Originally published in Missoula Independent, August 2016
My lungs are burning as I huff up Sawmill Gulch Road. It’s not a steep climb, but I’m breathing about as hard as I can, trying to shorten the gap separating me from the crew of bikers ahead of me. Or at least not let the gap get any wider.
I’m not a hardcore mountain biker by any stretch. I’m not really even a casual mountain biker. These days, my knobby-tired Kona hangs in the shed while I cruise to friends’ houses or pedal downtown for a bite and a beer on an old, hand-me-down KHS with slick tires. But I’m still pretty fit and I run, hike or paddle several days a week. I figured a little mountain biking wouldn’t strain me.
That’s why I was a bit surprised the gap between me and the main group wasn’t getting any smaller, despite how hard I mashed my pedals. If my labored breathing could have afforded an ego-checking, self-deprecating laugh, I would have been howling. The riders I desperately chased were 11- and 12-year-olds.
I’d joined the MT Alpha Cycling Juniors, an all-girls competition team started four summers ago, at their weekly practice to explore just one of the area’s burgeoning nontraditional youth sports teams. These aren’t teams in name only—they practice regularly and compete in local, regional and national events. The organizations also operate in much the same way as Little Grizzlies and Missoula Youth Football, Little League baseball and the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association, with boards of directors and, in many cases, affiliations to national governing bodies. Most notably, these teams—including the MT Alpha Juniors—are growing in numbers.
Nationally, participation in traditional youth sports has declined or remained flat year to year for the last decade or so. According to the Sports Industry and Fitness Association, the average number of sports played by children between age 6 and 17 dropped 5.9 percent, from 2.14 to 2.01, between 2009 and 2014. Participation rates for that same age group fell in many of America’s most popular sports during the same time period: baseball down 4.3 percent, basketball down 6.8 percent and soccer down 8.4 percent.
Local numbers are impossible to confirm across different leagues, and there are exceptions nationally—hockey’s numbers are up, and lacrosse has shown fairly sustained growth over the last decade—but the downward trend has raised concerns among the stick-and-ball faithful. Experts ascribe the drop to over-specialization in just one sport, fear of injury or concussion, overly intense coaches and parents causing burnout, and the allure of video games and on-demand entertainment. Another possible explanation: Kids are stoking their competitive fires and having more fun in alternative team sports.
It’s not unusual to find kids climbing the walls at Freestone Climbing Gym in Missoula’s Westside neighborhood. In a town like Missoula, with its well-established climbing scene, parents often take their kids with them to the gym. Freestone also offers a suite of after-school clubs and programs throughout the year. But from September through December, twice a week for 90 minutes a night, at least two dozen kids are climbing with purpose. They are the Gnar Pirates.
Shortly after Freestone opened in 2011, Molly Rennie launched the Gnar Pirates team with four kids—two girls and two boys. She saw it as an opportunity to introduce younger people, age 8 to 16, to the sport and match them up against other Montana cities with established youth climbing teams. Bozeman started a youth climbing club in 1996, and the competitive Bozeman Climbing Team formed about five years later. Billings first organized a squad in 2006 with three kids; by 2009, its “Steepteam” had grown to 32 competitors.
The Gnar Pirates have seen similar growth over the group’s first five years. The Pirates now boast 27 kids on their fall bouldering team and 12 during the spring sport-climbing season. They compete in Bozeman and Billings, as well as in regional, divisional and national events hosted by USA Climbing, the sport’s Boulder, Colo.-based governing body. The Gnar Pirates are run by a volunteer nonprofit called Defying Gravity that provides organizational coordination, as well as fundraising for scholarships and travel costs.
“It is competitive,” says Fred Rhoderick, a board member and father of 14-year-old climber Abbey. “It’s not an after-school climbing club. Some of the kids want to make it to nationals, some just want to compete and improve their climbing.”
Abbey counts herself among the more hardcore competitors. She’s dabbled in other sports, but claims she was never very good at them. She feels much more comfortable on the wall.
“Climbing is a way of life,” she says. “You get to see amazing places and it makes people happy.”
When asked if she’ll keep competing through high school, Abbey is adamant. “Climbing is going to get me through high school,” she says. In fact, she adds, she’s considering climbing in college.
While competitive youth climbing may be just five years old in Missoula, it’s been on the national scene for a lot longer. The sport’s rise paralleled the growth of indoor climbing gyms, which have increased in size and in amenities since the early 1990s. According to Climbing Business Journal, there were 388 climbing gyms in the U.S. at the end of 2015, with 40 built in the last year alone, in cities as diverse as Omaha, Neb., Lexington, Ky., and Driggs, Idaho. Closer to home, Helena welcomed a new bouldering gym in 2015, while Bozeman’s gym, Spire, completed a major expansion that added 9,000 square feet of climbing, more than doubling the facility’s original 2004 footprint. In May 2016, Hi-Line Climbing Center opened in Great Falls, becoming the most recent facility to open in Montana.
