Life is pretty good when you’ve been crowned world champion in the sport you love, just a few days before starting your freshman year of high school. Ashima Shiraishi, the 14-year-old climbing phenom, took double gold in lead climbing and bouldering at the 2015 International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Youth Championships in Arco, Italy on September 4 and 5. She was the only climber to send all 12 problems in three heats of bouldering and complete every lead route on the docket as well—a perfect score. Shiraishi knows it’s an accomplishment in a field of competitors that ranged up to 20 years old, but—as she often does when talking about her most astounding feats—what she really wants to talk about is how she thought her way through the challenge.
“Italy was crazy,” Shiraishi says, her soft lilt belying a gritty determination that’s won her respect from the world’s greatest climbers. “It was nonstop climbing. Mentally, it was really hard to not collapse. I was competing every day. But I got used to it, and by the end I wanted to compete more.”
What Shiraishi considers “getting used to it” is the product of her intense personal blend of work ethic, self-awareness, and toughness. This beyond-her-years mental game has propelled her to the kind of climbing renown that goes way beyond “impressive for her age.” In the past few years, Shiraishi has racked up some astonishing superlatives achieved by only a handful of climbers in the entire world. (At 13, she became the second female ever to send a V14, and this year, she became the first woman to send a 5.15a climb—more on those later.) "Ashima is one of the most talented rock climbers I’ve ever seen," says climbing legend Lynn Hill, well known for her tenacity on the biggest walls in the world.
But when we spoke, just a few days after her podium climbs, Shiraishi was back at home in Manhattan counting down the hours till her freshman year of high school. “I’m excited to be seeing my friends,” she says, “but the homework…” she sighs. “I just want to be on summer vacation again.”
Understandable. Shiraishi has spent most of her free time in the past seven years feeding a climbing obsession. Her parents, who moved to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood from Japan in the late 1970s, used to take their daughter to Central Park to play. Once she discovered the climbing boulders there, they couldn’t keep her off. These days Shiraishi remains a 5-foot-1 powerhouse by training at two local gyms at least 25 hours a week. Her dad, a former dancer, is her belay partner and bouldering spotter. “Sometimes it’s super hard, because I have school, then climbing, then homework, then dinner. I go to sleep at midnight or 1 a.m., and I wake up around 6 a.m.,” she says. “And I can’t travel as much as other climbers do because I have school.”
That’s what school vacations are for. Over last year’s spring break, the then-13-year-old made history in Spain, spending four days projecting Santa Linya’s notorious Open Your Mind Direct route. Climbing junkies will tell you there was some discrepancy on just how historic her feat was—usually, the wall is a 5.14d, but a hold had just broken off, possibly upgrading it to a 5.15a. Shiraishi was the first person to send it with the missing hold, and likely the first female and youngest overall to send a 5.15a (Rock and Ice points out that Adam Ondra sent his first 5.15a when he was 15).
A few days later she went ahead and sent a confirmed 5.15a, Ciudad de Dios, quashing any doubts. The skeptics don’t seem to bother Shiraishi so much as getting out of her own head—she returned several times in our conversation to the idea of mastering her inner dialogue. “Before climbing something that’s hard or right at my limit, I’m scared of failing,” she says. “But I try to have confidence and tell myself that all the hours I put in at the gym are going to pay off.”
The champ has more than proven her versatile athleticism with a list of bouldering accolades that’s just as long as her sport climbing attempts. Last summer she became the second female climber to conquer a V14 problem (Golden Shadow in South Africa), and she earned herself a new world record earlier this year when she became the youngest climber and first female to send The Swarm, another V14 in Bishop, California. Maybe Shiraishi will follow peers like Sasha DiGiulian or Alex Honnold into the world of alpine climbing—Hill is sure she could if she wanted to.
At the moment, though, Shiraishi is still too young to enter most competitions. "Normally you have to be at least 16 to compete in national and international open competitions," she says, "which is unfortunate because I want to see how well I can perform on the World Cup circuit!" In the meantime, she’ll have to settle for freshman year, spring breaks on the toughest faces on the planet, and a few world records before she goes pro—her future goal. “I want to push my limits and push the limits of climbing,” she says. “I love the satisfaction you feel after you get to the top of your project and realize all your hard work has paid off. It’s the most satisfying thing you can ever feel.”
Ashima Shiraishi on…
Her dream climb: There are way too many…I’d like to go back to Spain and try other climbs there. Also, Australia. I’ve seen so many pictures of the rocks there. I want to explore.
Keeping your head in the game: The biggest thing I need is motivation to work hard and be disciplined. Even if you have talent, you’re never going to go far if you don’t have the motivation.
Overcoming doubt: On every project I try, I always think it’s impossible at first and almost give up. But there’s just something inside of me…I get inspiration from my friends and my parents, and it just gets me there.
Advice for young climbers just starting out: Hmmm. I’m still learning, so I don’t know how to give advice. What I tell myself—and this is really cliché—is not to give up. That’s what life is, and that’s what you need to keep climbing.
Life outside climbing: I like writing and art, and hanging out with my friends. I’m also a huge foodie. I like Japanese food and dessert.