Rock Climber Sasha DiGiulian is Making Her Way to the Top
By 11 a.m., fans had gathered near the Dominion Riverrock climbing structure for the day’s 1 p.m. finals.
A light rain fell through the Richmond sky as the climbers arrived. Dressed in tank tops, sandals and baggy pants, the Boulder Bash competitors talked and laughed, greeting one another with hugs. Several discussed the dramatic women’s semifinal from the night before, when the climbing route was almost unbeatable — until, with less than five seconds remaining, the 19-year-old defending champion reached her hand, with fingernails painted a glittering pink, onto the top hold.
Sasha DiGiulian was the only female to complete the climb, which left Sunday’s finals almost devoid of suspense. To win, she had to finish the route within the time limit, which, for the Alexandria native, would prove as effortless as walking across the gravel lot, as she did now, head down, iPod earbuds in, flip-flops clapping against the small rocks.
DiGiulian wore a white Adidas hooded zip-up jacket and black Adidas shorts, her long, blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. Standing 5-foot-2 and weighing about 98 pounds, with smooth, tanned skin and clear blue eyes, she looked more Hollywood starlet than pro climber. Several fans lingered nearby, hesitating as they decided whether to ask for her autograph. Her brows creased in concentration as she continued toward the preparation zone.
Two hours later, the announcer yelled to the crowd of several hundred, “Are we psyched?” Of the top 10 male and female finalists, the 10th-place finisher would climb first, followed by ninth place, eighth place, etc., meaning that, on the women’s side, DiGiulian would climb last. Each finalist had five minutes to reach the top. In bouldering, no harnesses or ropes are used — the climber’s tools are his or her own strength, intelligence and agility.
The women’s structure, 25 feet high and named “the Star” for its five-pointed ends, had holds scattered across the surface. Blue mats covered the ground to cushion falls. The first seven women each started steadily, dangling by their arms in monkeylike fashion as they grabbed the next hold, until a pivotal set where an extended reach with a jump was necessary. They all fell at that point and started again, but no one reached the top in time.
“We Will Rock You” blasted from the speakers as third-place pro climber Angie Payne, 27, of Cincinnati began. She reached the top in just under 3 minutes 20 seconds.
“That may be hard for Sasha to beat,” said DiGiulian’s father, John, watching from the crowd, knowing that she wanted the best time.
Second-place female Alex Johnson, a 23-year-old professional climber from Hudson, Wis., moved smoothly from hold to hold, reaching the top in less than four minutes.
“And now it’s Sasha DiGiulian!” the announcer called out, as DiGiulian stood on the mat and the clock began. She paused, looking up and tracing the climb in the air with her hands, reaching for each imaginary hold as if pantomiming. She grabbed the bottom hold, hanging for a split second before extending her slender leg toward an adjacent lateral hold and reaching upward, her muscular biceps and triceps flexing beneath her broad shoulders.
DiGiulian moved gracefully, extending her limbs at a composed and steady pace. At times, she hung by her arms, swinging her leg in the air toward the next hold. At other moments, her arms and legs were stretched in four directions, her body shaped like an X. DiGiulian occasionally reached behind her for the chalk bag tied on her back, coating her hands in white. At one passage, with her right knee bent and her right foot resting on a hold, she swung her hips to the left, her left leg at a 45-degree angle from the ground, mirroring a Cirque du Soleil performer.
When she reached the spot that had troubled the earlier climbers, DiGiulian hesitated for several seconds, mentally reaching for the hold before moving. She pushed her body up and to the left, airborne momentarily before grabbing the hold. Her time was just over three minutes as she reached the final hold. Fans cheered as she turned and, hanging by only her left hand, smiled and waved at the crowd, her legs dangling. High above the ground, she looked almost childlike.
Ten minutes later, DiGiulian accepted her first-place, $2,000 check. She posed for pictures with fans; a young boy requested her autograph on his T-shirt; a girl asked her to sign a poster that pictured DiGiulian climbing a rock face.
In the past two years, DiGiulian has established herself as the best female climber in the United States and arguably the best female rock climber in the world. America’s climbing industry is looking to her to raise the sport’s profile and move it closer toward the mainstream.
But at 19, is she ready for that kind of ascent?
For more information on Sasha DiGiulian, click here.