Sewickley Academy junior training for national climbing competition
Hayley Oliver-Smith is an indoor and outdoors kind of girl.
For nine years, the Sewickley Academy junior has been tackling the indoor climbing wall at Climb North gym near North Park and has qualified to compete in a national competition in Colorado Springs in March.
But to get to the competition, Hayley first will have to come in out of the cold.
Hayley, 16, left last week for the High Mountain Institute in Colorado, which she describes as being similar to a boarding school that teaches academics with a focus on the outdoors. She will stay for four months to hike, build her own house out of ice, cook for herself and camp outdoors. The temperature most nights is predicted to be minus-19 degrees, she said.
Because she will not be done with the program in time for the climbing competition, her parents, Dr. Michelle Roberts and Dr. Dave Oliver-Smith of Franklin Park, will pick her up from the institute to take her away for a few days to the competition, which is about two hours away.
Hayley said her love for the outdoor climbing, which she first tried at summer camp in West Virginia and loved, sparked her interest in the sport.
And then she saw the climbing wall at Climb North while taking gymnastics in the same building as a child. She said she thought it would be fun to try and soon joined the team. Soon after, her older brother, Jeff, also joined.
In her first competition circuit in fourth grade, Hayley placed eighth in nationals held in Boulder, Colo. Then, some friends convinced her to try field hockey instead, and she took a few years off from competing, but she never stopped climbing.
This is her first year back on the competition circuit, and again she has qualified for nationals after competing in two local competitions and then placing second place in regionals in Columbus, Ohio, one point behind the leader, who she beat earlier this month in divisionals in Indiana. At divisionals, she placed second only to the national champion.
The top four national winners will get to compete in a world competition, which Hayley said has been her dream since she started climbing.
“It would be great to go and say I represent the U.S. and compete with people who have the same passion as me from different places,” she said.
“The opportunity to compete at all is incredible. But the sport really isn't about the competing, but about how everyone supports everyone else, even your competitor. That's different than other sports, and it's one of the best things about climbing,” she said.
She said she also loves seeing so many strong young people “throwing for the next hold and trying harder and harder all the time.
“What is there not to like about climbing?” she said.
Hayley, who never has been afraid of heights, said climbing helps her forget her little everyday stresses for awhile.
“I feel complete peace and can just focus only on the wall. It seems so natural. I'm very focused. It's a great feeling,” she said.
She said she and her coach, Justin Mech, Climb North manager, have grown up together at the gym as he helped her develop her love of the sport and made it fun for her.
“He never sugarcoats how I'm climbing. Sometimes, he'll tell me I have a lot of potential, and I'm not living up to it that day,” she said.
Mech said Hayley is very mature, smart, loud, holds nothing back, puts others before herself, is incredibly strong and puts a lot of thought into what she climbs.
“After nationals are through, I know we will cut back on the intensity of practices, but I am making it my goal to get Hayley out climbing actual rocks instead of just indoors so she can experience more of the sport.
“I coach most of the kids here at the climbing wall and also a local high school's track team, and I can honestly say Hayley is one of the best kids I have ever coached and one of the main reasons why I am still here.”
Hayley, who also plays the guitar and piano, is on the track and field team, the academy chorus and has sung the national anthem in front of all the students at a North Allegheny middle school, said climbing has been her one constant.
Although there are no collegiate climbing competitions, Hayley said she plans to try to organize a team at her college.
She wants to attend Brown University in Rhode Island to study medicine and become a surgeon.
“There are climbing people all over, but they hide. It's a humble sport. You don't see climbers on magazines, and you don't hear about all the amazing things they do all over the globe. It's not an Olympic sport, yet. We all just watch each other,” she said.
Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or firstname.lastname@example.org.