Natalia Grossman Is Making History as Team USA's First Latina Climber

USA's Natalia Grossman competes in the lead stage during the sport climbing women's boulder & lead final of the Pan American Games Santiago 2023, at the Cerrillos Park Climbing Walls in Santiago on October 24, 2023. (Photo by Pablo VERA / AFP) (Photo by P
AFP via Getty Images | Pablo Vera
AFP via Getty Images | Pablo Vera

"Oh my gosh," Natalia Grossman gasped when she saw blue juice boxes in the dining hall at the Pan American Games last fall. She recognized the drink right away: Jumex. She drank the apple flavor every day as a kid. Taking a sip still brings her back to that time, spending her summers and winters in the coastal city of Tampico, Mexico, and visiting family at her mother's childhood home. When Grossman, a 22-year-old professional climber, discovered the boxes of apple Jumex in the athlete village, she squirreled a bunch of them away.

During the climbing competition, Grossman kept the juice in a water bottle and took it into isolation — where climbers are kept from phones, coaches, and any sight of the day's boulder and lead climbs. For her, it was a pressure relief valve when she needed it. She was there to take her second shot at qualifying for climbing's second-ever Olympic showing at the 2024 Paris Games. The Jumex was a small reminder that there was more to life than winning at climbing.

Grossman's time in Santiago, Chile, the host city of the 2023 Pan American Games, had been full of those small reminders. "I loved hearing Spanish," says Grossman, who hadn't spoken the language much lately, back home in Salt Lake City. "It was the first time I'd gone to a Spanish-speaking country for a competition since I was 15. That was a long time ago. We went into the city to go to the climbing gyms, just climbing with the locals and talking to them in Spanish."

"I've become more confident in who I am and where I come from."

Grossman says that finding joy in climbing and competing is what allows her to perform at her best. You could see that she had found it during the bouldering round of the finals in Chile, says Zack DiCristino, the physical therapist and medical manager for the US national climbing team. "You could just see it in her body language," he says of her Pan Ams performance. "The way she was climbing, the first few boulders, there was not this rigid style of climbing. She was really free and swinging."

Grossman just felt excited to be at the Pan American Games, she says: "It didn't matter if I didn't win at the competition, because placement-wise, I had already won in my mind."

But she did win, claiming gold in the combined bouldering and lead event and earning her ticket to the Olympics. In Paris, she'll be the first Latina to climb for the US at the Olympics since the sport's debut in Tokyo. She's focused less on the pressure and more on the excitement around that achievement. "I'm excited, being a Latina and showing that diversity," Grossman says.

On her road to the Olympics, Grossman hasn't always found it easy to keep the pressure off. Her year preceding the Pan American Games was wracked with regular flare-ups of stomach issues triggered by food poisoning she experienced in August 2022, on top of overtraining. Until a couple of months before going to Chile, Grossman hadn't felt joy for climbing in a while. Looking back, she's learned that to hold on to it, she has to hold on to the other sides of herself.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, CA, Grossman had a lot of energy as a child, which earned her the nickname Little Bunny from her parents. She climbed everything around the house. When she was 6, she started going to the local climbing gym, balancing the sport with gymnastics. When Grossman was 10, she joined a youth climbing team in Berkeley.

At around that time, Grossman started to feel like she stuck out among her classmates at school as a Mexican American student. It didn't bother her as much to feel different within her local climbing community; she had her old friends. A decade on, though, the climbing community at large still doesn't have much diversity, and that can be traced in part to issues of access and resources.

"There are so many barriers," says Kait Grable Gonzalez, colead of the North Carolina chapter of the nonprofit Brown Girls Climb, which aims to create community for people of color and help them get into the sport. Starting early in climbing presents a lot of cost-based barriers for families: youth team climbers have to buy specialized equipment — including shoes for fast-growing feet — and travel far to compete, Grable Gonzalez says. "There are the obvious financial barriers and lack of information, time, and safety," they add. "But for me, the biggest barrier was just I didn't know anybody who climbed."

TOPSHOT - USA's Natalia Grossman celebrates after competing in the lead stage during the sport climbing women's boulder & lead final of the Pan American Games Santiago 2023, at the Cerrillos Park Climbing Walls in Santiago on October 24, 2023. (Photo by P
AFP via Getty Images | Pablo Vera

Although Grossman was the first in her family to climb, her parents were committed to growing her talent: at 15, she and her parents moved to Boulder, CO, so she could join a top youth squad, Team ABC. "It was a pretty big financial burden for my parents, trying to make it work logistically, renting apartments, moving around, downsizing," she says. "They really just wanted to support me. I'm very, very grateful for that."

Grossman entered the professional climbing world stage in explosive fashion in 2021, when she was 19 years old. She placed first in women's bouldering in that year's IFSC Climbing World Cup and won gold in bouldering at the world championships, becoming the first American to win the title in more than 25 years. She held the top spot in bouldering again in the 2022 World Cup. Grossman's climbing has this honed-in, unhurried quality to it, DiCristino says. She can tune out the noise around her, really study the climb, and make powerful moves with body awareness in the air.

Amid the wins in 2022, Grossman's health issues began. At one point, she was hospitalized for them. "That year was honestly probably the hardest year of my life," she says. "Physically, but also a lot more mentally. It was really hard not knowing what was wrong and just always being in pain. Anytime I would eat, I would be in pain. It was like, how do I climb if I don't have energy?"

Fortunately, the flare-ups have since begun to subside, with longer stretches between them. In the lead-up to the Olympics, Grossman wants to stay present each day and focus on the climb in front of her. She and DiCristino weigh her training program in favor of fun over the grind, to keep her from overtraining. "Just not putting my eggs all in one basket," she says of her strategy. "It works for me to be playful and not take it too seriously, not have climbing be my whole world."

Even with plenty of play happening on the wall, Grossman's training schedule is stout by any standard. She's training for the combined bouldering and lead event, which will involve back-to-back climbing of powerful, ropeless ascents and a tall, multi-angled lead wall that demands endurance. Five days a week, Grossman rotates between three-hour bouldering and lead climbing sessions to train power and endurance. She spends one of those days training a skill that falls somewhere in the middle: power endurance, the ability to make hard moves even when you feel completely out of gas. She tops it all off with upper- and lower-body workouts.

Grossman is also making sure she prioritizes her mental fitness ahead of Paris. "I've been working with a sports psych for a few years and love the connection I've built with him," she says. "I think it's important to have people in my life who I can count on, and he's definitely part of my close circle."

Once Grossman gets to Paris, she hopes her presence there will inspire more Latinas in the US to climb. Even on the international competition circuit, she finds she doesn't often get to share the stage with athletes of Mexican descent. Earlier in her life, she might've dealt with feeling different by moving past it and focusing on what she could do on the wall. Now, she finds it important to take pride in her roots, too.

"I think a lot of my realizations have come in the last few years," Grossman says. "I've become more confident in who I am and where I come from."

Suzie Hodges is a freelance writer drawn to stories in science, environmental conservation, and outdoor sports. In addition to POPSUGAR, her work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Blue Ridge Outdoors, and The Daily Beast. Previously, she was a writer at an environmental conservation organization called Rare and at the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.