On the Friday before spring break, 12 members of the Bend Endurance Academy youth climbing team fidgeted on a mat at the Bend Rock Gym, eager for their coaches to finish giving instructions so they could fasten their harnesses and start climbing.
The group of elementary-age climbers on hand was evenly split between boys and girls. But if history is any guide, it will not stay that way.
BEA offers rock climbing, cycling and nordic skiing programs for kids and teens, and each program sees a decline in enrollment as participants reach middle and high school, when kids pick up new interests and other sports and activities begin to demand a greater commitment. But Mike Rougeux, the BEA rock climbing director since 2009, said that natural winnowing process typically claims many more girls than boys: Of the 14 middle and high school youths currently on his climbing competition team, just two are girls.
“It tends to look like this, where it’s definitely more boys than girls, which is funny, because some of the best climbers in the world are female,” Rougeux said, referencing Lynn Hill (who became the first person — man or woman — to free climb The Nose on El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Valley in 1993) and 15-year-old Ashima Shiraishi, a climbing prodigy from New York City. “They’re capable of doing it physically. Technique, movement, everything — they’re comparable (to the boys).”
Rougeux said he has had climbers leave the program to focus on everything from aerial silk acrobatics to track and field (pole vault coaches in particular like to recruit climbers, Rougeux said, due to their strength and comfort with heights), while BEA cycling director Bill Warburton said many of his mountain bikers feel pressure to choose between cycling and team sports as they get older. But Warburton said it seems that some tween girls seem to prefer sports like soccer and softball because they are not coed.
“By the time you get to middle school, they just don’t want to be with the boys; they would rather have a girls group,” said Warburton, whose last mountain bike competition team included just one girl. “The girls who race have generally said, ‘I don’t mind being the only girl, because I’m here to race and I’m here to train and I like riding with the boys because it pushes me to ride faster.’ I think at that point they’re self-selecting — those are the girls who don’t necessarily want a girls group or need it and are totally fine riding with the boys.
“But that’s at the competition level. There’s that middle group who are not competing who would rather ride with girl friends and a female coach and not deal with the boys.”
The solution to this problem? If the girls want to train in an all-female environment, why not create one?
Starting on March 30, BEA will host a three-part series of free introductory mountain biking clinics for middle school and high school girls as well as twice-weekly group rides led by female coaches.
“We’re trying to structure our groups as you would a ball sport or a club sport,” Warburton said. “Some people are a little bit timid about the group-ride thing, thinking, what if I mess up? What if I can’t ride what everybody else does? But that goes away instantly once they see how it functions as a team and a supportive group. It’s looking like this year the Wednesday and Thursday groups will have maybe a dozen (girls), and at that point, if you’re missing two or three kids (for a ride) it’s not a big deal.”
While it might be hard to compete with the lure of high school sports and to keep middle school boys and girls from annoying each other, another wrinkle keeps some kids from sticking to climbing, cycling or nordic skiing: cost.
Although BEA programs can be pricey (many seasonal activities cost several hundred dollars, while full-time competition teams can run $1,000 or more), the She Can Scholarship might help defray the cost for dedicated girls.
“How do you change something that’s a systemic problem? That’s kind of difficult,” said Emilie Cortes, who was climbing at Bend Rock Gym when Rougeux asked her if she had any ideas about how to keep girls interested in the sport. “I said let me noodle on it, because I had an idea in the back of my mind of some money that I could get access to. And I basically came back and said where financial burden is an issue, we can eliminate that by creating a scholarship.”
Cortes’ idea became the She Can Scholarship, the first grant for which came from the Compton Foundation, for which Cortes serves as treasurer. Cortes, the former owner of Bend-based Call of the Wild Adventures, which ran adventure trips exclusively for women, said she believes outdoor activities such as mountaineering and mountain biking offer benefits beyond those of more mainstream sports.
“They are perceived as being a little more difficult: Soccer is perceived as safer than climbing,” Cortes said. “There’s an extra sense of accomplishment in doing those kinds of things that aren’t perceived as the usual suspects for being active or being athletic.
“Talking about fear in a therapy session is different from going out and facing it physically. I felt it, and I tamed it and breathed through it and achieved something I wasn’t sure I could do. And that sense of accomplishment sits with you and increases your confidence.”
The first She Can Scholarship, which is awarded based on need and passion for a sport as demonstrated during practices, was granted last fall. The first recipient, Mira Capicchioni, a 10-year-old who has been climbing for a year and a half. Sje said that she tried a number of team sports — and found that they were not for her — before discovering her niche on the climbing wall.
“(My teammates) are super fun and really nice, and they don’t judge you at all,” Mira said during a break from practice on Friday. “Like when we climb ropes in PE, it helps a lot with that, so I get a better grade.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org