By Sean Lozano
I’ve always considered myself to be average. Unless you take into account the fact that I identify as gay. Though, physically speaking, I’m pretty unremarkable. I may never attempt a marathon, but I enjoy getting out into nature for a good hike every so often. In high school, I shunned PE and team sports as heteronormative, jockish affectation. The idea of placing me in a Muscle Milk and testosterone driven environment like a gym is a real non-starter. Please, don’t “bro” me. So, when my friend promised that the local rock climbing gym would be different, needless to say, I was skeptical.
It was awkward, at first. There was a moderate amount of muscled guys, sporting the shirtless uniform, showing off by topping out on difficult routes using only arms and upper body strength. I was definitely out of my element and a bit intimidated to start working on beginner bouldering routes. However, after a few attempts and awkward failures, I managed to finish my first problems. After moving on to routes with a bit higher level of difficulty, I forgot about my discomfort and started having fun. I may have lacked style and grace, but I wore the blisters on my palms with the pride of having endured my first gym experience- and, much to my surprise, I managed to enjoy myself in the process.
From then on, I was hooked. After working on improving my technique and strength in the gym, I would head out on day trips into nature with friends to send some routes on real rock in Joshua Tree and the foothills surrounding Palm Springs. When I wasn’t losing sleep going over difficult problems at the gym in my head, I was watching old bouldering competitions on Youtube. Competitions exposed me to new names of athletes that were accomplishing feats of strength and dexterity that seemed to me to be almost super-human. As impressive as these guys were, I never felt inspired by their ability. “sure,” I thought, “I could totally do that, if I were 6’4” also.” With every awesome dyno, obscene toe-hang, or insane free-solo from these guys I felt less confident in my own ability as a novice climber. That is, until I started watching the women compete.
In a competition setting, the style of climbing may be different for each gender, but the grading of difficulty is the same across the board. For female competitors, just as men, strength and technique are key to success. In order to overcome limitations of physical proportion, they adjust their technique to accomplish their goals. I immediately became enamored with the abilities of Alex Puccio. Standing at 5’2”, Puccio has strength that is impressive even coming from any of her male counterparts. It was exciting watching her muscle her way through tough problems. When she struggled to reach a hold or finish a route, I found myself cheering harder for her, because I knew what that felt like. Her victories became my victories, because I could identify with her struggle.
Another athlete that inspired me to train harder was a 12 year old girl named Ashima Shiraishi. Ashima blew minds in the rock climbing scene when she became one of the youngest climbers to finish problems that were first set by climbers twice her size, with twice the experience. By utilizing her size, she has perfected a technique that allows her to top routes that elude even some of the most seasoned professionals. When I get in the gym and feel frustrated by a difficult problem, I don’t think “Well, a 12 year old girl can do it. Why can’t I?” Shiraishi possesses a natural ability and mental fortitude that transcends age or gender. Instead, I become inspired to look at the problem in a different way in order to see where I’m going wrong and determine a new approach. Her ability to focus on her strengths to overcome her limitations is a motivating factor that I carry with me indoors and out.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by strong female role-models. To start, I would only have to look as far as my immediate family. My mother has managed to raise me on my own for my entire life. Despite not having a second income in our household, or having someone else there to help look after me, my mother was able to provide me with a great childhood. I look to her for guidance and emulate her work ethic on a daily basis. For that I’ll always be grateful. Another representation of strength would be my Grandmother, who came to the United States from Mexico to start a new life and strive for a better future for her family. Despite the language and cultural barriers she experienced, she, along with my Grandfather, was able to raise a family who later achieved their own success as first generation Americans. The accomplishments of these women are woven into my own sense of identity and are part of the story that continues to be told throughout my life.
With all of these examples of the influence that women have had on me, it would be easy to consider myself as simply a feminist. If rock climbing has taught me anything, it’s that the story of struggle is universal. There are so many Illustrations of people around the world overcoming adversity. When you hear of women who are working on their own to provide for their family, it’s important to remember that there are also single fathers who are out there doing the same thing. For every immigrant coming to the United States in search of the American Dream, there are refugees escaping to foreign lands from war, famine and climate change. For every ethnic minority who works for fair and equal representation in their society, there are people who seek freedom of religious expression in the face of intolerance and persecution. And for every scrawny gay guy out there like myself who struggles to carve out their own definition of masculinity, there is a handicapped individual somewhere who strives to be seen as a pillar of strength in their community. If my journey from the climbing gym has taught me anything, it’s the ability to see past bias and personal limitations in order to gain wisdom from that which may be different from me.
For many, taking a stand for social justice may seem like an intimidating or uncomfortable task. However, there are ways that we can make a difference everyday that don’t require us to be Martin Luther King jr. It begins with the understanding that all issues are interconnected. When a sense of empathy is applied to our everyday interactions, it allows us to recognize the similarities in the hardships we each face daily. After recognizing those problems, we open ourselves to appreciating the different ways that we each deal with these obstacles, further enabling ourselves to learn from one another. This bond may even inspire us to educate ourselves further on the gaps in progress that we face toward tackling these issues. Finally, we will hopefully be inspired to make a conscious and unified effort to correct our behaviors. This action can be as simple as giving consideration to those who we would normally pass a negative judgment toward or speaking up against ignorant remarks or actions. The size of the action we take is not what matters. What matters is whether or not we make an effort at all.
Justice is striking the balance between building strength communally from the diverse strengths of the individual. Though we each have a different way of tackling common obstacles, each way is valid and serves to enrich the overall human experience. This balance allows us to learn from one another. It allows us to understand that an attack on any gender, race, creed, sexual orientation or disability is an attack on the bond that allows us to thrive together.