Olympics at 18: Teenagers who climb are just cooler (than me)

At 18 years old, Erin Sterkenberg is preparing to represent South Africa in the Tokyo 2020 (2021) Olympics, where climbing features for the first time. She is also preparing to finish high school and deciding what she wants to be when she “grows up”. 

When I was 18, all I cared about was the next social event, which boys were going to be there, and what I was going to wear. I had a poor sense of self and NO goals. When we interviewed Erin for episode 2, I was relieved to learn that not all 18 year old girls are like I was. It quickly became obvious that she is mature, goal-oriented and can see the bigger picture – while still remaining youthful and somewhat “giggley”. 

Her maturity and easy interaction with “adults” is something I have observed commonly with other young people in the climbing community. It appears that young climbers are somewhat at ease with themselves and those around them – more so than I sure was as an awkward teenager. 

Yes, it’s likely that teenagers in general have changed in the last 15 years – they live in a different world to the one I did. But it’s fun to explore what climbing might bring to a teenage life, and why it might make someone less… teenager-ish. 

To get into climbing in the first place, you need to put down your cellphone and prepare to try hard at something you might well fail at. That in itself takes character. Then, committing to climbing means facing the reality of your ego in relation to your abilities. This requires a sense of self-awareness in body and mind, something I sure didn’t possess as a teenager. As Erin herself said in our interview: “It [climbing] has taught me a lot about how important mental health is, because mental awareness is such a big part of the sport. If your head is not in the game, it’s probably not going to be a good day.”

Added to the introspective aspect of climbing, the sport itself is community-centric and is not age-specific. Young people entering the sport are exposed to a whole range of people of all ages, of all professions, each with a wealth of life experience to impart between climbs. “The climbing community has shaped me,” Erin said. “There are so many amazing people in this sport… Getting to know them, wanting to be like them when I’m older”. It is important for young people to have role models, and it looks like the climbing community is a great place to find one. Even as an adult, I have certainly identified my own role models in the space.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I believe that climbing instills a sense of responsibility which you cannot avoid. The understanding that your actions have consequences, that a knot not tied can be fatal, is enough to bring anyone down to earth. 

In an upcoming episode with Jenni Comins – veteran climber and mother of two girls who are definitely cooler than me – we hope to get her input on this topic (and much more). Keep an ear out for this episode, launching 25 August as our Women’s Month feature!

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