Ashima Shiraishi competing at the 2019 Sport & Speed Open National Championships finals on March 9, 2019 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Ashima Shiraishi has the world at her fingertips. And at her feet.
She’s been one of the top American climbers for years, is considered the best teenaged climber on the planet and is still only 18.
As Shiraishi was steadily rising in the sport, the stakes suddenly got higher with the addition of climbing to the program of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Factor in that her parents are from Japan and Shiraishi, who has dual citizenship, has been living in Tokyo for a year, and the scenario becomes even better.
“It’s perfect,” said Shiraishi, who was born in New York City.
When she found out sport climbing had been accepted into the Olympic Games, Shiraishi said, “I was really just shocked about it. There was so much speculation for so long. It was such a big question mark that we weren’t sure it was going to actually be in it, and when it finally was, it was a big deal.”
Shiraishi has been a big deal in climbing since she began “sending,” or completing difficult outdoor ascents as a youngster. How many athletes are the subject of a lengthy profile in The New Yorker when they are only 14 years old? The headline called her a “Rock-Climbing Prodigy.”
Shiraishi is one of the only climbers with lucrative sponsorships outside the sport and her ascents are documented in numerous short films.
Shiraishi is currently No. 15 in the International Federation of Sport Climbing combined world cup rankings and is the top Team USA female climber. Kyra Condie is ranked No. 17 while Margo Hayes is No. 27. Up to two women per country can make the U.S. Olympic team.
A climb is called a problem, and Shiraishi is superb at solving them. In Japan, they call her “The Spider Girl.”
“You try not to think very much,” Shiraishi said. ‘You try to just focus on the upcoming move. The movement is always different, so that’s something that’s really cool. It’s not just about memorizing things and repetition; it’s about thinking up new strategies and always having something new.”
It doesn’t always work out.
“I fall all the time,” said Shiraishi.
Of course, she knows how to avoid injuring herself.
“It’s important to bend your knees,” Shiraishi said, “so there’s less impact on them.”
At 5-foot-1, Shiraishi is smaller than many of her competitors, who have an advantage when it comes to reach. “If you’re shorter, it’s also good, because you can get your feet into good positions,” she said.
Although an observer noted that she had “fingers of steel,” in The New Yorker article, Shiraishi downplays it. “My hands are pretty strong, but not like that strong,” she said.
Meg Coyne, a Team USA coach, said Shiraishi has “incredible movement skills and body awareness and body control. She’s also got incredible endurance and ability to rest on the wall. So, it’s not so much that she’s so powerful or even so strong, but she’s quite smart with the way she climbs.”
For casual observers, outdoor rock climbing can be a confusing mix of numbers and letters.
Shiraishi said her greatest achievement so far has been climbing V15, the second-hardest grade level, on Horizon at Mount Hiei, Japan. At 14, she was the first female climber and youngest person to make the grade. Rock and Ice magazine called her “the new face of climbing.”
A little over a year later, Shiraishi conquered another V15, Sleepy Rave in Australia, just as the news about climbing’s Olympic inclusion was trickling out in August 2016.
The competition will be held on artificial walls at the Aomi Urban Sports Park, next to the Olympic Village with views across Tokyo Bay.
Climbers typically specialize in one or two disciplines and compete on the world cup circuit in the discipline(s) of their choice. In Tokyo, the scores from three disciplines will be combined to determine the medalists:
In speed climbing, athletes scale a 50-foot wall with a set route as fast as they can. For lead climbing, the athletes see how far they can get up a 50-foot wall in 6 minutes with incline and hold challenges. Bouldering requires athletes to work on a 13-foot wall for 4 minutes armed only with a bag of chalk and no rope or harness.
“It’s pretty simple because the objective is getting to the top of the wall,” Shiraishi said. “It’s about getting up fast or just getting up to the top of the wall in general. It’s relatively easy to understand, but I guess it’s kind of slow, so I’m not sure how it’s going to be as a show.”
Like Winter Olympics viewers who get caught up in curling strategy, people watching climbing can try to figure out an athlete’s next hold.
