Courtesy Momentum Climbing
Salt Lake's Nathaniel Coleman, center, poses for a picture before training with Sandy's Ben Tresco and Minnesota-native-turned Utah resident Kyra Conde at Momentum Climbing Gym in Millcreek. The trio train at the gym and will be competing in this weekend's U.S. National Bouldering Championships.

SALT LAKE CITY — To some, a craggy overhang of rock may look like scenery, an ornament, or even an obstacle.

For people like two-time national bouldering champion Nathaniel Coleman, it’s a puzzle waiting to be solved. And it is the unique demands of climbing that lured the 21-year-old Salt Lake man away from traditional sports and into one of the fastest-growing and newest Olympic sports.

“It’s like a puzzle that you can solve with your body and your mind,” said Coleman, who will look to defend his National Championship this weekend when the USA Climbing returns to Salt Lake’s Salt Palace and Convention Center for the 2018 National Bouldering Championships on Feb. 2-3 and Feb. 10-11. “You start to find different ways your body can move and contort and put tension between holds, and you have all of these pieces you have to put together. And then you have a problem that you’ve never seen before, and you need to solve it with your mind as much as your body.”

Coleman will be seeking his third consecutive National Championship, but he will be competing against some of the best in the country, including other locals like Ben Tresco, of Sandy. On the women’s side, Alex Puccio, an 11-time U.S. champion who moved to Utah to coach at Momentum Climbing gyms, will look to defend her title against up-and-coming competitors like Kyra Conde, who moved to Utah just a few weeks ago to pursue her climbing goals.

The men’s competition begins at 9:30 a.m. today with qualifying, followed by the women’s qualifying event at 11 a.m. The semifinals are at 9 a.m. Saturday, with the finals at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

The climbers hope both fans and the curious will come out and support the climbers as they compete for a range of honors and awards.

“I’d say the energy of the people around you as you watch the climbers,” Coleman said of what spectators might expect of the sport that will be in the 2020 Olympics. “You may not know what …is going on, but when somebody does something cool, and everybody around you starts yelling, that excitement is impossible to keep out of your system.”

Because the Olympic competition will require climbers to compete in all three disciplines — bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing, athletes like Tresco, who’ve specialized in lead climbing, are looking to improve their bouldering skills.

“The Olympics is an all-around format, so you have to be really strong, not just at bouldering or lead climbing, but at all three,” He said. “To me, climbing is about more than fitness and strength. It takes a lot more to be successful. It takes a lot of raw power, but it also takes a lot of technical skill where you unlock the movements, and it’s an immense feat because each is a different discipline unto itself.”

Climbers can be overwhelmed by the physical demands, as well as the mental pressure that climbing and compounded by competing.

Rather than shun the pressure that comes with success, Coleman has learned to find joy in it.

“I think the reason I’ve been so successful in competition the last couple of years is that I’ve worked more on — and I’ve discovered that my mental aspect of climbing while in competition is actually pretty rare,” he said. “I look at a lot of people when they climb, and they’re not worried. They’re not even thinking about what they’re doing while they’re climbing, or while they’re waiting. I think that holds them back. I think the greatest enemy is themselves.

"So I’ve just kind of naturally by love of competition and being a competitive person, I’ve learned to love the excitement and pressure of competition. It puts me in such a positive place.”

Some of his ability to embrace pressure comes from the number of times, and ways, he’s had to deal with it.

“Being in that situation so many times and having positive outcomes from it has just kind of caused this positive association with the high pressure stakes,” he said with a smile. And then he adds, “When I put expectations on myself, then I feel like I’m climbing for the wrong reasons.

"So my expectations for the weekend are to climb my best, work on my mental state while climbing and just enjoy the experience and enjoy the home crowd.”

He believes the support of the crowd helped energize him last year when he won his second National Championship in Salt Lake City. Like most climbers, he’s intrigued and excited about the opportunity to climb in the Olympics in 2020, although he said it is not the focus of his training. Whether climbers believe the embrace from the IOC is something they’re interested in or not, they all agree it is good for the sport, even if there may be some growing pains.

“I think even if you’re not a climber, it’s interesting to watch,” Coleman said of the sport. “And it’s exciting. On a basic level, it’s easy to understand.”

Coleman admits there are pros and cons to having the sport he loves part of the Olympic program.

“I think it will put climbing on the mainstream map, and we’ll get more resources because people will know about it,” he said, adding that he’s talked with snowboarders about the positive and negative impacts the Olympic spotlight offers a sport so rooted in recreation and creativity. Some say the added attention and requirements imposed by an international body can have a ripple effect on competitions all the way down to introductory programs. Infusing money and sponsors into competition can impact everything from courses to rules, and the competitors may not have much say in those changes.

“Climbing right now, the community around it is fantastic,” he said. “Everybody is friendly and you hardly ever see anybody cheering against somebody else.”

That camaraderie is what many climbers enjoy most about taking their passion from a hobby to a competitive endeavor. It is what drew Conde from her home in Minnesota to relocate to Utah.

“The climbing community is really supportive, and not cut-throat, even at the highest levels where everybody is super competitive and does want to win,” said the 21-year-old. “We’re all friends, and I think that’s really unique to climbing.”

A Utah resident for just a couple of weeks, she said it wasn’t just Utah’s supportive outdoor community that drew her to the state.

“One of the big reasons I came to Utah … was the gym itself,” she said of Momentum, where all three athletes train. “The biggest thing for me is they have really well-set routes. The climbs on the wall change all the time, and the people who put them on the wall are really talented. They make the climbs really interesting while making them hard, and also having a wide variety of hard climbs is really important for training.”

Conde said bouldering allows athletes to embrace failure as they get a time limit to try and figure out a climbing situation, rather than just climbing to exhaustion.

“You get to do cooler moves,” she said. “With sport climbing, you only get one try during a competition because if you fall, you come down. With bouldering, you get a time limit, and you can try the boulder as many times as you want. Because of that they’re able to put moves on the boulder that are really interesting … and that they expect you to fall on when you first try. I think that’s really cool.”

The athletes enjoy others climb watching almost as much as they enjoy climbing.

“My favorite people to watch climb are the ones who climb the prettiest, who are elegant on the wall,” Coleman said, glancing at the climbers grappling with puzzles on the walls at Momentum’s Millcreek gym last week. “You can tell their mental state is on another level from people who are purely fitness based and just trying to get as far as they can. I love watching people when they push themselves past their limits. It’s incredible.”

This weekend's competitors are some of the best in the world, and they will likely be some of those vying for Olympic spots. For Coleman, it is more than just a sport.

“I think I was honestly born to do this,” Coleman said. “I think the way my mind works and the way my body is built, was for this purpose.”

The competitions will take place in Hall 5 at the Salt Palace, and tickets are available at www.usaclimbing.org. The cost is $10 for qualifying, $15 for semifinals and $20 for Saturday night’s finals.

The climbers hope both fans and the curious will come out and support the climbers as they compete for a range of honors and awards.

“I’d say the energy of the people around you as you watch the climbers,” Coleman said of what spectators might expect. “You may not know what is going on, but when somebody does something cool, and everybody around you starts yelling, that excitement is impossible to keep out of your system.”