Olympic climber Nathaniel Coleman’s path to Tokyo started in Utah’s canyons — places he hopes to protect as his sport’s popularity grows

The Murray native worries about the impact the exposure will have on the sport and the outdoor areas where it is popular

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City native Nathaniel Coleman works out at the US Climbing Training Center training Center in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, July 15, 2021, in preparation for representing Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where climbing will make its debut Tuesday.

When the gyms begin to feel too repetitive, or when he needs to break away from the spotlight — the wattage of which has been steadily cranked up as his Olympic debut draws nearer — Nathaniel Coleman seeks refuge in the crags of the canyons he loves.

“A break to Little Cottonwood Canyon helps reset the mind,” he said.

Its rock walls are where Coleman began his climbing career in earnest, where he found the first holds of a route that has now taken him to Tokyo, as the first American rock climber to compete in the Olympic Games.

“I think climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon especially helps with comp climbing because it’s such nuanced climbing,” he said. “You really have to be creative, be intuitive while climbing.”

And yet, for all of the problems Coleman has been able to solve, one seems to worry him more than the others. The Olympics have helped bring notoriety, both to Coleman and the sport he loves. More climbers will emerge because of it. And when they, too, come looking for a rush or a reset in these crags, what will become of the canyons?

“I think it’s exciting ... but it’s also nerve wracking,” he said, “because I think that as a sport grows and grows exponentially faster — faster than this community can teach the newcomers — then it faces a lot of challenges. And I just hope that us as climbers can keep some of the roots of climbing in the sport as it grows.”

How Nathaniel Coleman started climbing

Trees, brick walls, the changing table in his room and the bookshelves in the living room of his Murray home. For a young Nathaniel, everything and anything was an object to be scaled.

Unsure how else to keep his son off the counters and out of trouble, Richard Coleman started taking his son with him on outings into the Cottonwood canyons.

“I could see that the way he moved when he climbed trees or climbed on brick walls, things like that, he had an instinct for it,” Richard said. “I could see that he would probably be a good climber. So, I’d take him up in the canyons and put him on a top rope and let him climb some smaller things.

“And that was until he was about 9. And that’s when the Momentum gym opened up and they started climbing lessons. So, my first thought was, ‘Well, let’s go ahead and try that out.’

“That was when everything changed.”

Over the past 20 years, Coleman, 24, has been giving a new meaning to Utah’s state motto, Life Elevated. He’s been honing his climbing skills on the state’s granite cliffs, quartzite boulder fields and sandstone desert spires. Then he draws on that dexterity in the gym, where he feeds on the competition.

The combination has allowed him to quickly ascend into the ranks of the world’s best sport climbers. And he’s doing so at a time when the sport is just as quickly rising in the public consciousness. On Tuesday, both will take a big step up when sport climbing makes its Olympic debut.

“I’m just kind of in awe,” his mother, Rosane Coleman, said. “Like, who would have ever thought my little rugrat that climbed everything would be a professional athlete?”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City native Nathaniel Coleman is filmed by film crew, as he works out at the US Climbing Training Center training Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 15, 2021, in preparation for representing Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where climbing will make its debut.

Climbing as an Olympic sport

Coleman said he is in many ways a product of his environment.

“I mean, as a climber,” he said, “I’m certainly happy that I live in Utah compared to Kansas.”

Not that someone from Kansas couldn’t make it to the Olympics in sport climbing. For proof, he need look no further than over at his Olympics teammate Kyra Condie. She only recently moved to Salt Lake City after living most of her life in mountainless Minnesota. (Brooke Raboutou and Colin Duffy will also represent the USA.)

In fact, by definition sport climbing is done in a gym. It consists of three disciplines — boulder, lead and speed — all of which will be (somewhat uniquely and controversially) combined into a single medal event in Tokyo. In each, athletes will make use of plastic holds attached to an artificial climbing wall in a race to the top.

In boulder, the wall is only about 15 feet high, the climber is not attached to a rope and the routes often necessitate parkour-like leaps or Gumby-like stretches. In lead, athletes use the holds to navigate as far up a 49-foot-high wall as they can. They are attached to a rope, or more technically an auto belay, but when they fall, their turn is over. Speed is similar to lead except climbers must scale a route that has been the same, everywhere, since the International Federation of Sport Climbing established it in 2007. The catch is that two athletes climb side-by-side and the first to touch a buzzer at the top wins.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyra Condie smiles during a photo shoot for one of her sponsors, while training in preparation for representing Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where climbing will make its debut, on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

Coleman’s strength is bouldering, and he said that’s been a good base to build on.

“Being a bouldering specialist, you can convert that into a decent lead performance with not as much training,” he said. “And then being a boulder specialist, I’m powerful and coordinated, which are the two of the three things you need on speed — the third being a lot of time in practice.”

