A Long Way to Fall 

Is champion climber Scott Cory losing his grip on greatness?

Page 3 of 6

Yet the Corys hardly fit the stereotype of celebrity sports parents who push their children for financial gain. Jim and Jennifer mainly seem concerned with helping their three kids -- Scott also has a sister, Katie -- get the most out of their fleeting youth. "He knows that most people who start out doing something at seven don't do that for the rest of their lives," Jennifer says. "But at this point he's hoping to turn climbing into what he does for his life. When he was four, he wanted to be a professional golfer; when he was five, he was way into baseball. Every sport he's tried he's gotten 100 percent into it. He's been focused and intense since he was born."

She might as well be describing the whole family, which seems to harbor the cherished gene that compels its hosts to throw everything into their work. For Jim and Jennifer, that work is their kids. For the kids, that work is sport.

The first route Scott ever climbed in Yosemite was called Commitment, and that's something the kid has in spades. His sponsorships, the globetrotting, and his hobnobbing with the climbing cognoscenti are mainly thanks to his own persevering nature. He spends three to four days a week at the climbing gym, dividing his three-hour workouts between cardio, bouldering, moderate climbs, and extremely difficult ones (5.12 and up). While prepping for a competition, he'll throw in three days of two-hour weight- and speed-training stints under the watchful eye of Bodymax sports director Shawn Dassie.

But his parents mandate none of this. Scott determines his own conditioning schedule, picks his own practice routes, and often acts as his own coach. His folks are simply there as supporters and, as the case may be, chauffeurs -- at least until Scott is old enough to get his driver's license.

The boy, meanwhile, claims he isn't interested in being a hero to his classmates. He takes pains, he says, to keep his professional career on the down low. "I just don't like bragging about what I do," Scott says, "and I do it because I love doing it and it's fun, and not because other people want me to."

There are, of course, people who want Scott to climb because he wins, not because he's having fun. Today, at the 2004 USA Climbing Nationals, he'll have another chance to prove himself to them and anyone else. The venue is Pipeworks, Touchstone's Sacramento facility, where he'll be the top-seeded competitor in his age bracket from Northern California.

The aptly named gym is an old pipe-fitting warehouse in the worst section of the capital city, a sort of industrial Renaissance Faire. The facility's rear is a vast, half-covered space cluttered with old lengths of sewer pipe and the rusted hulks of numerous machines. Across the gravel parking lot, a wayward climbing wall sits neglected. Some rowdy boys dangle from its rim and grapple with some of the lower handholds like lost children in a Mad Max flick.

The lot is beginning to fill up on this July morning. The support staff has been up all night. The prelims were yesterday, meaning that six separate routes had be planned and laid out the previous evening. Six new ones were fashioned overnight for today's competition, and another six will be created for Sunday's finals.

The girls are first up. Five at a time, they exit an isolation room and pick their way up the walls toward the final handhold. They are scored according to the percentage of the total distance completed in the five minutes allotted.

It's easy to identify the newcomer parents: They're the dads with blank stares on their faces, shaking their heads back to reality as they catch themselves ogling competitors in the sixteen-to-seventeen category, or the moms with their mouths agape at the postpubescent boys walking around shirtless. The boys are Michelangelo sculptures, the girls mini Mia Hamms. "My God, that boy's chest is perfectly formed," one mother whispers furtively to the middle-aged woman next to her. They titter, then turn quiet as the stocky lad walks by, his arms cocked in that familiar bodybuilder position.

Scott arrives just before noon and checks into isolation. In competitive indoor climbing, foreknowledge of a route is verboten. None of the competitors can walk through the front door until after they've climbed. Instead, they are relegated to Pipeworks' bouldering room, which has been shrouded off from the main facility by a blue tarp. "When I was younger it used to be bad, 'cause I would run around and do whatever and get all tired," Scott says of the pre-contest isolation. "But now that I'm older I can finally learn to relax."

Within this cave, nearly one hundred boys aged ten to nineteen warm up under the supervision of event staffers, like scores of human spiders pacing up and down and sideways on the walls. Scott immediately blends in among them -- just another daddy longlegs. It's hard to keep track of him, since all the climbers wear identical shirts to prevent any undue intimidation a sponsor's logos might bestow on competitors or their rivals.

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