REACHING THE PEAK Hannah Tolson, Gonzaga's National Climbing Champion, Says Fingers and Focus Helped Carry Her to the Top

By Landers, Rich | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), May 11, 2017 | Go to article overview

REACHING THE PEAK Hannah Tolson, Gonzaga's National Climbing Champion, Says Fingers and Focus Helped Carry Her to the Top


Landers, Rich, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


A Gonzaga University student who grew up thinking she wasn't athletic has won the women's sport climbing division of the USA Climbing Collegiate National Championships.

Hannah Tolson, of Scottsdale, Arizona, took the gold after two days of competition by out-scoring Kerry Scott of North Carolina. The event was held April 28-29 at Mesa Rim Climbing & Fitness in San Diego.

The irony of a Zag beating a Tarheel in a national championship wasn't lost on the Gonzaga University News Service, which announced Tolson's victory in a release that began, "Less than a month after the Gonzaga (men's) basketball team's historic season ended within a hairsbreadth of capturing the national championship in a loss to North Carolina..."

"I have actually been competing against (Scott) for many years, so I know what a talented climber she is," Tolson said.

A middle school requirement to take up an active sport prompted Tolson to give gym climbing a try eight years ago.

"I was never an athlete," she said back in Spokane during a study break this week. "I could not run, and still can't, really. The first year in middle school, I tried archery, but that didn't stick. The second year I tried climbing. It came really naturally to me.

"I've always been passionate and competitive but I didn't know how to harness it. Climbing hit me as beautiful - complicated and challenging both mentally and technically and it brought me a lot of joy."

Being a wimpy non-athlete in the beginning was an asset to her development as a sport climber, she said. The events pit climbers against a wall in a vertical chess game of strategic moves to reach to the top.

"I wasn't strong but I was mentally tough," she said. "I had to rely on being crafty at first since I didn't have root power. I couldn't even do a pull-up. Starting off that way helped me be a more technically sound climber."

If she has a physical gift for the sport, she says it's strong fingers to grasp holds sometimes little more than nubbins as she crawls spider-like up walls and overhangs. "In that respect, I think it's simply genetics," she said.

"There's no definitive body that's best for climbing. I'm 5-foot-7 and 115 pounds. Like most climbers, my body is on the small side. Taller climbers have some advantages reaching holds while a shorter climber might have an easier time being flexible and getting a heel up in her face for a move."

Tolson progressed rapidly as a California teenager and launched into youth competition circuits that earned her tickets to 10 national championships, where she placed as high as third place and a berth to world competition in the Pan Am Games.

At 19, she's a seasoned competitor, a college junior in math on a rigorous GU scholastic track toward medical school.

"I've had to sacrifice a bit in regard to social life and a traditional college lifestyle," she said.

She devotes approximately 20 hours a week to the gym for training, but if there's a conflict with a class, test or project, she said school is her top priority.

"I have a great support system holding me accountable for both studies and climbing," she said.

Her training focuses on strength, endurance and climbing technique. "Spokane's tallest wall is 35 feet at Wild Walls," she said. "So I climb it, come down and immediately climb it again. The competition walls are 60 feet."

Sport climbing will debut in the Olympics during the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, but so far, climbing isn't an NCAA sport. …

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