The Collegiate National Championships in Melbourne highlight rock climbing’s unlikely popularity in Florida

Story and Photos By Allison Arteaga

Sapna Desai was dangling from her fingertips more than two stories up in the air, but she could still hear the excited cries of the crowd below. From her perch, high above the floor of Melbourne’s On The Edge Rock Climbing Gym, she could feel the eyes of the spectators burning into her. She was exhausted, and the muscles in her arms screamed out, but she locked her gaze upward and tuned everything else out. This next move was crucial.

She set her feet, balanced herself carefully against the wall, and reached out. She barely caught the next handhold, and for a few nerve-wracking seconds, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to hang on. But she harnessed all her strength and stuck it. The crowd went wild. In that moment, she secured a 3rd-place finish in Women’s Sport Climbing for the University of Virginia at the 2013 Collegiate Climbing Series (CCS) National Championships, and the excitement of it all was just the fuel she needed to make a few more moves. For the Space Coast native, coming back home and putting on a good show at the gym she practically grew up in was just about the best feeling in the world.

This past April, hundreds of top climbers like Sapna from universities across the country gathered at local extreme sports fixture On The Edge Rock Climbing Gym for collegiate climbing’s premier event, the CCS National Championships. Located just 20 minutes from the Space Coast’s sunny beaches, this particular gym might be just about the last place in the world where you’d expect to find such a gathering. But since the first CCS National Championships in Austin, Texas, in 2009, Florida climbers have consistently performed well, leaving rivals from the sport’s more traditional hotspots wondering how a state with all the geographic splendor of a pancake could possibly have some of the best collegiate climbers in the country.

“I was surprised to hear that Nationals were going to be held in Florida,” said Bryce Viola, 2013 CCS Men’s Bouldering National Champion from the Rochester Institute of Technology Climbing Team after competing this past spring. “… the fact that there are no real rocks around made it seem like an unusual selection.”

But, as strange as it may seem, the Sunshine State is actually home to a vibrant indoor climbing scene thanks to a handful of dedicated local gyms, and Melbourne’s world-class On The Edge is leading the pack when it comes to promoting the sport. “On The Edge is Florida’s competition gym, plain and simple,” said general manager Ray Stacey, who also coaches the gym’s world-renowned youth climbing team. “We host more sanctioned contests than most gyms in the country.”

To Stacey, On The Edge seemed like a perfectly logical place to hold the 2013 CCS National Championships, but that’s because he knows better than most that the only real irony surrounding rock climbing in such a topographically challenged state is that confinement to the indoor arena is actually the secret weapon behind Florida’s prosperous competitive climbing community.

There are competitive climbing circuits for adults, children, and college students, and contests take place almost exclusively indoors, where event officials can set new routes for each contest, including shorter difficulty-based bouldering routes climbed without ropes, taller difficulty-based sport routes climbed with full safety gear, and special speed climbing routes that are just meant to be scaled as quickly as possible. Since gyms like On The Edge that regularly host these contests are also the only place for curious newcomers to test out the sport within the Sunshine State, it’s an easy transition into the competitive side of things for those who stop by on a whim one day and end up falling in love with climbing.

Melbourne native Ashley Norton, a long-time On The Edge regular who won a Women’s Speed Climbing National Title for UCF this year, can attest to that fact. “I had tried every sport in the book from gymnastics to baton twirling and hated all of it,” she said. “But the second I stepped foot at On The Edge, I knew I was hooked.” Ashley was only 7 years old when she tried rock climbing for the first time, and she quickly found her niche as a prodigy of the gym’s youth competition team.

Indian Harbour Beach native and University of Virginia climber Sapna Desai is another talented athlete who traces her roots back to On The Edge’s youth team, and part of what appealed to her about competitive climbing was the laid-back atmosphere. Climbing simply doesn’t have the same high-stress, cutthroat vibe as other sports. Instead, at most competitions, music blares as climbers flit around blissfully from one exciting new route to the next and catch up with friends from across the country.

Across the board, all climbers agree on one thing: at the end of the day, it’s all about having a great time and sharing a passion for the sport. “I love climbing because it’s a physical and mental workout all at once,” said Samantha Teehan, president of the local Florida Institute of Technology Rock Climbing Club. “I can be at the gym climbing for hours and not feel like any time has gone by.”

Local climbers like Samantha are always happy to welcome new converts into the fold, so whether you’re committed to competing or just looking for a fun new workout with some friends, all you have to do is harness up and give it a try. And the Space Coast’s very own world-class climbing gym is there to help you do it. “On The Edge is a fantastic facility,” said Sapna Desai. “I never knew how lucky I was to have such a great gym in my backyard until I moved away from it.”