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The Dark Horse: Alex Johnson

Out of competition climbing for three years, Alex Johnson throws her hat in the ring for the Olympics

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Alex Johnson, a 29-year-old climber and climbing coach from Minneapolis, tagged along to a Taylor Swift concert on August 31 with a friend who had an extra ticket. “I don’t even like Taylor Swift, so I just went and got drunk with my friend,” she says. Then something happened. Swaying along to some of our generation’s top hits, Johnson thought, Taylor’s almost thirty, and she’s still killing it! She decided, then and there, that she had to throw her hat in the ring for the Olympics or she would hate herself for not trying. “I’ve been successful in all three disciplines, so I texted my friend and said, ‘I think I wanna do this!’”

The 2020 Olympics had been in the back of her mind, but not from a climbing perspective:“I thought it’d be cool to coach in the Olympics, but told myself I was too old to compete.”

Johnson started competitively climbing when she was 10 years old, in 1999, and won both youth and adult bouldering nationals in 2003. She began to consider herself a professional climber when she was 18 years old. “That was when I could sustain myself on climbing,” she says, “and not need to have another job.” Winning the Vail World Cup, she dropped out of college to dedicate more time to competitive climbing.

[Also Read Alex Johnson: Am I Still A Professional Climber?]

And then she largely dropped out of the competition scene, to focus on outdoor climbing and other parts of her life. After three years away from the competitive climbing, getting back into the competition mindset isn’t as difficult for Johnson as figuring out the ways competitions have evolved since she left: “The style’s different, the holds, the scoring, the format—it’s all different. I’m in the loop since I’ve been coaching, but it’s different for sure.” And although her decision to try for the Olympics may seem casually impulsive, her training and preparation since then have been anything but.

Alex Johnson competing at the Woman Up climbing competition this past September in L.A. Photo: Courtesy of Matt Burbach.

Johnson is already thinking about how she wants to train differently this time than she has in the past, focusing on strengthening her weaknesses (what she describes as “slab, balance, push and press”) rather than relying on her strengths. Between climbing and coaching, she is used to spending 40 hours a week at Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, Minnesota, but you can now find her there an additional 10  hours a week, furthering her personal training. “It’s happening really fast,” Johnson says.

At first, she felt that she was starting out behind; she worried about everyone else’s age, recent accomplishments, and the fact that she wasn’t getting invited to training camps because she had been off the radar. But then, “I won a comp in Los Angeles, and came in fifth in a Minneapolis comp in October. In my heart I knew what I’d done wrong and knew I could fix it, so I felt good about it… I’m old, but I can still hang.”

Placing fourth in a National Cup this past December in Fort Collins, Colorado, Johnson began believing more and more that she might be a serious contender. Her next hurdle will be Bouldering Nationals on February 1 and 2, where she hopes to claim a spot on the U.S. team. “If I make the team, I’ll feel like I have an actual chance.”

She believes Kyra Condie, a fellow Minnesotan who she used to coach, has a real shot of getting on Team USA, and thinks that climbing together in the Olympics with someone she coached as a kid would be “awesome.” She goes on, “Not weird at all. Plus, it would really help to put Minnesota on the map as a serious competition climbing hotspot if we both made it.”

Asked whether or not she thinks she has a genuine shot after her time away from competition climbing, Johnson says, “I don’t know… I just know I have to try, like everyone else.”

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