- Camille Sherrill, 11, above, and Abbey Rhoderick, 14, previous photo, are two members of the Gnar Pirates. The team started five years ago with just four kids. Last year’s bouldering team included 27 competitors.
As gyms proliferated over the last three decades, new generations of climbers gained access to walls and training that had never existed before. It didn’t take long before USA Climbing started figuring out how to include kids in scored competitions.
At a local competition, the host gym sets up between 50 and 100 different routes, and assigns each route a certain number of points based on difficulty. Kids get a scorecard and have three hours to climb as many routes as possible, earning points for each one completed. Harder routes earn more points, and “flashing”climbing-speak for completing a route on the first try without falling—earns extra points. At the end of three hours, each climber’s top five scores are added together, and the climber with the most points wins.
In regional, divisional and national competitions, things are a bit different. Kids are kept in isolation before they actually climb so they can’t see the routes and how the other competitors attack the wall. When it’s their turn, each kid has between two and four minutes to work a particular route. They can try it as many times as possible within the time frame, with the goal of getting as high as possible without falling. Once the route is completed or time is up, the kids get a brief break and then tackle another route. The USA Climbing rulebook stipulates that gyms provide between three and five routes at regional competitions.
Last season, the Gnar Pirates sent nine members to Salt Lake City for the bouldering regionals. Abbey Rhoderick advanced from those regionals to the divisional finals in Ogden, Utah, earning 17th place overall.
It’s events like regional and divisional finals that help separate the Gnar Pirates from more casual clubs and recreational climbers. There are plenty of opportunities for those kids to learn and practice in Missoula, but the team is definitely focused on competition.
“We want to be sure that the kids on the team want to be on the team to compete, and not just to hang around at the gyms,” Abbey’s father says. “We don’t want to make it unattainable for anyone, but there is a certain level of commitment required.”
The person in charge of maintaining a balance between commitment and fun is Justin Willis. The baby-faced, 21-year-old coach of the Gnar Pirates grew up on the Billings Climbing Team. His dad took him climbing at age 3, and once Billings’ SteepWorld Climbing Gym opened, Justin and his dad became regulars during Montana’s long winters. He entered his first competition at age 8, and by 10 he had convinced his cousins to join him at SteepWorld. That’s when the gym owner assigned one of his employees, Joel Robinson, to “coach” the nascent team.
“There was a group of 12 or so of us who were really committed,” Willis says. “I’m pretty small, so I got picked on a lot growing up. The gym and team were always supportive and accepting. I’m trying to create the same environment with the Gnar Pirates.”
- Chris Ledyard, 13, jumps over a bike rack at Caras Park. Parkour is a relatively new sport that combines gymnastic athleticism and balance with gravity-defying stunts. Local gym Unparalleled Movement trains athletes for regional competitions, including its own “Fool’s Jam,” which attracted more than 150 people from 10 countries in March.
That supportive environment worked well for Willis, who qualified for nationals just three years after he started competing seriously. Now, in addition to coaching the Gnar Pirates and baking pastries at a local coffee shop, he’s a professional climber who last year became the first American in 18 years to podium in the ice-climbing World Cup series.
In Montana, competitive youth mountain biking isn’t as organized as climbing. There’s a small team in Helena called the Helena Dynamos, and individuals compete on their own in various events and races, but there’s not the same system of regional squads.
Nationally, it’s a different story, at least at the high school level. In 1999, Matt Fritzinger started a mountain biking club at the Berkeley, Calif., high school where he taught. Two years later, the NorCal High School Cycling League’s mountain bike racing series rode onto the scene with 60 high school students racing each other after school and on weekends.
In the league’s second season, 80 kids participated. Teachers and mountain biking enthusiasts kept calling Fritzinger to learn how to start their own leagues, and more and more riders joined. By 2005, Fritzinger secured funding from the Easton Foundations and launched his first franchise, a mountain biking league in Los Angeles. By 2008 he had an official program complete with a board of directors and nonprofit status, all organized under the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, or NICA. Today, Trek, SRAM, Specialized and the Easton Foundations act as major sponsors, and new chapters continue to pop up across the country.
NICA currently oversees leagues in 18 states. Last season, Fritzinger’s original NorCal league boasted 1,019 racers across 67 teams. Even more impressive: The Utah league drew more than 1,600 racers across 77 teams.
