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In the lead up to the Olympics 2020, Teen Vogue caught up with some of the brightest Team USA stars heading to Tokyo. Here, learn about rock climber Brooke Raboutou and her reluctant stardom.
For someone who has been in the spotlight for over a decade, 20-year-old professional climber Brooke Raboutou is surprisingly reserved. Brooke has been, on several occasions, the youngest female to complete elite routes up cliffs that must look unscalable to most adults, let alone most nine or 10-year-olds. At 11, she was featured in an episode of the Prodigies web series — a video that now has almost 16 million views on YouTube. She has won multiple youth championship titles, and she just scored her first silver medal in a world cup in June. In a few weeks, she’ll make history again as one of the four American climbers competing in the Tokyo Games, where climbing will make its Olympic debut.
She’s clearly no stranger to attention — she has been featured in Rolling Stone, and even modeled for her sponsor, Adidas Terrex — still, she’s almost embarrassed about all the popularity. “I used to be really shy. I mean, I still am a little bit about my accomplishments,” she tells Teen Vogue. “In school, I never wanted anyone to know I was a climber.”
Everything changed after she qualified for the Olympics. “Those worlds really collided.”
The non-climbing world has glimpsed into the intrepid realm of ‘big wall’ rock climbing in recent years through The New York Times’ viral coverage of the first ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall and the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo. But climbing is a sport that encompasses many disciplines, often far from Yosemite’s granite monoliths. Soon, with the addition of climbing in the Olympics, new viewers will be drawn into the competitive side of the sport, performed on artificial walls designed by professional route setters.
Raboutou is a household name in the contest scene. Brooke’s parents — both former professional climbers — operate a climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado where many of America’s strongest competitors (including National Champion and Brooke’s best friend Natalia Grossman and Olympian Colin Duffy) were coached by Brooke’s mom, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou. Brooke’s brother, Shawn, is also a world-class climber. “Because of the Raboutou name, in general, people have always been watching both Brooke and Shawn,” says Meagan Martin, a professional climber and climbing analyst for NBC, who will commentate the climbing events at the Olympics.
Martin has been a longtime friend of the Raboutous. “At an early age, they could probably tell that people were paying attention to them, so they probably became more reserved because of that,” she says. “And I mean, I think that it is really cool that both of them can be so humble because they are such accomplished athletes.” Martin — over 10-years Brooke’s senior — recalls a 12-year-old Brooke saying something along the lines of I hope I can be as strong of a climber as you someday. “I was like, you’re already better than me, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, “It was so funny that she didn’t even know that.” Martin says it’s a good characteristic. It keeps Brooke working hard. “The minute you see yourself as the best, I think it might be harder to maintain that work ethic. But I think it’s pretty adorable that she’s embarrassed when people make a big deal out of her.”
One evening in mid-June, while Brooke was out at dinner with Robyn, Martin, and two other climbers, a woman came to their table to compliment their strong biceps. Someone at the table pointed to Brooke and said “this one is going to the Olympics.” Martin says laughing, “Brooke immediately went beet red. And she was like: oh my gosh, don’t do that.”
The attention could soon multiply. The Olympics is the biggest sports stage in the world. A good performance there will mean international fame beyond the relatively tight-knit sport of climbing. For Brooke, however, a balance between climbing and her life outside of the sport is important. She’s also a student at the University of San Diego studying marketing, but she took the spring semester off to train for the Olympics. She plans to return to school full-time in the fall. “I like to talk about climbing, but I also like to go shopping and, you know, have a girls’ night and not talk about climbing,” Brooke says.
“You don't see that as much with such an elite level athlete,” Martin says. “Oftentimes, they are only in the gym training. But she's always been this way in the sense that relationships are really important to her too.”
Some of her friends at school were surprised to learn she was a climber when she qualified for the Olympics. Brooke says, “I’ve gotten a lot better at being proud of that instead of wanting to hide it, but I still enjoyed the separation and the difference.”
To be a successful climber requires so much more than strong fingers. There’s a big mental component. Brooke needs to be grounded and analytical. Each route is a new problem that needs to be solved under pressure with thousands of fans watching plus international rankings and a career at stake. Martin says Brooke is good at focusing on the task of climbing and not on the results — tuning out the stress of the competitions to analyze feedback and determine how to climb better next time. Little failures have never derailed her.
The 2019 world cup season was one of those times when Brooke had to overcome difficult mental challenges. Up until then, Brooke says, she was happy with how she was doing. “I think I was just naturally pretty good. And that year I got shut down at the world cups,” she says. “I wasn’t mentally in it. I wasn’t ready.” So she started working on her mental game, using breathing techniques to calm herself and visualization exercises to imagine the intensity of a competition beforehand, making the real event feel more natural. She came to terms with what she was able to control, and she learned to let go of what she couldn’t.
Natalia Grossman, who recently won back-to-back world cups in Salt Lake City, says Brooke’s mental game has rubbed off on her. The two of them are very close, Grossman says, “She really wants me to succeed and do well at the comp or send the boulder, and she doesn't care if I send it first or if I do it better.” Grossman remembers the 2019 World Championships in Hachioji, Japan, the event that qualified Brooke for the Olympics. Grossman was disappointed in her own performance at that contest. She was feeling burnt out and stressed about an upcoming competition. “I just remember she was like: what happened already happened. There’s nothing you can do about it and all you can do is go to this competition and have fun.” Grossman says Brooke has a more relaxed attitude at events; she has a lot of fun with them. Being around that helped Grossman relieve some of the pressure she used to put on herself.
“I’ve always been taught by my parents and my community that it’s not all about you. It’s about uplifting the community and the people around you because you can’t expect to get support if you’re not willing to give it,” Brooke says. “There’s enough room for everyone to do their best.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue