At Just 13, Pittsfield Rock Climber Is Solving Advanced Problems | 18 & Under July 2011

“________” is not a sport.

As a runner, I oftentimes find myself on the defensive end of rancorous debates about the merits of certain athletic disciplines. They usually go something like this: “Wait a minute, you, a golfer, are trying to tell me that cross-country isn’t a sport?!”

Having been the victim of generalizations that my favorite sports aren’t actually “sports” due to their lack of popularity, I tend to sympathize with the little guys who forego the mainstream to participate in less popular activities.

But, as is sometimes the case, we tend to betray our own beliefs. If you had asked me a week ago whether rock climbing deserved to be classified as a sport, I might’ve said no. At best, I would’ve grudgingly agreed, but I certainly wouldn’t have placed it on the same pedestal as more socially acceptable activities like soccer or basketball.

Boy, would I have been wrong.

Exhibit A that rock climbing unequivocally falls under the definition of sport: Sam Hayden—athlete, artist, and rock climber extraordinaire. Around Christmastime each year, Sam and his teammates—a youth climbing team, aptly known as the “Extreme Team,” that trains at the Green Mountain Climbing Center in Rutland—complete a workout that requires them to do 1,000 exercises including hundreds of push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups, and then finish five climbs in a half hour. Oh, and did I mention that he’s 13 years old? How many of you baseball players out there can do that?

Sam was 12 when he started at the first level. “In level one, you have to climb a five- or six-rated wall,” he says. “Within three to four weeks, I was up to level five. I was really afraid of heights when I first started. Once I got over that fear, it wasn’t that bad.”

Sam’s coach, Steve Lulek, is a former drill sergeant who isn’t afraid to push his athletes to their physical limits.

“We do extreme conditioning you don’t see around here,” he says. “We train really hard, and I demand high expectations of them. It gives them pride and the opportunity to show off their athleticism.”

A staple of any sport is competition, and rock climbing is no exception. Sam, a resident of Pittsfield, competes in sport climbing and bouldering. The main characteristic of sport climbing is that there is a rope above the climber at all times, hence its alternative name, top-rope climbing. The climber is harnessed into the rope, which runs through a hook at the top of the climbing wall, and is supported by a belayer at the bottom. Bouldering consists of short traverses of five to 20 feet without a rope or harness and requires its participants to jump down from the rock wall after they have finished their climbs.

Although he has been climbing for just two-and-a-half years, and competing for little more than a year, Sam has established himself as an elite competitor at USA Climbing events. At the American Bouldering Series National Championships in February, Sam finished 17th in the Youth-C division, and he would’ve placed higher if not for a string of uncharacteristic blunders. In an Sport Climbing Series regional competition in June 2010, Sam placed 20th. His accomplishments are remarkable considering his lack of competitive experience relative to his peers. “He’s a phenomenon,” says Lulek.

In climbing lingo, each climbing attempt is referred to as a problem. The challenge of a problem lies in figuring out what path to take to get to the top of the wall. Given the number of footholds on a rock wall, each problem has a myriad of paths to take, allowing climbers to show off their creativity and intelligence. “What it boils down to,” says Lulek, “is finding where the balance point is, where you twist your body in such a way so as to make the next move. Climbing is problem solving. It’s artisticness and creativity, and it’s always changing. That’s where Sam is so special. He wants to understand outdoor and inside bouldering, and building climbs for people. He wants to know it all.”

In his training, Sam makes a point to hone in on the mental keenness it takes to succeed. “There’s quite a bit of technique involved, which takes patience and time,” Sam says. “If you mentally train, the physical aspect goes along with the mental aspect.”

Here we have a sport that requires peak physical fitness as well as a sharp mind. It is an internationally recognized athletic endeavor that encourages seeking creative solutions as well as grinding through physical pain. If that doesn’t fit the criteria of a sport, I don’t know what does.

Although climbing is appreciated at its full value in small circles throughout the country, Lulek believes it will take a while before society accepts it as a mainstream sport.

It looks like Sam will be hanging around to see that.

“I’m probably going to continue for the rest of my life,” he says. “Definitely.”For the lingering skeptics out there, I suggest you take a trip to 223 Woodstock Ave. in Rutland and have Sam Hayden show you what it means to be a real athlete. As for me, I’ll see you at the 2018, VPA-sanctioned Vermont High School Rock Climbing Championships.