“You just follow your instincts to go with the flow,” Shiraishi said. “It’s important to trust your body and know your body well. Your body just takes over and controls what you’re supposed to do.”
Shiraishi is exceptional in bouldering and lead climbing. She won three straight world youth titles in each from 2015 to 2017.
However, Shiraishi has not done much speed climbing. She is assiduously working on getting up to speed in that discipline since she can’t rely on scoring enough points in bouldering and lead climbing to carry her onto the Olympic podium.
Since joining the adult ranks, Shiraishi has continued to excel. She took first place at USA Climbing’s Bouldering Open National Championships in February and was second at the Sport & Speed Open National Championships in March behind Hayes.
Shiraishi and six other Team USA athletes are currently training in Innsbruck, Austria, at arguably the best climbing gym in the world.
Their next stop is the IFSC Combined World Championships in Hachioji, Japan, Aug. 20-21. Seven men and seven women will qualify for the Games there, with a maximum of two from each country ultimately making the 20-person field in each gender.
If Shiraishi does not qualify at worlds, her next chance is the Olympic Qualification Event Nov. 28–30 in Toulouse, France. The final opportunity would be the Pan-American Continental Championships Feb. 27-March 1 in Los Angeles.
Shiraishi could have taken an easier route to the Tokyo Games by representing Japan, which is guaranteed at least one place in both the men’s and women’s events.
Coyne said USA Climbing discussed Shiraishi’s options with her.
“We said, ‘You do what’s best for you and where your heart is,’” Coyne said. “From all of our discussions with her, she always intended to compete for the USA. She says she feels American.”
Shiraishi was introduced to climbing in New York City’s Central Park when she was 6 years old. While rocks scattered throughout the park have always attracted kids, Rat Rock is a magnet for serious climbers.
“I actually saw some climbers there, so I just did what they were doing,” Shiraishi said.
Her parents, Hisatoshi and Tsuya, who had her late in life when both were 51 years old, quickly realized they had a natural climber on their hands.
Hisatoshi coaches her, but he’s a dancer, not a climber. Known as Poppo, he studied Butoh, an experimental style of Japanese dance, and was known for his performances in Washington Square Park and the East Village. He founded a dance troupe called Poppo and the Go-Go Boys.
Tsuya, who was the family breadwinner while Hisatoshi tended to Ashima, sews the dozens of climbing pants that her daughter wears.
They met in fashion school and Ashima has inherited that interest. She’s an avid shopper and likes high fashion mixed with street fashion.
Moving to Tokyo a year ago has not only given Shiraishi a chance to get used to the humidity that has been the talk of the climbing community, it also has allowed her to experience the beauty and culture of Japan.
Shiraishi can speak the language fluently, although she doesn’t read and write it with the same proficiency.
She’s not sure how long she’ll stay in Japan and is considering going to college to continue her education after at least a gap year.
Shiraishi said she would like to study environmental science or something to do with ecology.
“I want to learn more about the earth and all the troubles that it’s going through right now and to help save it,” she said.
For now, Shiraishi will raise awareness about her sport. She has 287,000 followers on Instagram, a number which could explode from the exposure of competing at the Olympic Games.
The Olympic recognition could also inspire people to go to climbing gyms in their communities.
However, Shiraishi said there is mixed opinion among climbers about joining the Olympic family – much like there has been in skateboarding.
“Some people are super excited,” she said. “Obviously, the people who are more interested in outside climbing aren’t so keen on it, because it’s just a bad representation of climbing. In reality climbing was founded on just climbing on the rocks, not on plastic.”
Sport climbing has been provisionally accepted into the Olympic Games Paris 2024. The format would play right into Shiraishi’s strengths, with speed climbing likely becoming a separate medal event and bouldering and lead climbing remaining together.
When she’s not competing, Shiraishi spends three hours in the gym in the morning and three in the evening.
“During my break, I like to relax and be lazy,” she said.
Shiraishi is a big fan of Audrey Hepburn movies, such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “The Matrix” films.
“I like thinking about alternate universes and a totally different perspective of the world,” she said.
But when it comes to climbing, things for Shiraishi are only looking up.