That means a lot of time in the gym. He splits his workouts between the Momentum Climbing Gym in Sandy, where he got his start years ago, and USA Climbing’s training center near the I-15/I-80 interchange. USA Climbing established its facility when it relocated to Salt Lake City from Denver three years ago, shortly after it was announced climbing would be part of the Tokyo Games. It’s yet another reason Coleman’s glad he’s in Utah.

But when the gym wears on him, the canyons call.

“It helps him reset,” Rosane said. “Like when he feels a lot of pressure from competition, going outdoor climbing helps him to reset and get himself back on why he loves climbing.”

Little Cottonwood gives Coleman that quick getaway. But when he wants to test himself on something unfamiliar, he said he’ll drive down to Joe’s Valley, near Orangeville in central Utah, to shimmy up its sandstone boulders. On occasion, he’ll travel to California to explore the lines and routes around Lake Tahoe.

The outdoors offers up an endless variety of rock problems that can’t be replicated in a gym on a regular basis.

“Nobody has set a route for you to figure out. So you’re looking at rock,” Richard said. “You don’t really know which holds are the best holds the first time you climb a route. So ... it demands a little more trial and error, maybe. It feels riskier to be outside, especially if you’re putting in your own protection, you know, doing traditional climbing. Then there’s more risk involved and that brings a different dimension to it.”

Opportunity and apprehension

Whatever Coleman is doing, it’s working.

He won three straight Bouldering Nationals titles heading into the 2019 seasons, doing so without falling once in the 2017 nor the 2018 edition. In 2019, he took second and then failed to make the finals of the Sport Nationals. But he excelled when he needed to most.

That November, Coleman placed seventh in an IFSC Olympic Combined Qualifier in Toulouse, France, to become the first American man to secure his spot on the wall in Tokyo.

“When it actually happened in France,” he said, “it made me believe in myself more.”

Then, of course, the coronavirus spread around the world. Climbing gyms closed, and the training center severely limited access.

Coleman’s first instinct was to continue climbing outside, but then he thought better of it.

“My plan was to spend just a few weeks climbing outside, and I was really excited about it,” he said. “But one thing my Petzl team brought to my attention was if I go out and get hurt, hospitals can’t really handle someone with a broken ankle, and it will put a lot more stress on an institution that is already stressed.”

He instead reverted back to his childhood ways, climbing the trees and walls and door frames. He also had more time to read and to reflect on how life might change for him and for his sport after the Olympics.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City native Nathaniel Coleman world out at the US Climbing Training Center training Center in Salt Lake City, in preparation for representing Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where climbing will make its debut, on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

His parents said it matured him.

“I have respect for him,” Richard said. “He’s a good human being. He has an ethical sense and a sense of compassion and fair play. And that’s important to us as parents to have our child be like that.”

Nathaniel Coleman’s admiration and respect for the challenges and beauty Little Cottonwood and other outdoor climbing destinations in Utah provide him are close to his heart as he competes in Tokyo this week.

“I’d like to be a positive force in the world, and I think that climbing is a good way to do that,” he said. “But how do I do that? What issues do I want to focus on?”

Coleman said he realized he is becoming the American face of a booming industry. Rock and Ice reported some favorite climbing spots nationwide reported up to a 300% increase in use during the pandemic. And most newcomers are expected to stick with the sport even after the coronavirus threat wanes. Add to that the Olympics effect, which could push the number of climbers even higher in the coming years.

It’s a source of opportunity and apprehension for Coleman.

He now talks about climbing as a paying profession, not just a pastime held over from his childhood. Yet, he’s concerned about the negative impacts that climbing’s growth could have on the culture of the sport as well as on the places throughout Utah and the world that he’s long sought solace in.

“It’s been exciting to watch the sport grow. It’s been a bit nerve-wracking to see it change,” he said. “You know, everybody who has been climbing for a long time enjoyed the fact that climbing was a niche sport. And to see it become more mainstream is a bit worrying. It makes you hope that future climbers will be as considerate to outdoor spaces as past climbers have been.”

Because while there will always be climbing gyms, no one can construct a playground like Mother Nature.

Olympic Climbing schedule

Men’s qualification: Tuesday, 2 a.m. MDT (speed), 3 a.m. (boulder), 6:10 a.m. (lead)

Women’s qualification: Wednesday, 2 a.m. MDT (speed), 3 a.m. (boulder), 6:10 a..m. (lead)

Men’s finals: Thursday, 2:30 a.m. MDT (speed), 3:30 a.m. (boulder), 6:10 a.m. (lead)

Women’s final: Friday, 2:30 a.m. MDT (speed), 3:30 a.m. (boulder), 6:10 a.m. (lead)

Watch live: All events will be aired on the NBC Sports app