Gabe McKenzie climbing toward national championship in bouldering

The Jemicy School senior will compete in American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship

February 23, 2014|By Matt Schnabel | The Baltimore Sun

Gabe McKenzie swayed precariously, hanging from the rock wall by one hand.

The 17-year-old let go, falling about 15 feet to the ground.

Landing squarely on the mat below, he bounded to his feet and headed back toward another group of climbers for some pointers and his next practice assignment, another run successfully completed.

McKenzie has participated in bouldering, a form of rock climbing performed without ropes and harnesses, since eighth grade and ranks sixth nationally in his age group.

The Jemicy School senior, who placed second in the American Bouldering Series men's junior divisional finals in January, is set to compete for the first time in the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship from Feb. 28 through March 2 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I was super excited,” McKenzie said of his second-place finish at divisionals. “I got first in qualifiers, and then in finals I missed first by one hold. I had no idea how I was going to do because I had never been there before. So I was pretty psyched.”

‘Where are the rocks?'

Though his love for climbing — trees, rocks, anything, really — began long before he ever set foot in Earth Treks' Timonium climbing center, his current training facility, McKenzie said he never knew bouldering existed as an organized sport until he visited the gym one day.

“Ever since he was walking, he was climbing,” said Shawn Dorman, McKenzie's mother. “Every trip we went on, it was like, ‘Where are the rocks? I want to find the rocks.'”

After spending a sizable portion of his savings on Earth Treks climbing passes (“It was a $20 day pass, and I kind of blew through all my money in a couple months”), McKenzie approached his parents in eighth grade about joining Jemicy's bouldering club, then about a five-person group headed by his math teacher, Nate Whitman.

Today, Jemicy's team has about 45members — nearly half the school's student population, according to McKenzie — and has hosted two invitational competitions for area high schools this academic year.

However, the team's growth during the past few years hasn't been wrinkle-free; in fact, the program was nearly disbanded after Whitman left Jemicy for a teaching position at another school.

“He left after my eighth-grade year, so the club was kind of dying out, but I wanted to keep it going,” McKenzie said.

So the then-freshman spoke to teachers and friends about coaching and joining the club, and managed to secure its continued existence.

Then-assistant coach Jon Pirnia “said that he could probably keep it going, and I kind of recruited everyone I knew,” McKenzie said. “In ninth grade it was probably seven people … and then in 10th grade it grew to like 15. And last year and this year it's like half the high school.”

McKenzie's dedication to and love for climbing remain large factors in the club's popularity, said Carl Klimt, co-coach of the Jemicy team.

“It's tremendous,” Klimt said. “It's really cool to see him interact with other students on the team, and he's very participatory in terms of student-coaching. … He has a great passion for passing on what inspired him.”

Making the leap

Shortly after joining Jemicy's bouldering club, McKenzie also tried out for Earth Treks' Timonium climbing team and made the advanced team, a step below Team Earth Treks, on which he is now rostered.

McKenzie said his first competition with the team, an event at Earth Treks' Columbia gym, proved enjoyable despite his relative inexperience.

“It was an open comp, so there was professionals there … and they had finals at night, which I definitely didn't make because it was my first year of climbing,” he said. “It was cool to have that be one of my first comp experiences.”

The competition also pushed McKenzie to hone his climbing technique, he added.

“It kind of intimidated me because there was a ton of people,” he said. “I didn't feel good enough for people to be watching me yet.”

A year later, McKenzie moved up to Team Earth Treks, where he has remained since.

These days, he practices six days a week. Saturdays are his favorite, he said, because all three of Earth Treks' climbing teams meet at one of the organization's three gyms in Maryland: Rockville, which has the nation's largest indoor climbing wall, Timonium — McKenzie's usual training location — or Columbia.

“It's when you get to interact with the other teammates and the different gyms,” McKenzie said. “I usually like that more because they rotate gyms … so you can go to Columbia or Rockville for a different style.”

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