Story and media by ERIC JEROME
“Keep it up guys’ just one more set,” Danny Popowski shouts encouragingly to the three University of Utah Climbing Team members he is currently working with.
Using impressive strength and determination, the women pull themselves up the campus board, a series of wooden rungs designed to improve power and contact strength by executing vertical hand movements without the use of one’s feet. Hand over hand they repeat various exercises, going up and down the board athletically
In another area of The Front Climbing Club, located at 1470 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City, team members are simulating the format of a competition. The athletes are trying to onsight boulder problems that are difficult for them. This means that they are trying to complete a climb that they are seeing for the first time within four minutes without any outside assistance.
Those who specialize in sport climbing, longer endurance-based climbing utilizing a rope, are climbing laps on tall overhung walls. They’re pumping their forearms with lactic acid to increase their endurance.
Elsewhere, climbers planning to compete in the third and final discipline, speed climbing, are busy dashing up the 15-meter regulation speed climbing wall. They are trying to improve their times by making up for small errors and dialing in their muscle memory.
In April 2017, the U Climbing Team became collegiate national champions after a grueling two-day competition in California. This year, the team is hungry to defend its title and is training harder than ever.
Popowski, 24, has recently purchased a 2,800-square-foot house in the Marmalade district of Salt Lake City. He has been working to remodel and furnish the two-story place. It isn’t for him, however. Popowski is getting the house ready to be rented as an Airbnb. It’s a lofty and ambitious task, but he is accustomed to those.
After finishing his competitive youth climbing career, Popowski moved to Salt Lake City from Maryland to pursue climbing and attend the U. Collegiate competitions seemed like the next step for him. However, there was no climbing team, and Popowski attended nationals in 2014 as the U’s only competitor.
In 2015, Popowski founded the team along with friends Casey Elliot and Ben Roa. Under Popowski’s coaching, the team placed third overall that year at nationals in San Diego.
Elliot, Roa, Popowski, and another team member made the U.S. team and qualified for the World Cup in Shanghai, China, that fall.
Continuing its momentum, in 2017 the team took first place overall at nationals.
That September, the climbing team had its largest tryout and saw a lot of new talent from across the country. After a difficult round, the team was trimmed down to 15 men and 15 women.
Monica Barnes, 19, from Golden, Colorado, is one of the many new additions to the team.
Although she only started climbing in January 2017, Barnes said she loved it so much she climbed every single day for three months. During this time she heard about the climbing team and it became a big motivator for her.
“I climbed really poorly during tryouts and was very sure that I hadn’t made the team. So when the list came out and I saw my name was on it I was super stoked,” Barnes said.
Since joining the team in September 2017, Barnes said she has become a much better climber. She attributes her improvement to the presence of more experienced climbers on the team. “Having good climbers around you to boost your mental game and convince you that you can succeed and be confident in your own climbing was huge for me,” Barnes said.
Barnes has been training hard, but having never seriously competed before, her main goals for the Collegiate National Championships are to have fun, try her hardest, and feel as though she climbed her best. Additionally, Barnes looks forward to supporting her teammates. “It will also be really fun to watch my friends compete in finals, because I am sure that several people from the team will make it,” Barnes said.
In contrast to Barnes who only recently started climbing, Sam Enright, 19, from Boston, Massachusetts, is a sponsored athlete who has been competing at a high level since the age of 10 and moved to Utah to pursue climbing.
Enright says that being on the team has helped to keep him on a strict training plan and he has also made a lot of friends from it.
Enright, who has attended many national championships and world cups, is looking forward to collegiate nationals. “I am excited for collegiate nationals because it’s a bigger competition and has that big competition feel, but it is a little more relaxed and doesn’t come along with as much intensity and pressure. I’ve been told it is more social and all the teams from around the country hang out and have fun together,” Enright said.
A seasoned athlete, Enright’s goals for the competition are lofty. He wants to make finals in all three disciplines (sport, speed and bouldering), and also make it onto the podium in at least one of those.
As practice winds down Popowski tells the team, “Remember, all of this hard work will pay off when we are smiling for the cameras as back-to-back national champs.”
The Collegiate National Championships will be held April 20 and 21, 2018, at Momentum Indoor Climbing in Houston.