Originally published in the Fairfax County Times – December 21, 2018
Ellie Sepulveda started rock climbing when she was 11, and ever since a friend roped her into the sport during summer camp that year, she has not stopped.
It seems peer pressure can occasionally produce positive results.
Now, the Fairfax-residing teenager has traversed the U.S. and the world to compete even as she accumulated local titles and championship appearances.
After raising her profile with her first international competitions earlier this year, Sepulveda has again set her sights higher as she hopes to represent her country when the Olympic Games host their first-ever climbing events in 2020.
“A lot of people assume that climbing isn’t that much of a sport, but when they see it on the Olympic stage, they’ll realize the amount of preparation and physical ability you need to climb at a high level,” Sepulveda said. “I think it’s also good to bring publicity and really bring [in] new people and overall just grow the sport.”
In response to years of lobbying by the International Federation of Sport Climbing, including a failed 2013 bid, the International Olympic Committee approved the inclusion of climbing in the 2020 Olympic Games in August 2016, citing a desire to appeal to younger audiences, according to Climbing Magazine.
A field of 40 athletes – 20 men and 20 women – will gather in Tokyo, Japan, that summer to compete in three disciplines over four days. The medalists will be determined using the climbers’ combined results for lead, bouldering, and speed.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, competitive rock climbing takes a variety of forms. The three disciplines that will be included in the Tokyo Olympics can all be done on artificial, indoor walls.
At its most basic, bouldering involves ascending small formations or artificial rock walls without the support of ropes or harnesses. In the Olympics, climbers will be asked to scale as many fixed routes on a 4-meter-high wall as they can in four minutes, according to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games website.
While bouldering tests agility and strategy, lead climbing challenges athletes to climb as high as they can within a set time limit.
As suggested by its name, speed climbing puts climbers in a race to see who scales a wall faster.
In order to compete in the upcoming Olympics, climbers must not only have a grasp on all three disciplines, but they also have to place high enough in specific international competitions to qualify for a limited number of slots.
According to USA Climbing, the U.S.’s governing body for competitive climbing, athletes can qualify for the 2020 Olympics by ranking in the top six in the IFSC’s 2019 Combined World Championship in Tokyo, winning the 2019 World Cup, winning the IFSC Combined Continental Championship in 2020, or placing in the top six at the Olympic qualifying event in Toulouse, France, in 2019.
With individual countries limited to four participants with two of each gender, making the Olympics will be a challenge for any climber, let alone a teenager trying to break into a field of adults.
For Sepulveda, however, it just might be possible.
Already competing on both youth and adult circuits, Sepulveda trains more than 20 hours per week at Sportrock Climbing Centers in Alexandria with a schedule that incorporates running, strength workouts, and other cross-training exercises as well as different kinds of climbing that test her endurance and strength.
Though competitive sport training primarily takes place on indoor walls, Sepulveda does some outdoor climbing. New River Gorge in West Virginia and Red River Gorge in Kentucky are two of her favorite spots.
In recent years, Sepulveda has also traveled to South Africa to train during the summers.
The teen’s hard work has so far paid off.
As a freshman on Georgetown Day School’s climbing team, Sepulveda won the individual girls’ title at the Washington Area Interscholastic Climbing League Championships in February.
The GDS team had undefeated regular seasons for both men and women in 2018, as the latter won the league title with a perfect season and the highest team score in league history, according to the school.
In addition to her local success, Sepulveda now trains and competes with the U.S. national team, and she entered her first international competitions this year with visits to Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Spain, and China.
Most recently, Sepulveda placed 25th and 31st in women’s speed events at the IFSC Climbing World Cups held in Wujiang, China, on Oct. 21 and in Xiamen, China, on Oct. 28.
“I was intimidated to be on such a high level, but when I was there, I realized all climbers are really, really nice and you can always make friends with climbers,” Sepulveda said. “…I think that’s the unique thing about the sport. It’s not personal. It’s all about climbing for yourself and doing your own best.”
Because of her demanding travel and competition schedule, Sepulveda no longer attends Georgetown Day School and instead keeps up with her academic studies through George Washington University Online High School, an independent, private college preparatory program for students in eighth through 12th grade.
Taking an online education allows the 10th-grade student to continue her schoolwork even when she is overseas, alleviating a challenge that had made her freshman year difficult from a time management standpoint.
For Sepulveda, the appeal of competitive climbing comes in part from the fact that it demands a combination of strength and technique. As someone who was not an especially outdoors-oriented person, she also likes that it is an individual sport where she does not have to rely on anyone else.
At the same time, she still has a strong support system of family, friends, and coaches that helps make her chosen athletic pursuit possible.
Sepulveda’s father occasionally climbs with her, and her now-retired mother has been traveling with her, a rewarding experience even if Lindsey Sepulveda still sometimes gets scared watching her daughter climb as high as she does.
“It’s been really fun to see her get more and more involved in the sport, because I see how hard she works, and there’s a direct result of her hard work,” Lindsey Sepulveda said. “You see her training all of the time, and then she goes to a competition, and she does really well…It’s fun to watch your child’s hard work pay off.”
To learn more about George Washington University Online High School, visit https://www.gwuohs.com/