I first learned about Makaila through Bethany, our last interviewee and creator of @BrownGirlsClimb. She mentioned getting to know a young crusher who lived in my home state (woop woop NC!) and was competing at the national level just a few years after starting climbing. Sure enough, after seeing some online videos of her competing, I was floored. Makaila seemed to climb so intuitively, so calmly and with a strength and body awareness well beyond her years. I knew she would be our next highlight, joined by her mother Ife, in the hopes of discussing how they came to love climbing, Makaila’s successes thus far, diversity in climbing & the competition world. Here’s the interview!
Melise: Makaila — I saw a lot of your posts on Instagram and was so excited–you are an incredible climber! I would love to know how you got into climbing and how long you’ve been climbing and competing?
Makaila: Thank you for the compliment. I have only been climbing for (2) years, of which, I have been competing for one year. Prior to two years ago, I had no idea that rock climbing was an actual sport. My family have been members of the Raleigh-Wake, NC chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc since I was two years old. Jack & Jill is the oldest African American family organization in the US. Once a month our families meet to participate in educational, cultural, recreational, community service or leadership development activities. When I was about 5 years old, one of my Jack and Jill age group activities was a fun, recreational climb at the Triangle Rock Club in Morrisville, NC. That was the first time I had ever been inside of a rock climbing gym. As I got older, I began to climb EVERYTHING. I would constantly hang from all of the overhangs of the doorways in my house and outdoors I would climb the exterior of jungle gyms at playgrounds. My parents were always telling me to climb down from things. Finally my mother couldn’t take it anymore and she remembered the Triangle Rock Club so she enrolled me in their Youth Introduction to Climb class called “First Ascents.”
I only did First Ascents classes for about 3 months before I had a strong desire to want to climb more than the once a week practices. I tried out for the Beginner Level of the Triangle Rock Club Youth Team and made the team. I moved up quickly over a few months and was invited to join the Advanced Youth Team right after my 9th birthday. Shortly after, I competed in my first local Youth Bouldering Competition in September 2016 and I came in 2nd place. I did several other local youth bouldering comps throughout NC and VA and in each one I always placed in the Top 3. In December 2016, I competed in the USAC Youth Bouldering Regional Competition where I came in 2nd place and I earned an invitation to the USAC Mid-South Youth Divisional Competition which took place in January of this year. The USAC Mid-South Youth Divisional is comprised of the top youth competitors from 6 states. I was proud to tie for 1st place in the Finals of the Youth Divisional competition which earned me an invitation to the 2017 Bouldering Youth National Championship in Salt Lake City, UT last month.
Melise: That’s incredible! What are some of your favorite things about climbing?
Makaila: I love that every day there is a new problem to try to project. I love the sport is challenging, mentally and physically. Our coach has us journal every day at the end of practice to reflect on what went well and what we want to work on.
Melise: You recently finished at nationals! CONGRATULATIONS! How was it and what was your favorite part about nationals?
Makaila: Thank you. Competing at the 2017 USAC Bouldering Youth Nationals was so much fun! I really enjoyed the problems that I climbed, they were so different than anything that I ever climbed. My favorite part were the climbs and I also loved meeting competitors from all over the country. I also got to meet my two rock climbing ‘she-ros’, Ashima Shiraishi and Meagan Martin. During my down time, my mom rented a car and we toured Salt Lake City. She took me to climb at The Front Climbing Club, which is an awesome climbing gym in Salt Lake City. We also took a scenic drive through Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT which was beautiful with so much snow. It was an overall great experience.
Melise: Do you have any advice for any other young ladies that might want to try out climbing?
Makaila: My advice would be to try it! Find the nearest climbing gym and challenge yourself on the climbs. I predict that they will love it even if they don’t join a team. Rock climbing challenges every part of your body especially your mind. It gives you strength from the inside out.
Melise: Ife — How did you two get involved in competitions? Was this mainly a choice prompted by Makaila or was this something that you suggested?
Ife: Rock climbing was COMPLETELY driven by Makaila. She seemed to have an innate desire to climb. My husband and I noticed very early that she had a lot of upper body strength and that she was incredibly flexible. I had no idea how to funnel that strength and flexibility because she was so young. I initially thought that volleyball would be a great sport for her but I couldn’t find volleyball lessons for an 8 year old. I love that Triangle Rock Club offers developmental options for children as young as five. Climbing has proven to be a perfect fit for her. Makaila would climb every day at the gym if I allowed her. She walks around the house more on her hands, doing walking handstands, than her feet. We’re getting ready to install two hang boards in our garage for her so that she doesn’t pull down our house from her constant hanging from doorways. After Nationals she was invited to join the Elite Level of Team TRC and she practices with them for 2.5 hours a day, 3 days during the week. However she begs me to drop her off for practice an hour early and pick her up late so that she can free climb, in addition to usually getting some free climbing in on the weekends if she doesn’t have a competition. The TRC has become like a 2nd home for her.
Melise: Bethany mentioned that you said having the Lightner family on the team had been a blessing for you. Can you describe a little more about the role they’ve played for you both in your climbing experiences? Are families of the competition team all pretty close and supportive?
