Friday, August 2, 2002

Climbing the Walls

The sport of climbing became much popular in America toward the end of the millennium. The best climbers come from states with high mountaintops. Vermont, ironically, rarely produces top climbers. Nikki Whelan is an anomaly. This is a story, which I wrote in the summer of 2002, of Whelan and a more experienced climber who met by chance and gained more passion for the sport because of each other.

Hilary Harris knew moving to Vermont would be difficult.

She lived in Boulder, Colo., for 14 years. Climbing was the passion of her life. She came to Vermont in April 2001, driven here by personal reasons and career endeavors, planning to abandon the sport she loved.

A few months after arriving, Harris decided to stop by a Burlington climbing gym. There she found a reason to remain passionate about climbing.

Harris stumbled upon Nikki Whelan, a 14-year-old Burlington resident who has been a regular at the Petra Cliffs gym since its doors opened in March 2000.

“I went to the gym just to see what it was about and I saw Nikki and a couple other kids climbing and they caught my eye,” Harris said.

Whelan says it was flashes of “youthful enthusiasm” that piqued Harris’s interest.

Whelan quickly learned that Harris had coached climbers in Colorado and owned a remarkable climbing resume. The pair soon established a mentor-apprentice relationship, bound by a devotion to the sport. Whelan sparked Harris to begin climbing again. Harris, in turn, has turned her protege into one of the top young climbers in the world.

A different track

Across America, young people are gravitating toward sport climbing. As a freshman entering Burlington High School in the fall, however, Whelan is the only person she knows from the school that climbs. Whelan acknowledges she strives to be different from her peers, and her mother, Christine Whelan, is appreciative that she doesn’t have to deal with typical adolescent girl issues.

“She doesn’t follow a trend,” Christine Whelan said. “She makes her own trend, which I like. Then when everybody follows her trend she drops it.”

Her commitment to constant practice and dedication to the sport is reflected in her maturity. After all, you don’t become obsessed with boys, movies and makeup hanging out with adult climbers.

In a sport that Whelan and Harris say is 90 percent mental, technique takes up most of the remaining 10 percent. Whelan isn’t lacking in either area.

She attributes much of her success to Harris.

“Hilary is basically the one that got me to the point I am now,” Whelan said. “Without her, I think I’d just be an average climber. I really don’t think I’m any more talented than anyone else, but because of Hilary I’ve been able to get to the next level.”

Those who have seen Nikki climb rave over her agile footwork and excellent technique. However, like most elite climbers, it is her ability to thrive on pressure and perform better during competition that puts her above the crowd.

How far above the crowd is she?

Whelan is ranked second in the nation among 14- and 15-year-old females. She plans to travel to France for the World Competitions in September with the U.S. Junior Climbing Team if she can raise enough money to fund the trip.

In short, she’s come a long way from her first time climbing at the Racquet’s Edge in 1999.

“I thought I was horrible at it,” Whelan said of her first experience. “I was shaking the whole way up the wall and I couldn’t get over the ledge. Everyone was making fun of me because I looked so awkward up there. I guess I got better at it.”

On the rise

Her initial debacle kept Whelan away from the sport until Petra Cliffs opened. She went with her sister, Claire, 16, and has been hooked ever since, climbing four to five times a week.

Chip Schlegel, the owner of Petra Cliffs and Whelan’s first instructor, said he knew she had potential, but did not expect her to improve as quickly as she did. Less than a month into the sport, the Whelan sisters were traveling with the gym’s climbing team to compete in competitions in New England. Schlegel said Nikki Whelan did not perform as well as she could have that first year, but her improvement would soon appear.

In the 2001 season, Whelan won every competition but one and Harris was brought on board as her mentor.

“A coach can only do so much,” said Harris. “She puts a lot into it. She’s responsive to suggestions and follows the suggestion I give her. Probably her biggest strength is she doesn’t get down on herself when she fails. That’s what really has pushed her farther along than other people.”

Despite all her success, Whelan has had her share of bumps and bruises along the way. In December 2000, she tried lead-climbing, instead of top roping, for the first time. In lead-climbing, the rope is coiled at the ground and the climber clips it into the wall as she climbs. Top roping is easier because the rope is already anchored at the top of the wall before a climber begins the ascent. While leading-climbing, Nikki missed a few clips and swung 20 feet below into the wall.

“She was afraid to lead-climb for a year,” Christine Whelan said. “She was so afraid after that experience I thought she would never lead-climb again.”

She did.

She defied her inexperience with mental toughness and smarter training at this year’s regional and national competitions. She followed a weekly climbing schedule with exercises designed by Harris. Part of this schedule included three days to let her muscles rest, something she wasn’t doing enough of a year earlier. Besides her gym, Whelan ventured to The Wall in Quechee and an outdoor cliff in Rumney, N.H.

Breezing through the 2002 New England-North regional competitions, Nikki finished second in her bracket at the national competitions. Not only was she one of four 14-to-15-year-old girls headed to world competitions in France, but she made the U.S.

Difficulty Team and the U.S. Speed Climbing Team. Difficulty climbing is an ages-old sport that requires tremendous technique to maneuver up various routes and angles along a wall or cliff.

Speed climbing is a novelty sport, created in the mid-1980s by climbing federations for entertainment. It is a race straight up a wall or rock face, measuring only speed. In her second time speed climbing, Whelan qualified for the national team.

“She has a tremendous amount of potential,” Harris said. “She exhibits that sort of mental toughness, or Yankee independence, that I feel is so criticial to being a good climber. When the time comes and she’s able to spread her wings, she’ll really have a chance to blossom.”

This story first appeared on the front of the Burlington Free Press sports section on Aug. 2, 2002.


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