge* who might be interested in trying out climbing for themselves. She emphasizes how important it is to use the right equipment, specifically getting your own climbing shoes. “There are 3 different types,” she says. “I usually get aggressive shoes which will help me dig into the holds better.” For a beginner, she says, “you should get a really neutral shoe with a flat bottom. The harder the climbing you do the more aggressive shoes you’ll need.” 

Chalk is also a complete necessity. It helps to dry out your hands, makes sure that you’re not sweating all over the holds, and gives you a better grip. In addition, she recommends a harness for beginners (um, yes please, that would probably be helpful). “Overall, it’s most important to just worry about your technique and not worry about what other people think of you,” she says. “It's very easy to get caught up in looking at the really good climbers. They’re always going to be great climbers, and you just need to focus on yourself and your personal achievement and goals.”

I’ve climbed a few times recreationally, and it’s such a fun, cool, and unique experience that everyone should try out! For Sarah, it clearly goes much further. Smiling, she says, “I love the creativity and just how climbing exercises literally every aspect of your body. Instead of focusing on just one thing, climbing is both physical and mental.” 
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