Breaking Stereotypes on the Way to the Top
By SHELLY STECK REALE, Correspondent, TB Reporter
Age, disability and gender are commonly seen as barriers to success. But when it comes to climbing a 40-foot rock wall, they’re no such thing.
ST. PETERSBURG – Picture this: A sheer wall of wood and steel towering 40 feet in the air. Protruding from its surface are amoeba-shaped grips in a multitude of colors. Some are the size of a fist; most are smaller.
If your first thought is, the only one making that climb to the top is a 20-something athlete, well, think again.
Meet Ellen Hommeyer. She’s 9 years old. She is one of the youngest members of the Vanguards, a youth climbing team whose members compete throughout the state of Florida and beyond.
“I like rock climbing because it’s basically gymnastics, but on rocks; you’re doing gymnastics on rocks,” Ellen said.
For the past two years she has been coming as often as three times a week to Vertical Ventures, an indoor climbing gym at 116 18th St. S in St. Petersburg. Her dad, Matt Hommeyer, beams as he watches her.
“I’m really proud of the risks that she takes and the challenges she sets for herself, especially at her age. The problem solving, the discipline, the persistence that she’s learns here; it a great forum and opportunity for her to continue to develop those skills as she grows,” Hommeyer said.
Ellen’s breaking the stereotype. She’s not the only one.
When Juan Colon, 28, was born, the bones of his right leg were twisted and failed to grow. Faced with the option of seeing their child never walk or of
amputating a leg, his parents made the tough decision to have his leg removed above the knee when he was 8 months old.
Today, Colon is one of a growing number of adaptive climbers. He comes to the activity with a unique set of challenges.
“Some of the routes can make you rely solely on one leg and not the other. And, with not having that leg, I have to get a little more creative with it; do things a little more unorthodox or rely on my upper body strength a lot more than some climbers would,” Colon said.
His creativity has paid off. He competes in the USA Adaptive Climbing Nationals, a sport-climbing competition for athletes with physical disabilities. His first attempt in the competition earned him sixth place; his latest attempt, third. The competition is broken up into lower extremity amputees and upper extremity amputees. But, Colon, who inspires others, said he’s inspired by the seated division competitors.
“Those are really fun to watch, because it’s literally all arms and it’s just these guys hulking their way up the wall; it’s impressive,” he said. “I’m blown away by what I’m seeing, and it’s a really good feeling.”
Colon and Ellen are among the shifting demographics of rock-climbers; outliers who are challenging the idea of what it takes to climb. And a sport that once appealed mostly to men is also seeing a gender shift.
“It’s definitely 50/50,” said Vertical Ventures’ owner, Chris Brown, 38. “In fact, the girls tend to do better than the guys at first because they’re more flexible, they climb more efficiently, more smoothly. But, most importantly, they’re not doing pull ups, where us guys tend to grab, pull, grab, pull, which is not the way you rock climb. Rock climbing is like a ladder; you push with your legs.”
Indoor climbing has been around for a while. The first climbing gym opened in the ‘80s and now – according to Climbing Business Journal – there are more than 400 facilities in the U.S. alone. It’s a $381-million industry and rising.
“When you’re passionate about something, you think it’s the coolest thing in the world. But, then to see all these other people who feel the same way, it’s kinda surprising and not surprising all at the same time,” Brown said. “That’s what’s cool about it, the way a much larger number of people are reaching out and trying it and having a good time.”
When 62-year-old Teri Malone of St. Petersburg found out her grown kids had gone to the Vertical Ventures’ grand opening, she was jealous. She was also intimidated. But that didn’t stop her. She showed up, and fell in love. That was a year and a half ago. Now she never lets more than a few days pass between climbing sessions.
“It’s definitely physical exercise, but it’s good for all sizes. You don’t have to be skinny, you don’t have to be muscly, you don’t have to be bulky, you don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be short; it’s for everybody. You can be young, you can be old; as long as you enjoy it,” Malone said.
And, is she still intimated? After all, on your way to the top, there is always the risk of falling.
“I don’t like to fall,” she said. “But, you have to fall to get better. I haven’t gotten better at that part yet, but I’m working on it.”
So what do you risk when climbing?
“Honestly, the most common injury when climbing is hurting your fingers, because your fingers aren’t used to grabbing, so a lot of times you can overpower your tendons in your fingers,” Brown said.
And, what’s the biggest risk?
“Egos, for sure,” Brown said and laughed. “The funny thing about that is, it checks your ego, but it also feeds your hunger. You go home and you dream about it – yeah, that’s when you know it’s got you.”
For information about Vertical Ventures, go to verticalventures.com.
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Main photo is courtesy of Vertical Ventures. Other photos by Shelly Steck Reale, TB Reporter correspondent.
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