Attempting a climb for the first time, world champion Sasha DiGiulian plans each move like a game of chess, visualizing three to four moves ahead of her next.
At times hanging by only one hand from 60 to 80 feet in the air, the Alexandria native uses her impressive athletic ability and mental focus to navigate climbs that are rated among the highest degree of difficulty in the world.
Her record tally of first ascents (first to successfully climb a mountain or follow a climbing route) and number of victories at competitions have catapulted the 21-year old to become the face of her sport.
And to think, it all started right here in the DC metro area. “I was seven and my brother was having a birthday party at Sports Rock in Alexandria and I just started climbing up the wall and kept going,” DiGiulian said.
She joined the local junior team at Sports Rock and began climbing once or twice a week. By 8 years old, DiGiulian was climbing outside in West Virginia at Range New River Gorge with a group of kids from the tri state area.
At 9 years old, DiGiulian walked into Sports Rock and saw a climbing competition going on, the Youth Regional Championships. The judges let her compete and she won, leading her to divisionals, then nationals and eventually the world championship. By age 16, DiGiulian was old enough to start competing in adult divisions.
Now a three-time U.S. champion, reigning Pan-American champion and female overall world champion, DiGiulian is the first and only North American woman to climb a difficulty grade of 5.14d, at Red River Gorge canyon system in east-central Kentucky.
The difficulty of a climb is rated by class, one through five, with one being the easiest, generally even terrain, and five being near vertical or completely vertical rock. Decimal points are used to further differentiate difficulty, and for climbs above 5.10, letter grades of a (easiest) through d (the hardest) are added.
Such impressive athletic feats have earned DiGiulian a well-matched sponsorship by Red Bull and features in numerous publications, increasing her profile substantially But all of this has not phased DiGiulian one bit; she still gives off an uplifting positive demeanor and infectious desire to continually test her limits.
“When I’m physically really pushing myself, I’m not thinking of anything else but the climb. I’m thinking of the movement in front of me and figuring out the next step. As soon as you start thinking you’re tired or not sure if it is possible, you’ll be falling before you’ve fallen,” DiGiulian said.
As if all of her professional accomplishments were not impressive enough, DiGiulian manages it all while being a full-time student at Columbia University in New York City.
Monday through Thursday, she juggles a full load of classes while training for three hours a day, including climbing, running, and strength-to-weight ratio workouts like pull-ups and push-ups to maintain a strong core.
Then, Thursday through Sunday, DiGiulian is traveling to competitions, sometimes as close as her home state of Virginia and others as far as a recent trip to South Africa, which Red Bull documented in an awe inspiring video you can view on the brand’s website.
DiGiulian and a crew traveled to Waterval Boven, South Africa, just outside of Johannesburg, to a remote area, home to world class sports climbing.
“The climbing here is impeccable, the rock is bullet strong sandstone and the lines are some of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever climbed on,” DiGiulian’s said, as the video showed her attempting to be the first to complete a route laid out by climbers years ago.
“Going through the open beautiful face, it’s kind of striking and fear invoking, not knowing if the moves are possible. My first try up it I didn’t even get to the top,” she said in the video.
And by being the first to complete the route she earned the right to name it, choosing ‘Rolihlahla’, the middle name of former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Looking ahead to this summer, DiGiulian said she plans to spend time in the western U.S. attempting first ascents.
Then come August, she is off to Spain to attempt the world’s hardest multi-pitch project by technical grading. Multi-pitch climbing involves a series of one or more stops during the climb at belay stations, with periods of climbing between each station referred to as a pitch.
“I find that climbing is a source of a lot of my goal setting,” she said, adding that the mind-body experience of climbing is a particularly “cool” facet of the sport.
“Solving both physical and mental aspects, it’s like you’re putting puzzle pieces together,” DiGiulian said.
DiGiulian also has a passion for giving back. She serves as an Athlete Ambassador to a number of organizations including sports-based youth development movement Up2Us and global organization Right to Play.
“Ultimately my goal is to inspire as many people as possible to find passion and exceed their limits,” DiGiulian said. “Just find your passion and live it.”
To read more visit sasha-digiulian.com and redbull. com