Montana doesn’t have a high school mountain biking league yet, but MT Alpha Juniors coach Kristine Akland envisions one starting in the not-so-distant future.
- Elizabeth Bradford, 9, races ahead of MT Alpha Juniors coach Maryjane Martin during a recent practice. The juniors, who now include 25 riders, are coached by volunteers who compete with the Alpha’s two adult teams.
“There are several organizations in our community, including the MT Alphas, that are very interested in starting a chapter [of NICA] in Missoula,” she says. “I think that Missoula could support one, and MT Alpha Cycling would love to be a part of the process.”
Riders like Elsa Westenfelder bolster Akland’s optimism. The diminutive 11-year-old’s size belies her competitive spirit. She’s entered each of the Wednesday evening Western Montana Trail Series races held in Missoula from the end of May through the end of June, as well as several of the Saturday races that take place throughout the state.
During the recent practice ride through the Rattlesnake, Westenfelder had no problem keeping up with the pack despite, a few days prior, having ridden 2,000 vertical feet up and back down Montana Snowbowl. She mentions that “her legs are a bit tired,” but she hardly shows any fatigue. On the group’s breakneck descent, Westenfelder is among a few girls riding with no hands on the handlebars.
The MT Alpha Cycling club started in 2012 with the mission, according to Akland, “to promote and encourage women to race mountain bikes by providing a haven in a male-dominated sport.” The group has two adult teams—a race and a club team—and members of both are asked to volunteer at the group’s annual MT Alpha Skills Clinic, as well as at races and other events. The members also coach.
“We were able to take on quite a few more girls [on the Alpha Juniors] because of how many women in our mountain biking community stepped up to help coach,” Akland says. At least six coaches from a pool of 12—some of them former Juniors who are now on the race team—help out at each of the season’s eight practices.
“Our 10-year goal was to have a Junior Development Team, but by 2013 we already felt we had the resources to start it,” Akland says. “Since then, it has blossomed into a fairly large group of girls.”
That first year, six girls joined the Junior Team. This year, it numbers 25.
In a nondescript sheet metal warehouse on Commerce Street, across from the railroad tracks and wedged between self-storage units and blocks of apartment buildings, is Unparalleled Movement. A bright white office and lobby greet visitors when they walk in the door.
- The Gnar Pirates practice at Freestone Climbing Gym twice a week for 90 minutes a night. “It is competitive,” says Fred Rhoderick, a board member and father of 14-year-old climber Abbey. “It’s not an after-school climbing club.”
Kent Johns, 22, sits behind the counter talking with a father and son. Johns, sporting long dark hair and a chin beard, wraps up the conversation with a reassuring smile. The son, wearing athletic shorts, running shoes and a T-shirt, jogs off through a black door. He’s clearly anxious to get out of the office and into the gym—an intricate setup of wooden boxes, ledges, metal bars, crash pads, hurdles and the “Wall of Death,” an exact replica of the obstacle made famous by “American Ninja Warrior.”
In December 2011, Johns and his partners, Micah Marino and Michael Graef, started Unparalleled Movement because they wanted to share their love of parkour, a newer sport that harnessed the power of YouTube and spread around the world in a few short years. Parkour combines gymnastic athleticism and balance with gravity-defying stunts, and takes it all outside to buildings, parks, playgrounds and parking garages—pretty much anywhere with obstacles and barriers for athletes to get over or around using well-practiced jumps, flips, spins and hurdles.
The goal of a parkour athlete is to move through a set of obstacles as quickly and efficiently as possible. The French military developed parkour in the early 20th century as a training method, and in the 1990s a group of nine French youths adopted the practice and formed a close-knit club called the Yamakasi. A public performance in the late 1990s earned the group attention in France and eventually across Europe, where other kids began practicing and filming their exploits. A 2001 French movie, also called Yamakasi, cast the group as cat burglars seeking to retrieve money for a child’s heart transplant. A 2004 semi-sequel and a 2006 French documentary further boosted the sport’s profile and appeal.
When YouTube revolutionized video sharing in 2006, parkour started to spread around the globe. Short, shaky videos of kids from the Ukraine, Japan, California and elsewhere made their way onto computers the world over. As parkour grew, some athletes shifted away from the focus on efficiency, instead combining the jumps, flips, twists and turns they had perfected into a powerful display of athletic prowess known as “free-running.” Rather than move from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, free-runners use their skills to express their athleticism and artistry. Today, the world’s best free-runners and parkour athletes are professionals whose exploits are featured in Red Bull-sponsored videos and Hollywood movies.
By 2013, Johns and his partners, who are all employed full-time by Unparalleled Movement, needed their own gym.
