Why you should care

Because one way to overcome life’s obstacles is to physically scale them.

When I meet Meagan Martin at a climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado, she’s perfectly put together. Her brown eyes are expertly lined and dusted with shimmer. Her wavy brunette hair is pulled into a tidy ponytail. Even her fingernails, though coated with white chalk, are manicured and pink.

America, meet the new face of bouldering — and her excellent dimples. Martin might seem too glam to be one of the best professional rock climbers in the country, but she has already spent plenty of time in the spotlight. On the reality show American Ninja Warrior, she pulled off a few challenges no other woman had. She has bagged a handful of elite contests, as well as sponsorships from Adidas and other high-profile outfits, and has consistently ranked in National and World Cup competitions. While Martin just missed qualifying for the women’s U.S. bouldering team, it’s only a matter of time, says Kynan Waggoner, CEO of USA Climbing, the sport’s governing body: “She’s absolutely one of the most elite competitors.”

As Martin is nearing climbing’s highest peaks, the sport itself is having a moment. Nearly 7 million people reported climbing in 2012, up 7 percent from 2006, according to Outdoor Industry Association, and the number of climbing gyms grew by 9 percent last year. Some believe that scaling a wall is the next CrossFit. And while competition climbing is still in its infancy — USA Climbing came into existence only a decade ago — its ascension, too, has been rapid. Millions were mesmerized this year when Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson free-climbed El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, perhaps the hardest climb in the world. People who’ve never even summited a fence were glued to the live stream, as broadcasters with no clue what they were talking about struggled to comment.

Martin is wary of such publicity. Their feat was a magical display of athleticism, but she worries the coverage gave the masses the impression that climbing is only for rugged, slightly insane freaks of nature. Which is not to say that Martin isn’t strong, even freakishly so. Practicing on a bouldering wall, she launches herself from peg to peg, using almost pure upper-body strength, instead of inching her way up one notch at a time. Her back is a maze of rippled muscles, and her biceps are like boulders themselves.

Athletics runs in the family. Martin’s mom is a gymnastics coach, and her dad competed in the 1984 Olympic trials. Martin competed in gymnastics nationally until, at 10 years old, she was overcome by a disastrous, if somewhat common, problem: She suddenly became scared to tumble backward. Soon after, a friend took her to a climbing gym, and young Martin took to the walls like she was Spider-Man’s sister. Within two years, she was competing professionally, often against adults. She had a roster of powerful sponsors and, at 13, won the national title.

But by 14, she had begun to feel that sense of anxiety creep in again. The pressure of expectations — her sponsors’, her own — weighed heavily, and Martin decided to take a temporary break from climbing. In high school, she happened upon pole-vaulting, which led to a scholarship to Vanderbilt and a whole new set of trophies, as well as its own challenges. During her sophomore year, her performance dipped. This time, instead of quitting, Martin resolved to work through it. She spent the summer intensively training with a former coach and returned to college stronger, mentally and physically.

By then, Martin’s “temporary” break from climbing had stretched into a decade, but graduation was imminent, and Martin needed something to do after college. So she started hitting the climbing gym again, between track practices, and three months after graduation, the power climber entered her first competition. If she hadn’t done well, Martin says, she probably wouldn’t have stuck with it. “If you don’t expect to win, you’re not going to,” her mom, Beth Martin, says. “That’s how she was raised.” In her second tournament back, Martin won first place.

Moving forward, Martin wants to shift from bouldering to more outdoor sport climbing. Bouldering doesn’t involve ropes and relies mostly on raw strength, whereas sport climbing is about strategic movement and endurance. “She is tempered by the fact that her technical ability isn’t as high,” Waggoner says. And she doesn’t have much time to catch up. Most professional climbers don’t last much beyond 30.

Martin says her ultimate goal, though, is to close the gap between male and female climbers. “When I first started, there weren’t that many women and definitely not that many strong women,” Martin says. That’s changing, at least for indoor climbing. Participation is almost even between the sexes now, according to a USA Climbing survey. The racial breakdown, on the other hand, isn’t anywhere near representative. Latinos represent 3.8 percent of participants; African-Americans and Asians, each 0.2 percent. As a biracial woman, Martin isn’t significant just because she’s pretty.

Back at the climbing gym in Boulder, where Martin coaches when she’s not training, a girl in her preteen years comes over to say hi. She is tall, with lanky legs, but her arms are ripped. “She shows a different image,” Beth Martin says. “You don’t have to be one way in order to do an extreme sport like climbing. You can be many things.”

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