Game changers 

As more kids turn to alternative team sports, Missoula's Gnar Pirates and MT Alpha Juniors lead a new generation of athletes

My lungs are burning as I huff up Sawmill Gulch Road. It's not a steep climb, but I'm breathing about as hard as I can, trying to shorten the gap separating me from the crew of bikers ahead of me. Or at least not let the gap get any wider.

I'm not a hardcore mountain biker by any stretch. I'm not really even a casual mountain biker. These days, my knobby-tired Kona hangs in the shed while I cruise to friends' houses or pedal downtown for a bite and a beer on an old, hand-me-down KHS with slick tires. But I'm still pretty fit and I run, hike or paddle several days a week. I figured a little mountain biking wouldn't strain me.

That's why I was a bit surprised the gap between me and the main group wasn't getting any smaller, despite how hard I mashed my pedals. If my labored breathing could have afforded an ego-checking, self-deprecating laugh, I would have been howling. The riders I desperately chased were 11- and 12-year-olds.

  • cover photo by Cathrine L. Walters

I'd joined the MT Alpha Cycling Juniors, an all-girls competition team started four summers ago, at their weekly practice to explore just one of the area's burgeoning nontraditional youth sports teams. These aren't teams in name only—they practice regularly and compete in local, regional and national events. The organizations also operate in much the same way as Little Grizzlies and Missoula Youth Football, Little League baseball and the Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association, with boards of directors and, in many cases, affiliations to national governing bodies. Most notably, these teams—including the MT Alpha Juniors—are growing in numbers.

Nationally, participation in traditional youth sports has declined or remained flat year to year for the last decade or so. According to the Sports Industry and Fitness Association, the average number of sports played by children between age 6 and 17 dropped 5.9 percent, from 2.14 to 2.01, between 2009 and 2014. Participation rates for that same age group fell in many of America's most popular sports during the same time period: baseball down 4.3 percent, basketball down 6.8 percent and soccer down 8.4 percent.

Local numbers are impossible to confirm across different leagues, and there are exceptions nationally—hockey's numbers are up, and lacrosse has shown fairly sustained growth over the last decade—but the downward trend has raised concerns among the stick-and-ball faithful. Experts ascribe the drop to over-specialization in just one sport, fear of injury or concussion, overly intense coaches and parents causing burnout, and the allure of video games and on-demand entertainment. Another possible explanation: Kids are stoking their competitive fires and having more fun in alternative team sports.

It's not unusual to find kids climbing the walls at Freestone Climbing Gym in Missoula's Westside neighborhood. In a town like Missoula, with its well-established climbing scene, parents often take their kids with them to the gym. Freestone also offers a suite of after-school clubs and programs throughout the year. But from September through December, twice a week for 90 minutes a night, at least two dozen kids are climbing with purpose. They are the Gnar Pirates.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

Shortly after Freestone opened in 2011, Molly Rennie launched the Gnar Pirates team with four kids—two girls and two boys. She saw it as an opportunity to introduce younger people, age 8 to 16, to the sport and match them up against other Montana cities with established youth climbing teams. Bozeman started a youth climbing club in 1996, and the competitive Bozeman Climbing Team formed about five years later. Billings first organized a squad in 2006 with three kids; by 2009, its "Steepteam" had grown to 32 competitors.

The Gnar Pirates have seen similar growth over the group's first five years. The Pirates now boast 27 kids on their fall bouldering team and 12 during the spring sport-climbing season. They compete in Bozeman and Billings, as well as in regional, divisional and national events hosted by USA Climbing, the sport's Boulder, Colo.-based governing body. The Gnar Pirates are run by a volunteer nonprofit called Defying Gravity that provides organizational coordination, as well as fundraising for scholarships and travel costs.

"It is competitive," says Fred Rhoderick, a board member and father of 14-year-old climber Abbey. "It's not an after-school climbing club. Some of the kids want to make it to nationals, some just want to compete and improve their climbing."

Abbey counts herself among the more hardcore competitors. She's dabbled in other sports, but claims she was never very good at them. She feels much more comfortable on the wall.

"Climbing is a way of life," she says. "You get to see amazing places and it makes people happy."

When asked if she'll keep competing through high school, Abbey is adamant. "Climbing is going to get me through high school," she says. In fact, she adds, she's considering climbing in college.

While competitive youth climbing may be just five years old in Missoula, it's been on the national scene for a lot longer. The sport's rise paralleled the growth of indoor climbing gyms, which have increased in size and in amenities since the early 1990s. According to Climbing Business Journal, there were 388 climbing gyms in the U.S. at the end of 2015, with 40 built in the last year alone, in cities as diverse as Omaha, Neb., Lexington, Ky., and Driggs, Idaho. Closer to home, Helena welcomed a new bouldering gym in 2015, while Bozeman's gym, Spire, completed a major expansion that added 9,000 square feet of climbing, more than doubling the facility's original 2004 footprint. In May 2016, Hi-Line Climbing Center opened in Great Falls, becoming the most recent facility to open in Montana.

click to enlarge Camille Sherrill, 11, above, and Abbey Rhoderick, 14, previous photo, are two members of the Gnar Pirates. The team started five years ago with just four kids. Last year’s bouldering team included 27 competitors. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Camille Sherrill, 11, above, and Abbey Rhoderick, 14, previous photo, are two members of the Gnar Pirates. The team started five years ago with just four kids. Last year’s bouldering team included 27 competitors.

As gyms proliferated over the last three decades, new generations of climbers gained access to walls and training that had never existed before. It didn't take long before USA Climbing started figuring out how to include kids in scored competitions.

At a local competition, the host gym sets up between 50 and 100 different routes, and assigns each route a certain number of points based on difficulty. Kids get a scorecard and have three hours to climb as many routes as possible, earning points for each one completed. Harder routes earn more points, and "flashing"climbing-speak for completing a route on the first try without falling—earns extra points. At the end of three hours, each climber's top five scores are added together, and the climber with the most points wins.

In regional, divisional and national competitions, things are a bit different. Kids are kept in isolation before they actually climb so they can't see the routes and how the other competitors attack the wall. When it's their turn, each kid has between two and four minutes to work a particular route. They can try it as many times as possible within the time frame, with the goal of getting as high as possible without falling. Once the route is completed or time is up, the kids get a brief break and then tackle another route. The USA Climbing rulebook stipulates that gyms provide between three and five routes at regional competitions.

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