‘I’m a 16-year-old world champion climber: I feel like I’m dancing on the rock’

World champion rock climber Ashima Shiraishi won her first competition when she was just seven. Now, her sights are set on the 2020 Olympics

World champion rock climber Ashima Shiraishi won her first competition when she was just seven. Now, her sights are set on the 2020 Olympics

Ashima Shiraishi is a world champion rock climber. She was born in New York in 2001, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, and won her first competition at the age of seven. She went on to win the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship for five consecutive years, excelling at climbing without ropes and harnesses. In 2015 she set records when she climbed the Open Your Mind Direct route at Santa Linya in Spain, becoming the first female and the youngest person to have achieved a climb of this difficulty. In the 2015 Golden Pitons she was named Climber of the Year. She hopes to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Her story features in a book that is designed to inspire a new generation of girls: The Female Lead.

Ashima Shiraishi, photographed by Brigitte Lacombe

“I started rock climbing when I was six years old in Central Park in New York City. One day I was playing at a playground in the park and I saw people climbing on this big rock. I was really interested and started to do it too. I kept on falling but every day I went back. I had no climbing shoes so I just wore sneakers.

I climb on outdoor rocks and mountains. I also do competitions on artificial rock but I prefer real rock climbing. Climbing is exhilarating; you go up so high and sometimes it’s scary, but the fear is an exciting feeling, and when you get to the top, it’s the best feeling. I have fallen countless times, but that’s what makes it so special when you get to the top.

I kept on falling but every day I went back. I had no climbing shoes so I just wore sneakers

I do two types of climbing. One is free climbing [bouldering], which means that it’s only me and the rock. There is nothing to help me – only chalk for my hands, but no harnesses or ropes. You climb a rock that’s about 15 feet, so not too high. I also do sport climbing where you climb 100 or more feet and you wear a harness and a rope and someone’s belaying you [the technique of securing the climber during a climb]. They are both climbing, but they are very different. One is like a marathon whereas the other is like a sprint.

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Climbing is so natural for me, it’s almost like dancing on the rock. Since my dad was a dancer, I feel I naturally have that movement inside me. Sometimes it’s almost like flying up the wall and sometimes you actually do fly through the air to grab on to rocks. When I am climbing, I try not to be nervous. A lot of people get really stressed and when you’re like that it’s hard to climb because there are so many things going on in your mind.

Rock climbing is pretty dangerous. You can die and you can definitely get injured. It’s a risky sport, but if you pay attention and are aware of what you are doing and are focused, then you’re fine. I haven’t got injured but I have a lot of callouses on my fingers and my feet from rock climbing. Sometimes I get scared when I am high up in the air, but most of the time I am relaxed and composed. Of course, when you are falling, it’s definitely not fun – you are frustrated, but during those times I just think about getting to the top and how I will feel when I get there.

Climbing is so natural for me, it’s almost like dancing on the rock

Once I have done one hard climb I always look for a harder one and keep on pushing my limit, because that’s what climbers do. Climbing is both a physical and a mental sport. You really have to think when you’re climbing, so you have to be smart. First you have to see the path that you’re going to take – that’s one of the most important parts. You look at the climb and see where you are going to put your hands and then you look at where you’re going to put your feet and how your body is going to be positioned.

You can never 100 per cent know what you are going to do though. I always improvise along the way. You can’t look at a climb from the bottom and have it perfectly, so as you are climbing you change your sequence. People have told me that I have a high climbing IQ so I can see the sequence very easily and I do sequences that no one else imagines.

I love to do competitions and I love to travel around the world. It’s definitely hard to manage school and climbing. I wake up at 6.30 in the morning and I go to school until 3.30pm. I go to a climbing gym from four until eight, and then I go back home, eat dinner and do homework. When I go to sleep it’s about 1am, so it’s a hard schedule. I care about school and I love to learn but homework is definitely one of my challenges.

My dream is to keep on climbing and I want to push the female boundaries of rock climbing and maybe have females dominating the sport. Physical strength is important but the most important thing is good concentration. I feel like climbing has made me a more disciplined person and, even at school, it shows.

I have fallen countless times but that’s what makes it so special when you get to the top

Sometimes I want to stop climbing because there is so much going on in my life and I just want to be like anyone else, but I always return to it because I just love it so much. If I don’t do it, then it feels like I am losing something. I have two worlds – friends at school who don’t climb and friends from the climbing world. I like to hang out with my friends from school and just be a normal teenager, going to movies and figure skating.

Both my parents are very supportive and I am the only child. My father coaches me and, because he used to be a dancer, he has helped me to move more delicately on the rock and really understand how to keep my core tight and how to prepare mentally. My mum makes all my climbing pants and sometimes she comes to competitions with me too. I hope to be in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. As a little girl, my dream was to be in the Olympics.”


The Female Lead by Edwina Dunn with photography by Brigitte Lacombe is published by Ebury Press in hardback, £30.

The Female Lead interviews were conducted by Marian Lacombe, Rosanna Greenstreet, Geraldine Bedell, Hester Lacey

To watch The Female Lead documentaries or nominate a UK school to receive a free copy of the book and teaching materials, visit www.thefemalelead.com

Featured image: Ashima Shiraishi, photographed by Brigitte Lacombe

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