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Interview with Bouldering World Champion Natalia Grossman

After an incredible season, American Natalia Grossman describes her journey toward becoming the 2021 IFSC Bouldering World Champion

Photo by: Jess Talley

In a sense, we’re still too close to it. As time passes, perhaps we’ll better understand the significance of Natalia Grossman’s season. She had not made a World Cup final in advance of this year, yet she concluded the season as the 2021 IFSC Boulder World Champion.

Natalia Grossman – photo by Ross Fulkerson

For Grossman, it started in 2005. Climbing was still small and she was too young to climb indoors. Still, the eccentric ceramic climber built into the wall of her local climbing gym spoke to her. “I want to do that.”

Two years later, Grossman returned. She was six years old and ready begin climbing at the Pacific Edge in Santa Cruz, California. Noted for being a gym where Chis Sharma climbed in his youth, the facility became one of Grossman’s favourite places. Although the space was only three blocks from her house, she began to compete, progress and eventually require an alternative solution for her indoor climbing.

After saying goodbye to gymnastics, Grossman invested in the Berkeley Iron Works. Having made her first Youth Nationals final, she was excited to train hard and get stronger. She grew close to her teammates, and worked hard to progress alongside them.

Around this time, she became close friends with Mirko Caballero, a 13-year-old boulderer that grew up an hour from Grossman. Neither she nor her family knew a lot about outdoor climbing at the time, so Grossman joined Caballero on their holidays. They went to Bishop.

Natalia Grossman on a rope – photo by Lena Drapella

Grossman amassed skill over time, climbing outdoors and with Berkeley’s Zero Gravity. Her team consistently made it in the top three at Nationals and the community pulled together as the athletes, and their parents, made friends with one another. By 2014, Zero Gravity disbanded, and the Grossmans had a decision to make.

“By this time, I was really good friends with all the girls on Team ABC,” Grossman reflected. “There were probably eight girls all my age. At Nationals, in finals, it was always all eight of them, me, Ashima and this girl Lauren from Texas. I had been competing against them since I was eight, and even though I only saw them twice a year, we had a good connection.”

Grossman and her parents sat down and talked about the move. They decided that they wanted to support their athlete through to the next stage in her development. The move was hard, Boulder is the seventh most expensive area in the country, but through public schools and apartment buildings, the Grossmans found themselves on the other side.

Natalia found her way into school and adopted a major in psychology with a minor in business. The now 20-year-old has aspirations of grad school predicated on careers in therapy or social work depending on life’s progression.

Although this sort of move to Colorado might strike many of us as incredible, this approach to parenting was born in the very Montessori schools her mother grew up teaching in. There is a saying, Grossman said, “Let your child lead the path.” By trusting the direction and ambition of their daughter, Grossman managed to find her way into one of the most welcoming communities in sport.

Natalia Grossman – photo by Brooke Raboutou

After eight years in gymnastics, a strong sense of community and support became important to the young competitor, and a reason to stay in climbing. Despite the mutual uplift that comes from competitors across all disciplines in climbing, Grossman found friction in her new found fame. She mentioned that, for the most part, she really doubts that people think of her in the gym, but following the Salt Lake World Cups, she struggled to manage some of the darker comments on the Salt Lake livestreams.

As climbing grows, it becomes harder to mentor each climber in the manners by which we treat members of our sport. Grossman had to suffer the result of that ignorance, but also gained greater strength from the exchange. “If you’re going to put yourself out there, there are always going to be people saying mean things. Now I know it doesn’t matter what people say, but at the time it really affected it me.”

In the end, Grossman noted that the Salt Lake City World Cups were still her favourites of 2021. The home crowd allowed for her parents to watch the events, making these the first of the season where they could watch their daughter perform. Grossman said that she could not have asked for a better comp. She earned two gold medals from the events.

In fact, Grossman’s two golds joined one bouldering bronze and another silver to give her the 2021 Boulder World Cup Series title. While she would go onto earn the Boulder World Championships as well, this original victory has almost as much value if not the same amount of accreditation.

Although Grossman would not win a lead World Cup, she podiumed in five of the six events, ultimately walking away as the second highest ranked Lead World Cup Climber. To that effect, she took silver at the World Championships as well.

To say that Grossman is on a tear in understatement. She is America’s most consistent competitive climber. She is also the most highly decorated in that she is the first American World Champion climbing has seen. How did she break out into the top spot?

Upon reflection, Grossman puts it down to a few things. The pandemic reset all expectations and so she went into the Meiringen World Cup simply excited to see how she’d do against the veterans. She also spent a great deal of the last two years MoonBoarding as power, contact strength, and board climbing represented some of her more overt weaknesses.

As her power grew, so did her independence, and she struck out from home, moving into the Salt Lake-based Canadian household of Oscar and Victor Buadrand. This speaks more to her internal development over this period where she learned how she wanted to support herself.

Today, the question on many people’s lips is in relation to Paris 2024. Grossman thinks that it seems like the sort of thing she would be excited about doing, but also recognizes it is far away. As she does not need to figure it out just yet, Grossman instead looks forward to climbing and training in advance of the upcoming season.

Natalia Grossman in Salt Lake City – photo by Daniel Gajda
Lead photo: Jess Talley