Dennis Connors competes in U.S. Paralympics Cycling Team Trials in June 2021. (Photo: Robin Samson)
The act of rock climbing — securely putting one hand, then one foot, into holds — did not seem strange to Dennis Connors. He has spent most of his life pursuing climbing, leading to some of the happiest moments of his life. He met his wife, Krista, climbing, and they now share their passion with their two children.
Still, the familiar moves felt unsure this past weekend, as Connors competed in the USA Climbing Paraclimbing National Championships for the first time. His health changed two years ago, when he had a serious stroke that affected his left side. Climbing with sure skill, and competing on a challenging wall course, pushed Connors’ boundaries.
He’s competed for Team USA as a national-level Para-cyclist, and he just missed making the Tokyo 2021 team on the trike. But competing as a climber, well, that brought out the nerves.
“I just wanted to have fun. That was what I kept telling myself — I am doing this for fun,” Connors, a retired Marine, said. “I basically just went out there and was doing it, relying on my experience. I still have the ability to see how a climb should be done. It all came down to my experience, trusting my body, even though it is different now. I believed in what I could do.”
Connors’ belief resulted in winning his first Para Climbing national title, winning the RP2 classification, for athletes with limited range and power, at the event in Birmingham, Alabama. The win came after an agonizing final climb, which forced his last three handholds to be from his weaker left side.
“I’d say that was a little terrifying — three left hand holds, I had no choice,” Connors, a resident of Portland, Oregon, said. “The very last hold, before the top, I reached out to grab it, and I didn’t know if I was really holding on to it. I had to trust. I definitely was nervous, but it all worked out.”
Connors is best known in the Para world for his cycling, and he will be competing this month in the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville, Alabama. He also is looking forward to this summer’s world cup season in Europe.
He loves cycling, but climbing is in his soul. His ongoing recovery from the stroke made him question if he could return to climbing. Something as audacious as competing in Para Climbing seemed impossible.
“I would never have believed this. Two years ago, after the stroke, no way. I was really upset that my body had changed so much,” he said. “I really had given up on rock climbing. I thought that all I had was riding the trike, that is what it was going to be basically.”
Over the past year, Connors’ recovery allowed him to rediscover climbing, through adapting and new thought processes. He tries to have four points of contact on a wall or rock, from his hands to feet to his body touching, to make up for lessened sensation in his weakened side. The contact points give proper feedback, so he can tell where he is at in his holds and security.
Connors’ mindset changed last October, when he worked an adaptive climbing clinic as a guest instructor. The sessions were held at the City of Rocks, a national reserve in Idaho known for its great climbs. It’s also a special place for Connors, as he went on a magical climbing trip at City of Rocks with his wife after he was discharged from the Marines.
He was now back, nine years later, with a different body and changed strength.
But the love of climbing remained. One of the students at the clinic told Connors he should consider competitive climbing. That comment led him to ponder that scenario. Now, nearly six months later, he won the national title.
“I love rock climbing, because on the wall, that is the only thing you can think about — nothing else,” Connors said. “When I am cycling, I have more people around me and I need to think about more things to compete. When I climb, it is about my body moving, and that is it. It’s a good mix with my cycling, because I can get so much out of both sports — but in different ways.”
Connors now being at a national level in two sports brings a dilemma: how is he going to manage the schedule? He wants to do Para-cycling world cup events, but that will leave him little time to train for the paraclimbing world cups. He said he is going to try to figure something out, but right now, the trike gets first dibs.
“I see climbing as something I can do with my family, something we can go out and have a day together and experience something,” said Connors, who climbs with Krista and their kids Kennadie, 7, and Soren, 5. “I can’t take my family out for a three-hour training ride on my bike; that’s not happening. It’s what makes climbing so special to me, I can share it with my family too. I am really grateful to both and have these options.”