Ife: As Makaila mentioned, up until 2 years ago no one in our family had any idea that rock climbing was a sport. When she was asked to join the TRC Team, which consists of approximately 125 youth climbers ranging in age from 8-17, I noticed that she was one of only two Black girls on the entire team. However occasionally I would see an African American teenaged boy climbing in TRC and he always seemed to have a camera crew or photographer following him. I never thought much about it and assumed TRC was perhaps shooting a promotional video for their gym. One day when my husband got home from picking Makaila up from practice he told me that a Black woman came over to greet him at the gym and began to tell him she was happy to see another person of color on the TRC team. She told him that her son, Kai, has been a member of the TRC team for years and she shared with my husband some of his phenomenal accomplishments in the sport. She said that particular day Kai was at the gym with a camera crew shooting footage for one of his sponsors, I believe it was Adidas. Makaila and I Googled Kai Lightner and we both were amazed at how spectacular he is in the sport. Makaila and I met Connie and Kai Lightner shortly thereafter. They are both a great resource, wealth of knowledge and inspiration for us. Connie has met Makaila in the gym for a mini one on one coaching session and I can call her with any question or concern that I may have. She and Kai are absolute trailblazers and I am grateful to have access to them as we acclimate to the sport. All of the TRC families, coaches and rock climbing gym community as a whole are incredibly supportive.
Melise: Climbing is generally perceived as a pretty laid-back sport, do you think this is true at the team level also?
Ife: I think climbing can be as laid-back or as competitive as you want it to be. I love that there are many climbers that pop into the gym to climb at their leisure yet they can be climbing next to someone who is training for a major competition. Climbing is definitely a sport that cultivates a symbiotic relationship amongst its climbers.
Melise: Why is diversity in climbing important to you and Makaila?
Ife: Diversity in climbing is very important because in my opinion, it is a critical thinking sport just as much as it is physical. It would be incredible to bring people together of various backgrounds with different experiences that can perhaps foster new ideas or perspectives into the sport. This is especially important to me on the youth level of climbing. My husband and I want our children and children of all races to experience and understand that the world is not homogeneous. I believe that through community outreach and exposure, the youth rock climbing community can definitely grow to become reflective of that. Today, a Japanese American young lady (Ashima Shiraishi) and an African American young man (Kai Lightner), are USA and World Champions in climbing. Now, perhaps more than ever, would be a great time to optimize reaching into untapped diverse communities to bring awareness to the sport! In Makaila’s short amount of time in USA Youth climbing, amongst hundreds of female competitors on a local, regional and national level, she has been the only Black girl at the competitions. In an effort to help create a strong, colorful youth climbing community Makaila has begun to share her love for the sport with her diverse network of peers in school and her through her longstanding memberships in national organizations like Girl Scouts USA and Jack & Jill of America. She also displays her affinity for climbing via social media on Instagram at MakailaRocks.
Melise: Makaila — What are some of your goals and dreams in climbing? What are some of your proudest moments so far?
Makaila: I would love to make it onto Team USA and to compete in the World Championship when I get older. I’m so excited that rock climbing will debut in the 2020 Olympics! Competing in rock climbing at the Olympics, at some point in my life, would be my ultimate dream. My proudest moment so far was my tie for 1st place in the Divisional Finals. I am most proud of that moment because it was a two day event. Day One was the preliminaries where I had to make it into the Top 10 in order to move on to Finals. I placed tenth on Day One and then tied for 1st the next day in the finals. That was an incredible achievement for me.
Melise: Where do you live? And where are the closest gyms or outdoor areas for you to climb/practice?
Makaila: I live in Holly Springs, NC. The closest gym is the one where my team practices, Triangle Rock Club in Morrisville, NC. It is about 15-20 miles from my home. Outdoors, the closest area would probably be in the NC mountains about (3) hours away. I haven’t ventured into climbing outdoors yet. I am hoping to perhaps sometime this summer.
Melise: Who are some of your climbing heroes?
Makaila: Ashima Shiraishi, Megan Martin, Alex Puccio and of course my teammate, Kai Lightner.
Melise: If you could travel to any place for climbing (or just a vacation) where would you go?
Makaila: Besides cIimbing, vacationing with my family is one of my most favorite things to do. I am in year round school which means that I have 3-4 weeks off every 3 months. We usually take road trips during (3) out of (4) of my breaks and then (1) international trip. I’ve vacationed many times in NYC, Washington DC and Myrtle Beach, SC. I’ve also been to Disney World in Florida and been skiing in the Blue Ridge mountains of VA. North Carolina has so many beautiful places to vacation, we’ve vacationed at the Biltmore near the Great Smoky mountains of Asheville and many of the NC beaches. Internationally, I’ve been to Morocco, Spain and the Bahamas so far. My aunt (my mother’s sister) is a psychologist practicing at a university on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. She and her family are expatriates, we’re planning to visit them there this summer before they move to another part of the world. I’m going to start French lessons this fall and my dream vacation would be to go to France. My grandmother learned to speak French while she was in college. She actually lived and studied in Paris for a while. She said we will take a “girls only” trip there when I turn 13. I would love to climb in every place that I visit, all over the world.
Melise: If you could choose between having limitless ice cream or the ability to do a one arm pull up, which would you choose?!
Makaila: That’s easy, I’m allergic to dairy so I can’t eat ice cream but even if I could I would choose the ability to do a one arm pull up. I love being strong. I can beat almost everyone I know in push-ups and pull-ups. I recently qualified to represent my school in the upcoming Wake County, NC “First in Fitness Challenge”. Melise, I saw your one arm pull up video on Instagram and I was impressed!