“It was an open comp, so there was professionals there … and they had finals at night, which I definitely didn't make because it was my first year of climbing,” he said. “It was cool to have that be one of my first comp experiences.”
“It kind of intimidated me because there was a ton of people,” he said. “I didn't feel good enough for people to be watching me yet.”
A year later, McKenzie moved up to Team Earth Treks, where he has remained since.
These days, he practices six days a week. Saturdays are his favorite, he said, because all three of Earth Treks' climbing teams meet at one of the organization's three gyms in Maryland: Rockville, which has the nation's largest indoor climbing wall, Timonium — McKenzie's usual training location — or Columbia.
“It's when you get to interact with the other teammates and the different gyms,” McKenzie said. “I usually like that more because they rotate gyms … so you can go to Columbia or Rockville for a different style.”
The years of training have clearly paid dividends for McKenzie, who finished first in his category in two local competitions and the American Bouldering Series Regional Competition in 2013 and fell one point short of winning the American Bouldering Series Divisional Competition last month.
The competitions came months after McKenzie suffered upper-back spasms, what he called his worst injury.
“I was doing a move downstairs [on the climbing wall] — it was a big compression move, which is like you squeeze really hard — and one of my hands popped off and it jerked my back,” he said. “I'm still in physical therapy for that.”
Dorman said she's come to terms with the accident-prone sport, which McKenzie said becomes less dangerous over time.
“It gets less and less injury-heavy the better you get, because it's kind of a skill in itself to learn how to fall and land on all fours,” he said.
Physical therapy aside, McKenzie said he feels “definitely back to 100 percent” heading into nationals, where he'll compete against the country's top 35 17- and 18-year-old climbers.
On top of his world
At competitions, climbers are given boulder “problems,” or obstacles they must navigate on the climbing wall in a fixed amount of time, and are assessed by the number of completed problems and the number of attempts taken until completion.
The national competition differs from other events, McKenzie said, not only because it draws a larger audience but also because route-setters designate problems differently.
“They make it super-aesthetic moves, sort of, that aren't necessarily hard but are big jumping moves and weird feet positions and that kind of thing,” he said. “I mean, it definitely tests the ability of who's the best climber, but … it's like a showy comp. It's not about whoever can do the hardest moves is the winner; it's whoever can figure it out in four minutes and figure out the right [course] up the wall.”
Though both McKenzie and Dorman stressed that nationals will present unfamiliar challenges, McKenzie said he's confident heading into the event, and Dorman highlighted the “Zen-like approach” to climbing that McKenzie has cultivated over the years.
“His whole development, we've sort of been able to watch it, and part of it is sort of through climbing, because he's gotten this sense of confidence and strength and focus,” Dorman said. “You can see it. … He's kind of got something going now.”