Clinging to the curved wall of the climbing gym with the tips of her chalk-dusted fingers on two small blue holds, Palo Alto High School junior Emma Joing is careful to take her time — the holds are all that anchor her against a plummet to the floor.
With effortless grace, as seen in the video of Joing at the 2017 Reno Competition, she swings her legs up to perch her feet onto a blue rock in line with her hands. She pauses, shifts her position to shake out her fingers, keeping her eyes on the final blue hold marked with the number 25.
“It’s funny because when people ask me what a climbing competition looks like, the first thing that they think of is that it’s speed,” Joing said. “But that’s actually completely false.”
As the video continues, she uses her arms, conditioned from the many hours invested weekly in rock climbing practice, to leap upwards and grab the final hold, receiving enthusiastic cheers from the audience.
Joing is one of ten high school students on her competitive rock climbing team at Planet Granite in Sunnyvale and has qualified for the United States Youth Nationals Climbing Competition twice.
“I see all these girls from all over the country [at the Nationals Competition], who are all so good,” Joing said. “All the stress leaves and I just remember why I like climbing so much.”
A steeper climb
In 2014, the same year that she would later begin rock climbing, Joing underwent knee surgery due to her hip dysplasia and dislocated knee cap.
Because of her physical limitations, Joing adapted innovative strategies for climbing.
“I climb differently than my friends do because they can maneuver their hips more than I can,” Joing said. “So I try to be creative in the way I do climbs.”
Joing believes that creativity is just as crucial as strength training for winning competitions.
“Rock climbing needs mental strength, not just physical,” Joing said. “It’s about climbing smart versus just climbing strong.”
Joing’s positive mindset is apparent to those around her, including her Planet Granite teammate Alexandra Merrem.
“Rock climbing needs mental strength, not just physical.”
— Emma Joing, junior
“Emma is super supportive, really cheerful all the time,” Merrem said. “She will always be there ready to work hard.”
Joing brings her can-do attitude to her job at Planet Granite. On top of three-hour practices three days a week and independent workouts, Joing works as a climbing coach for the beginner rock climbing team.
“I got to foster their love for climbing and just show them the ropes literally and figuratively,” Joing said.
Rock climbing in a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered climbing gyms across the country including in the Bay Area. However, the setback has not deterred Joing from pursuing her passion. She continues to practice on her own or socially distanced with a select few teammates either in her garage or at her friend’s mini rock climbing wall in Sunnyvale.
“I have these people that I’m not as connected to anymore because I don’t see them as often,” Joing said.
Joing has maintained a passion for climbing her whole life, and she plans to continue the sport through college. Although she takes her time on climbs, it took her no time at all to realize that she would love the sport forever.
“When I started doing it, I couldn’t believe people did rock climbing as a sport and that I could just do this every single day,” Joing said. “Now I have an outlet for this joy that I have.”