I wanted to win both nationals (youth and open) eventually. I just didn’t think it would happen this early. —Nathaniel Coleman
SALT LAKE CITY — When trying to realize a dream, it isn’t always the physical challenges that are most daunting. Sometimes it’s the mental aspect that is most difficult to master.
If Nathaniel Coleman wanted to win his first national open bouldering title, he would have to beat his childhood idol. In January of this year, the 19-year-old University of Utah student did just that, defeating nine-time national champion Daniel Woods at USA Climbing’s Bouldering Open National championships.
He also won the youth championship and earned the North Face 2016 Young Gun Award.
Competing against a field of about 80 athletes, Coleman said he wasn’t sure what to expect — especially when that field includes someone like Woods.
“At first, it’s definitely nerve-wracking,” he said of competing against athletes he’s admired since childhood. “But now I’ve talked to him a lot and we’re friendly.”
Woods was winning national titles when Coleman was still an elementary school student being introduced to climbing and bouldering through a summer camp at Momentum Climbing Gym in Sandy. The winner of four youth national titles, Coleman said a national title in the Open Division has long been a goal.
“I wanted to win both nationals (youth and open) eventually,” he said. “I just didn’t think it would happen this early.”
It happened the last year Coleman can compete as a youth, young men ages 18 and 19, and his third competing in open, a category of about 80 competitors 16 and older.
Coleman placed 13th his first year as an open competitor and fifth last year. He said it was a friend’s invitation that introduced him to the sport.
“One of my buddies joined a summer camp hosted by Momentum,” Coleman said. “When he joined the team, he invited me to come join.”
A soccer player before that, he gave up the sport to commit himself to climbing.
“I had more skill for climbing than I did soccer,” he said. “It also has that outdoor element that not a lot of sports do.”
In the last decade, climbing has gone from the sport of outliers to one of the most popular participatory sports in the country. According to a report by the Physical Activity Council, 4.6 million people participated in sport climbing, bouldering or indoor climbing, placing it 17th on the list of 111 activities ranked by the group.
The most interesting aspect of the report is that the numbers from 2007 to 2014 grew by 18,732 people. But in just the last two years, that number exploded to 148,287. The reason for that explosion is the growth of indoor climbing gyms, like the one that lured Coleman into the sport at age 10, Momentum.
“The growth in the industry has been huge,” said Jeff Pedersen, one of Momentum’s co-founders and CEO, which now has three locations and will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in the fall.
The beauty of indoor climbing gyms is that they remove a lot of the risk and uncertainty that can be barriers for some people.
“Climbing gyms think very carefully about how to remove those big barriers,” Pedersen said. “Anyone can try it. You don’t even need to be an outdoor person. One of the things I love about indoor climbing is that it maintains the authenticity of the sport by offering those things that the existing enthusiasts need for climbing, but we can also introduce people to the sport at a much lower barrier and help them join that core community.”
Before climbing gyms, and in communities without them, those interested in the sport relied on books, maps and directions from friends as they ventured out into canyons to learn the sport by trial and error.
In Pedersen’s case, he was “lucky enough to stumble across climbers that helped us not kill ourselves in the canyons.”
There are two main areas of competition — bouldering and sport climbing. Bouldering is where athletes navigate their way up a ledge without ropes and usually involves heights of about 20 feet, while sport climbing uses ropes and asks competitors to navigate up to 80 feet.
Coleman said he boulders in the winter and competes in sport climbing in the summer.
“But I’m definitely better at bouldering,” he said. He said his affection for bouldering could be because he’s better at it.
“But I also like the process of bouldering if you fall, you have to go through the whole process it can be really frustrating.”
Coleman recently finished 16th in his qualifying group at the IFSC Climbing World Cup in Vail. It was a disappointing outing, but one that has the talented young climber more determined than ever.
“The Vail competition has given me motivation to train harder in the gym and try harder while competing,” he said.
Coleman is scheduled to compete in Japan later this summer and Paris in the fall.
Meanwhile, his success and struggles inspire those with whom he trains here in Utah.
“We talk a lot about Nathaniel and what he’s meant for Momentum,” Pedersen said. “He’s become a young leader for the entire U.S. in climbing. He’s looked up to by kids all over, and he’s such a great young man. During all of those years of trying and not quite making it, he never gave any excuses, he always (exhibited) great sportsmanship, and he continued to work hard.”
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