As women begin to dominate the rock climbing world, one of the best female climbers is letting a new generation take the lead.

By Ashley Mateo
June 17, 2018
Photo: The Washington Post/Contributor/Getty Images

When the International Olympic Committee finally announced that climbing would make its Olympic debut in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, it seemed like a given that Sasha DiGiulian-one of the youngest, most decorated climbers out there-would be gunning for the gold. (These are all the new sports you'll see at the 2020 Olympic Games.)

After all, the 25-year-old has hardly met a record she couldn't break: She was the first North American woman to climb the grade 9a, 5.14d, which is recognized as one of the hardest sport climbs achieved by a female; she's logged over 30 first-female ascents around the world, including the north face of the Eiger Mountain (casually known as "Murder Wall"); and she was the first woman to free climb the 2,300-foot Mora Mora. If she were to compete in the Olympics, would it even be a competition?

But DiGiulian, who previously wrote about giving up her Olympic dream when she quit figure skating for climbing, isn't planning on returning to that dream just because climbing is in the Games now-and she says that's a good thing. In the wake of her winning career (DiGiulian was the female World Champion, the undefeated Pan-American Champion for a decade, and a three-time United States National Champion), competitive climbing has evolved into a different kind of sport with new stars, and she's happy to let them shine.

Thanks in part to climbers like DiGiulian, climbing is becoming more accessible than ever. Forty-three new commercial climbing gyms opened in the United States in 2017, a 10 percent increase overall and nearly double the number of new gyms that opened the year before. And women now represent 38 percent of all climbing competitors, according to the International Federation of Sport Climbing. DiGiulian wants to see those numbers soar; that's why, moving forward, she wants to dedicate her efforts to bringing climbing to as many people as possible.

While her former competitors vied for the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup at the GoPro Games, sponsored by GMC, in Vail, CO, DiGiulian opened up about the rising popularity of climbing, why women are so drawn to the sport, and her goals beyond Olympic gold.

Shape: Climbing has seen such a boost in popularity over the past few years. Is that thanks to its recognition by the Olympics, or is there something else at play?

Sasha DiGiulian (SD): There's been this huge commercial boom in climbing-gyms have been opening up all over the world. It's been interpreted as this alternative type of fitness: It's easy to get involved in, it's interactive and social, it welcomes all body types and sizes, and it's a really good total-body workout. (These exercises will help prepare your body for climbing.)

And climbing was traditionally such a male-dominated sport, but there are more women than ever climbing now. I think women have realized you can be female and be a lot better than the guys at the gym. I mean, I'm 5'2'' and obviously not a huge, muscular man, but I do pretty well with my technique. It's all about a strength-to-bodyweight ratio, which makes it this really welcoming, diverse sport.

Shape: With more women climbing professionally, have things gotten more competitive?

SD: The climbing community is super close-knit. That's one of my favorite things about climbing. We're all going through similar experiences and we spend a lot of time together, so inevitably we become good friends. When you're connected through such an overarching passion, I think it draws you to have a lot of similarities where you can connect really well.

I think the thing that holds women back in sports sometimes is not knowing to even try. I was the first North American woman to climb the grade 9a, 5.14d, which, at the time, was the hardest climb established by a woman in the world. Now, in the last seven years, there have been so many other women who've not only accomplished that, but taking it even further-like Margo Hayes, who did the first 5.15a, and Angela Eiter, who did the first 5.15b. I think each generation is going to push the boundaries of what's been accomplished. The more women there are, the more standards we're going to see crushed. (Here are other badass female rock climbers who will inspire you to try the sport.)

Shape: How do you feel about climbing finally being included in the Olympics?

SD: I'm super excited to see climbing in the Olympics! Our sport has been growing so much, and I can't wait to see climbing on that stage. When I was in high school, I was one of a few kids who actually even knew what climbing was at my school. Then I went back and I spoke at my school a year ago and there were about 220 kids in the climbing club. I was like, "Wait, you guys didn't even know what I was doing back then!"

Climbing has grown and evolved a lot from even when I won the World Championships in 2011-the format and the style have completely changed. I love seeing the progression, but I've never done some of the things the Olympics will require, like speed climbing [climbers will also have to compete in bouldering and lead climbing]. So I think that the Olympic dream is more for the new generation who are growing up with this new format.

Shape: Was it difficult for you to decide whether or not to compete?

SD: It was a really hard decision to make. Do I want to return to competitions and really dedicate the next few years to plastic climbing in the gym? Or do I want to just follow what I genuinely feel like I want to do? What I feel really passionate about is climbing outside. I don't want to compromise being outside, and doing these big wall climbs I have planned, to be in the gym and training. To compete in the Olympics, I would need that tubular focus and to rearrange my priorities. (Here are 12 epic places to rock climb before you die.)

But everything in my career, whatever success I've had, has been because I'm doing what I want to be doing and following what I feel passionate about. I don't feel passionate about climbing in the gym, and if I don't have that passion, then I'm not going to be successful. I don't feel like I'm missing out, though, because I've seen this dream-of climbing being in the Olympics-come to fruition. I'm proud of our sport for making that happen.

Shape: With the Olympics off the table, what goals are you reaching for now?

SD: My overarching goal is to make as many people as possible aware of climbing as a sport. Social media has been an awesome vehicle for that. Before, it was such a niche sport; you just go off and do your thing. Now, each adventure that we take is at people's fingertips.

I do have bigger, endemic climbing projects within certain climbs that I want to achieve-I'd love to do first ascents on every continent. But I also want to create more mainstream video content around climbing as this conduit to other things in life, like the culturally immersive experiences that I have when I travel. I want people to understand that climbing can be this vessel to see the world. So often, all we see are these end-product videos, where a climber scales some amazing cliff in a remarkable location. The person watching is left wondering, "How do you get there?" I want to show people that I'm just your average person. I do it, so you could too. (Start here with Rock Climbing Tips for Beginners and the Essential Rock Climbing Gear You Need to Get On the Wall.)