Chris Sharma in his birthday suit
This is an extended interview from the 2013 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to The Mag today!
Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?
CS: Climbing is an amazing, unique sport, and I want to share that with as many people as possible. I want to be an ambassador for the sport and raise the profile. This was another opportunity to do that, and I try to take advantage of any opportunity to share climbing with the world.
How did you start climbing?
CS: I started in a climbing gym 20 years ago in Santa Cruz. When I was younger, I was always climbing, whether it was trees or houses or whatever. My parents were psyched for me to find something I loved to do. I believe that whatever it is you do -- music, sports, art, whatever -- you have to be inspired and motivated when you wake up in the morning. Having a way to channel your energy in a creative way is important to living life fully.
What do you like about climbing?
CS: One of the things that separates climbing from other sports is how independent and personal it is. With most sports, you either win or lose, but climbing is about your own personal experience. With climbing you can go to the most beautiful places on the planet and practice. I've climbed all over Europe, Asia, New Zealand, South America. Anywhere there is rock, you can climb. One of the cool things about being on the forefront of the sport is not only doing the most difficult things but also seeking out those new spots and establishing new routes, so I'm always on the lookout.
What do you like about your body?
CS: When you're in tune with your body, you have this amazing, natural connection. At a certain point, it's intuitive and ingrained in us to climb. Climbing is a full-body sport from your fingers to your toes, but at the same time, it's like a dance on the rock. It's about being strong and fit but also graceful and elegant and efficient on the rock. When we're on a 200-foot face, you have to be able to save your energy and figure out the easiest possible solution -- you're forced to pick your battles and use your body in an efficient way. It's not just about being super strong.
How strong is your grip?
CS: Some holds are less than a quarter-inch, and you might only be able to get two fingertips on, and you have to put all your weight on that little hold. There are different ways to prepare for that. The classic is one-armed one-finger pull-ups, supporting all your body weight with one finger. It sounds crazy, but quite a few climbers can. Our tendons, forearms, elbows, shoulders generate an amazing amount of force. I can do a few one-finger pull-ups in the gym, but for me, the gym atmosphere is not motivating. I'll get to 20 pull-ups and be like, "This is boring. Why am I doing this?" Whereas when I'm hanging by my fingertips on a cliff face, I have so much more energy.
If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
CS: I'm always working to be stronger. But climbing is different for everybody. We all have unique bodies and talents and challenges, and we have to work within the confines of the bodies we have. Sometimes someone taller can reach a hold, sometimes the shorter person has an advantage, and sometimes if you're more flexible, you'll be able to reach a foothold someone else couldn't. I probably need to work on flexibility.
What is your biggest body challenge?
CS: I'm 32 now, and I definitely have to work harder to stay in shape. Before, if I didn't climb for a month, I'd be able to get up and go straight to a competition. Now I have to work harder to maintain and take care of myself.
How much of climbing is mental versus physical?
CS: Both sides are important. There are strong people who aren't able to climb. It's about reading the rock, knowing how to position your body and having the tenacity to not let go. The best climbers have the will to hold on. They won't give up and keep trying over and over.
What do you think when you feel like you can't hold on any longer?
CS: It's easy to panic, so it's important to slow down your breathing and find a moment to calm your nerves. When you're exhausted, it's crucial to keep it together, find space to gather yourself and go for it again. We live in a society of 30-minute workouts and 8-minute abs, but this isn't supposed to be easy. Climbing is a process -- like yoga or running. We want to go to the spots where we're barely able to hold on. Those are the climbs that force us to become better athletes and grow as climbers. I've been climbing for 20 years, and even now it's a constant unfolding and realizing I'm capable of more than I thought.
What would you define as your edge, mentally?
CS: Not having too many expectations. Climbing is an artistic, creative thing; it's about being spontaneous, traveling, seeing the world, hanging out. It's a balance of setting goals while enjoying the process, being ambitious without being too competitive. I spent about four years working on my last climb, and it took about 10 minutes to achieve. The time we spend on top is so short. Success is short, whereas the process is a long, drawn-out thing, so if you're only happy when you succeed, you're not going to be a happy person.
What's the worst thing your body has been through?
CS: When I was 17, I blew out my knee bouldering, and I wasn't able to climb for a year. It was hard for me to have to stay away from what I love and what makes me happy. But it was a wake-up call to take care of my body and not be too reckless.
How do you and Daila motivate each other?
CS: It's cool climbing with Daila [Ojeda, his girlfriend and climbing partner]. We understand each other because we're trying to do the same things. It's been neat to see her develop and come into her own in the past five years. She has this fluidity that makes it look easy. It's about rhythm and flow -- she has that. And obviously she has the tenacity to strive and be the best. In climbing, a fundamental thing is to want to do something you've never done before. That's the beauty of climbing, whether you're a girl or boy, seasoned veteran or beginner. You're not sure you'll be able to do this, but you try, and discovering you are capable is an amazing experience and an amazing feeling.
What is the riskiest thing you've tried?
CS: I keep it pretty safe. The climbing I do in Mallorca, where we climb over the water without ropes, is as adventurous as I get. We'll be 60 to 70 feet over the water with hard movements pushing us to our limit. That's a pretty extreme form of climbing. We fall all the time.