Athlete or Climber: Do We Downgrade Ourselves?

Kathy Karlo Misty Mountain Ambassador Report Rock Climbing Harness Offwidth Irene Yee 1

By Kathy Karlo

Cover photograph courtesy of Chris Vultaggio

“Do you consider yourself an athlete?” Aisha Weinhold asked, sitting on the kitchen floor in Aspen, Colorado one evening this past summer.

We were discussing ski mountaineer racing, something that Aisha excels at. She is the third fastest woman in the United States after competing in the US Skimo Nationals in Santa Fe, New Mexico and won “Fastest Couple in the US” during the 2017 US National Championship of ski racing with her husband, Steve Denny. She’s lightning.

Sarah Coburn, sitting nearby at the table said, “Absolutely.”

Most early mornings, as we spent several weeks in Aspen preparing for the big festival weekend, Sarah was already awake, had walked her dog, and was getting ready to do hangboard exercises with a coffee or smoothie in hand.

In my mind, Sarah is the definition of an athlete. Sarah stands almost six feet tall and is long legged, muscular but not bulky, and has little to no body fat (which seems physically impossible–I’ve seen her eat). And she puts her body to work with clear results in mind–this summer, she sent her 12a project.

Meanwhile, I spent a majority of my time in Aspen drinking La Croix and eating too much mac and cheese. Despite this fact, both girls seemed surprised when I bashfully answered, “No.”

Growing up, I never considered myself an athlete, even though I spent a significant amount of my childhood competing in gymnastics and swimming. Since I started climbing in my mid-twenties, the term “athlete” never even crossed my mind. I looked around at other climbers–the competition climbers, the professional climbers with reputable sends on their resumes–they were the real athletes. I was just having fun.


Truthfully, I lack discipline too much to follow a regular training routine. I’ll bang out a few pull-ups on a hangboard when I see one, but I don’t seek them out. Sit-ups consistently feel hard. Running hurts my feet. Protein shakes are the devil and I eat cookies for breakfast. But my lazy excuses aside, the fact of the matter is that climbers are athletes, too. Maybe by not considering myself one, I was downplaying my abilities. And if I was willing to downplay my abilities, was I also downgrading my achievements? While I wasn’t necessarily trying to prove my worth, was being too modest also limiting my success?

Athletes were just stronger, more skilled, and more dedicated, I have always told myself. Even the definition of an athlete feels exclusive: “A person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” states Merriam-Webster.

But athletic educators disagree; they believe that being an athlete is not reserved for the strongest competitors. Just because you don’t compete at an elite level doesn’t mean that you are not engulfed in an athletic lifestyle. You don’t even need to compete to consider yourself one. Whether you are climbing professionally for a company or paycheck, or putting on a pair of your first climbing shoes at the gym, you are an athlete.

By not realizing that, it was almost like I was devaluing the work that I had put into my climbing and goals over the years. If by embracing the identity of an athlete, I could shift the way I saw myself and how I performed, then what did I have to lose?

There is a woman in my neighborhood who goes running every morning and has her shoes laced and hitting the pavement by first light. Maybe she enters a half marathon every year, but she doesn’t race competitively and isn’t sponsored by Nike. But her love of the physical movement makes her an athlete as much as any other Olympic runner.

She knows that you have to carve out a path to success by acknowledging your daily commitment. She doesn’t downgrade her strength or abilities and redefines “athlete” on her own terms. And honestly, if you are courageous enough to show up, try something, and finish it, aren’t you an athlete, too.