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Sasha Digiulian '11: Rock Solid

A profile of Sasha Digiulian ’11, winner of the overall gold medal at the 2011 Climbing World Championships

By Kyle Massey ‘11

There is something quite elemental to the task of scaling an obstacle to see what might be on the other side. The first time I grappled my way to the top of our backyard fence as a child to peer onto my neighbors’ property, I sensed the same gratification Columbus might have felt when setting foot on dry land on the far side of the Atlantic.

But now that all of the frontiers have been explored, all the mountains conquered and all the oceans crossed, there remains a peculiar contingent of humanity that seeks out the roughest of these former boundaries in order to traverse them all over again, for fun.

Just ask Sasha DiGiulian ‘11, who emailed me this January to say she would have to postpone our interview. “I'm in a canyon climbing, and I don't know if we will make it out in time.” I can only assume that she typed the message on her phone while dangling from a rope in some uninhabitable chasm of the American West. Fair enough. One does not rise to the top of a sport at the age of 19 by sitting around the house waiting to give interviews.

When Sasha won the overall gold medal at the 2011 Climbing World Championships in Arco, Italy, last July, she enjoyed a fleeting moment of reflection as she stood in front of the crowd and listened to the first chords of a familiar tune.

Standing on top of the podium with the American National Anthem playing was an incredible feeling of satisfaction and pride,” she told me, “not so much personal, but more pride for the journey and for realizing that when you set your eyes on a goal and believe that it is possible, it is a truly momentous force that is pretty hard to hinder.” Of course, it would have to be about the journey, because what else really matters to the climber?

Sasha’s journey began at the age of seven when she accompanied her older brother, Charlie, to a local climbing gym for his birthday party. As Sasha puts it, she found herself “drawn to the excitement of going higher and higher.”

To watch Sasha go higher and higher is an exercise in disbelief and humility. As she contorts her 5’ 2” frame from one angle to another, always with three points of contact to the wall, always with her head tilted skyward, you can’t help but imagine the effect this might have on your own knees, fingers and ligaments, not to mention your courage.

Under the tutelage of longtime coach Claudiu Vidulescu, it didn’t take long for Sasha to build a reputation within the tight-knit climbing community as a precocious young talent. As she grew more aware of this herself, Sasha found that her mentor instilled in her “a sense of determination that stems from someone else believing in your abilities to do something. The most important thing I find in sports, but also in everyday experiences, is self-worth and confidence.”

For Sasha to take home the gold from the World Championships, she bested all other female competitors with her combined score in the three main disciplines of the competition: bouldering, sport climbing and speed climbing. Each discipline offers a slightly different brand of physical torment.

“Bouldering competitions consist of a series of problems that are shorter, and your score is a composite of your overall performance on that series of problems,” she explained. The “problems,” that she refers to are the various nuances of the climber’s route to the top of the wall, obstacles that she must encounter and circumvent with no prior knowledge of their locations.

She continued, “Sport climbing comprises just one long route.” Competitors again have no idea what type of obstacles they’ll be facing, and simply try to scramble as far up the wall as possible; the highest up wins.

Finally, speed climbing is the competition that measures the climber’s ability to ignore the natural inclination not to rush when clutching to a few protrusions on the wall at a perilous height.

Honing her skills in each discipline while also attending Potomac required a level of devotion that would be much to ask of an adult, let alone a young person enveloped by the social and academic demands of a challenging independent school. “I did a lot of homework on airplanes,” she said. “Potomac doesn't skimp on course load, but the faculty was incredibly supportive towards working with me and my schedule and helping me have my work done ahead of time so that I wouldn't fall behind.”

As for the dances, the birthday parties, the basketball games and all the other requisite social gatherings of the high school student? “Unfortunately I had to sacrifice a lot of school-oriented social events because I was out of town most weekends,” she said. “I am pretty sure that a lot of students weren't totally sure what I was doing—just out there somewhere in the world ‘climbing.’ But all of my friends were always really supportive of my ventures. Everyone at Potomac is unique and has something interesting that they aspire to, and climbing was just what did, and still does, inspire me.”

Having received her Potomac diploma and deferred acceptance to Columbia University, Sasha finds herself in the midst of a gap year, although one that offers no respite from pursuing her goals and serving the climbing community. “I am interested in the development of climbing and its growth into more of a mainstream sport.” Serving on the International Federation of Sport Climbing Board as an athlete representative, Sasha has spent much of her time advocating with the International Olympic Committee in hopes of seeing climbing recognized as an Olympic sport. At 19 she has plenty of time, but she remains determined not to miss the chance to compete on the sporting world’s most venerable stage.

“As an Athlete Ambassador for the IFSC, I represent the voice of the athletes in event planning, rules commissioning and general terms of conduct,” she said. Sasha explained that climbing is one of five new sports that remain under consideration for the 2020 Olympics, but the addition of a new sport typically requires that an old one be dropped, so for now, she waits.

In addition to that project, a deal with one of her sponsors recently led Sasha to the Geta Valley of Southwest China, where she worked alongside other athletes to promote climbing in the bucolic Chinese countryside. The Geta Valley is a five-hour bus ride from the nearest big city, Guiyang, one of the poorest cities in China. “Going out of my comfort zone and into such an unfamiliar world made me respect and cherish the good fortune that we have here in America,” she said. “It also made me more aware of the different cultures coexisting in our modern world today.”

How will her life change when she returns to the classroom at Columbia University in fall 2012? “A lot less traveling, a lot more studying, but hopefully not too much less climbing! I will continue to train at the gyms and compete in a more select series of competitions, and when I have time off from school, go on outdoor climbing trips.”

Such a driven individual scarcely has time to look back on the physical tribulations of a young career, but when prompted, she remembers “broken fingers and toes, ankle injuries, a broken back, some odd tweaks. But overall I've been pretty lucky.”

They say that good luck typically follows the industrious. I doubt Sasha DiGiulian has ever lacked that quality.

“The most important thing I find in sports, but also in everyday experiences, is self-worth and confidence.”

—Sasha DiGiulian, Champion Rock Climber