Gabe McKenzie climbing toward national championship in bouldering

Gabe McKenzie swayed precariously, hanging from the rock wall by one hand.

The 17-year-old let go, falling about 15 feet to the ground.

Landing squarely on the mat below, he bounded to his feet and headed back toward another group of climbers for some pointers and his next practice assignment, another run successfully completed.

McKenzie has participated in bouldering, a form of rock climbing performed without ropes and harnesses, since eighth grade and ranks sixth nationally in his age group.

The Jemicy School senior, who placed second in the American Bouldering Series men's junior divisional finals in January, is set to compete for the first time in the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship from Feb. 28 through March 2 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I was super excited,” McKenzie said of his second-place finish at divisionals. “I got first in qualifiers, and then in finals I missed first by one hold. I had no idea how I was going to do because I had never been there before. So I was pretty psyched.”

‘Where are the rocks?'

Though his love for climbing — trees, rocks, anything, really — began long before he ever set foot in Earth Treks' Timonium climbing center, his current training facility, McKenzie said he never knew bouldering existed as an organized sport until he visited the gym one day.

“Ever since he was walking, he was climbing,” said Shawn Dorman, McKenzie's mother. “Every trip we went on, it was like, ‘Where are the rocks? I want to find the rocks.'”

After spending a sizable portion of his savings on Earth Treks climbing passes (“It was a $20 day pass, and I kind of blew through all my money in a couple months”), McKenzie approached his parents in eighth grade about joining Jemicy's bouldering club, then about a five-person group headed by his math teacher, Nate Whitman.

Today, Jemicy's team has about 45members — nearly half the school's student population, according to McKenzie — and has hosted two invitational competitions for area high schools this academic year.

However, the team's growth during the past few years hasn't been wrinkle-free; in fact, the program was nearly disbanded after Whitman left Jemicy for a teaching position at another school.

“He left after my eighth-grade year, so the club was kind of dying out, but I wanted to keep it going,” McKenzie said.

So the then-freshman spoke to teachers and friends about coaching and joining the club, and managed to secure its continued existence.

Then-assistant coach Jon Pirnia “said that he could probably keep it going, and I kind of recruited everyone I knew,” McKenzie said. “In ninth grade it was probably seven people … and then in 10th grade it grew to like 15. And last year and this year it's like half the high school.”

McKenzie's dedication to and love for climbing remain large factors in the club's popularity, said Carl Klimt, co-coach of the Jemicy team.

“It's tremendous,” Klimt said. “It's really cool to see him interact with other students on the team, and he's very participatory in terms of student-coaching. … He has a great passion for passing on what inspired him.”

Making the leap

Shortly after joining Jemicy's bouldering club, McKenzie also tried out for Earth Treks' Timonium climbing team and made the advanced team, a step below Team Earth Treks, on which he is now rostered.

McKenzie said his first competition with the team, an event at Earth Treks' Columbia gym, proved enjoyable despite his relative inexperience.

“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.”

The competition also pushed McKenzie to hone his climbing technique, he added.

“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.”

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