“We were worried that Missoula wasn’t big enough to support a parkour community,” Johns says. “But we were wrong. It’s been very accepting and supportive of parkour.”
Johns says they shepherd roughly 15 kids per week through their week-long summer camps, and there are between 50 and 60 active members of the gym. The members range in age from 5 to 20, with the majority between 7 and 12. With Unparalleled Movement’s continued growth, Johns says they’re looking for a new, bigger space, which they hope to open by next year.
In the meantime, the partners are focused on their current members and preparing for competitions.
Because parkour is so new, there isn’t a governing body as with other sports. But parkour gyms across the country still host events that focus on speed courses, where competitors must navigate a specific route, or perform freestyle, and judges assign points for difficulty and execution during a timed program. Johns acknowledges there’s debate within the sport’s community about how best to run an event.
“We’re even seeing ‘battles’ where one or more competitors compete directly against each other,” he says.
- Justin Kovalicky, 14, shows off his parkour skills outside. Unparalleled Movement says the sport’s continued popularity has the gym seeking a bigger space for athletes to train in by next year. “We were worried that Missoula wasn’t big enough to support a parkour community,” says co-founder Kent Johns. “But we were wrong.”
Regardless of the format, Johns says, there are plenty of opportunities for his athletes to test their skills against their peers, with between 20 and 30 competitions in the West every year. Each March, Unparalleled Movement hosts its own three-day parkour festival. Their most recent “Fool’s Jam” attracted more than 150 people from 10 countries.
The team has also had success at regional tournaments. In April, 15-year-old Justin Kovalicky, who trains at Unparalleled Movement, won the speed and skills competition at the APEX Youth Invitational in Boulder, Colo.
When the MT Alpha Juniors finally stop long enough for me to come puffing up behind them, it’s hardly much of a break. Coach Akland runs the group through a series of shifting drills on a stretch of singletrack that starts mellow and then steepens. For 30 minutes, we ride up and down, noting when we should shift gears in relation to the terrain and to our pedaling cadence.
As we reconvene one last time before the final climb and plunging descent, Akland pulls out a bag of gummy bears. The girls start to play with the chewy sugar bombs, and it’s the first time they really show their age. Giggles erupt as Lucia Baker, a 12-year-old with a buzz cut and braces, voices the thoughts of her doomed gummy bear in a cartoon accent. The others join in and soon the whole group is laughing.
With only 15 or so minutes left in the practice, we grind up the final few hundred feet of the trail. I assume my back-of-the-pack position and console myself that I’ll surely catch the team on the descent. Except that I don’t.
They rip down Lower Fence Line Trail, hurtling through the forest in a blur. I squeeze my brakes and jump roots and rocks as gravity does its job. We pause for a moment at the bottom of Sawmill Gulch and then hit the Ewok Trail, which delivers us to a skidding stop at the parking lot. I’m exhausted, sweaty and thoroughly impressed.
The Juniors group up one last time for a team cheer. Parents astride their own mountain bikes hang back watching as the team chants, “M-T…M-T… M-T…,” each repetition louder than the last. The cheer culminates in a final “Alpha!” that echoes through the forest.
The scene underscores one of the most important points made by coaches and organizers of the MT Alpha Juniors, Gnar Pirates and Unparalleled Movement: an emphasis on creating a supportive team environment. As these youth sports start to embrace more structure and competition, it’s important that the adults in charge not lose sight of why kids are there. They want to have fun.
- From right to left, Stella Diaz, 10, Audry Baldwin, 9, Elizabeth Bradford, 9, and Ryan Howell, 9, await instruction during a recent MT Alpha Juniors practice. As participation in traditional team sports drops nationally, more kids are turning to alternative sports like mountain biking.
A 2015 survey performed by an exercise professor at George Washington University asked 150 kids what they like most about playing sports. More than 80 attributes and outcomes made the list. Winning ranked 41. Meanwhile, the top reason kids quit sports is because they’re no longer fun.
With the increased pressures of traditional sports potentially driving youngsters away, the newcomers are taking note. Johns at Unparalleled Movement acknowledges his athletes are mostly “there to hang out with their friends.” Akland, with the MT Alphas, doesn’t talk as much about team goals as about creating a specific culture. “We want to have fun, promote women in mountain biking and empower girls to be adventure athletes,” she says.
Justin Willis, the Gnar Pirates coach and professional climber, knows a lot can get lost in today’s youth sports, with travel teams and jam-packed practice schedules drowning out joy for the game.
“My No. 1 goal is to create a welcoming sanctuary for the kids,” he says.
He smiles before adding: “But I love seeing how they react to the competition.”