Staying Power

Bouldering champion Alex Johnson opens up about coming out, coaching, and looking to climbing’s future.

Alex Johnson is everybody’s hero. First, there’s the climbing accolades. Johnson (she/her) is a two-time Bouldering World Cup gold medalist and has ticked a number of impressive first female ascents (FFAs), including The Swarm (V14) in Bishop, California. Beyond that she’s an enthusiastic youth coach and an involved member of the climbing community—not to mention one of the first pro competition climbers to come out publicly as LGBTQ+. Add it up and you’ve got a true role model in more ways than one.

Johnson took to climbing early in life. Though she grew up camping and fishing with her dad around the Upper Midwest, her parents quickly realized that she needed a different outlet for all the restless monkey-bar swinging and tree-climbing. So, around age 7, they took her to a climbing gym in western Wisconsin where she grew up. The sport clicked instantly. Soon, she was competing.  

“I love that it’s an individual sport and you’re on your own and you’re the only one who can push yourself to succeed,” Johnson says. “But at the same time, there’s a really supportive community.” Those critical ties held her interest. In high school, Johnson dealt with ongoing bullying. And it was sports—first climbing, then track and field—that provided some solace. After a break from climbing, Johnson returned to the sport during college at Minnesota State University—and won gold in her first stage of the 2008 World Cup tour. Next, she moved to Salt Lake City.

“It was like being a kid in a candy shop,” she says. “I was in the mountains for the first time. I felt like I had so much to do and so much to make up for.” She started climbing outdoors more regularly, channeling the love of the woods she’d developed as a kid. In some ways, she said, it felt like coming home.

Since then, Johnson has gone on to win more national and international competitions and ticked some of her hardest climbs to date. She’ll also star in the Reel Rock film, Big Things to Come, debuting in March 2022. 

We sat down with Alex to talk about her life as a professional athlete—and as a role model for young climbers everywhere.

PUBLIC LANDS: You came out publicly as LGBTQ+ in 2018. What was it like making that decision?

ALEX JOHNSON: It was actually very spontaneous, and not something I’d planned on doing at all. Instead, it just happened. I got to this point where I didn’t care anymore what people thought about me, and as soon as I posted it on Instagram, I felt relieved. The response was 100% positive. It was so relieving. And it allowed me to open up more and be myself, and that really amplified my climbing. Before coming out, I was somewhat timid in my movement and training. Now, it feels like I’m holding nothing back.

Do you feel a lot of pressure being a role model—both for LGBTQ+ kids and for other climbers?

It’s definitely cool, though it’s a little bit intimidating! It does feel like there’s some pressure to live up to that, but it’s not unmanageable. It’s important to me, so it’s worth it.

How do you incorporate your passion for conservation in your pro climbing career?

Conservation is definitely important to me. I think that plays out in the brands I align with, like Hydro Flask, which is all about sustainability and eliminating plastic and using reusable bottles. I also just signed with Marmot, [which] uses a lot of recycled and upcycled material, responsible down, and dyeing processes that are more environmentally friendly. For everyone who loves the outdoors, protecting the environment should be important.

You’ve sent boulders as hard as V14, won competitions, been sponsored by huge brands—has there ever been a point where you felt like you’d made it as a professional athlete?

Oh, no. Not even when I sent the Swarm [V14, in 2021]. I’m at a point where I can look back and say I’ve had a successful career so far, but I feel like I’m not done. And I won’t be for a long time. For me, success is being able to do what I love to the best of my ability every day. That, and I want to stay involved in the community as a coach, or as a broadcast commentator like I’ve done for USA Climbing’s nationals and team trials. It’s a great way to go and stay involved without some of the stresses of competing.

What kinds of life lessons do you try to pass on as a coach?

I’m not coaching at the moment but it’s something I’m really passionate about and have done on and off for many years. I like seeing the kids’ breakthroughs and their successes. I didn’t have a climbing coach growing up, but my track coaches were important to me in the way they approached me and adapted their coaching to my learning styles. Everyone has a different learning style and personality, so being able to listen to the kids I coach and adapt my teaching style has been really rewarding. And it’s super-important to me that I pass on the lessons I’ve learned over the years, and encourage kids to be themselves, as well. 

What do you want to see in the future of climbing?

My hope for the sport is that it stays true to itself no matter how it grows or how competitive it will inevitably be. It’s definitely becoming a hip, popular sport. I want it to stay this community that’s really supportive and welcoming. That’s important to me.

Does coaching make you hopeful for that future?

It’s cool to have a team of athletes and see them be supportive of each other regardless of ability or age. A few years ago I was coaching a group of kids between 11 years old and 17 years old at my gym in Minnesota. Seeing that support and camaraderie across age differences was inspiring. So yes, I’m definitely hopeful for the future.

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