Words by: Lisa Richardson
Photos by: Matthew Manhire
“Integration” is not just making sure our sport communities aren’t segregated by skin colour. It also means bringing your whole self into what you do. That can make sending 5.14 even harder but it generates greater possibilities for transformation, for ourselves, and our communities. Sabrina Chapman wants that, for us all.
When “being noticed” equals “being hurt” – as anyone who grew up in a volatile home understands – standing out, showing up and being seen is radical, bold and terrifying. But Sabrina Chapman’s presence – on Instagram, in magazines, on posters tacked up on kid’s walls, in films, on 5.13 climbs at the crag, on the cover of the guide book, gives a lot of people who haven’t felt seen, a vision for themselves, the gift of possibility.
Her visibility, as one of the hardest womxn sport climbers in Ontario, also sends time-travelling texts pinging across the years to her younger self, encouraging the girl she was to hang in there, future Sabrina is strong and thriving. So she forges on, and up.
“The part of me that wants to fight and thrive knows that uncomfortable experiences are where I can have the most growth,” says the Toronto-based sport climber, who grew up in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1980s, the daughter of immigrants from Mauritius, as the only girl of colour in her entire school. (The only two other kids of colour were her brothers.)
A track athlete and a gifted artist, she dreamed of doing ballet as a kid, and now, her 5 foot 4 form power-dances up walls, working sequences that climbers with longer reaches don’t need to find, to unlock elite level sport routes – accomplishments made more impressive by a full-time job at a women’s treatment centre, and her late-start in the sport. She only discovered climbing at 26.
“I was hooked straight away. It’s like a meditative state. I love using my creativity to imagine how my foot will feel pressing down on that hold, what kind of sequence can I come up with for this little piece of rock in front of me, what adjustments I need to make to feel in balance.”
Proclaiming her goal to send Titan, her first 5.14a, through the short film from Melanin Base Camp, The Titan Project, released in August, added a degree of pressure to the narrow “season to send” in Ontario – compounded with the restrictions of the pandemic, the commitments of full-time work, and endless rain. But it was reckoning with the civil and racial unrest of 2020 that made her feel as though she was climbing with an invisible weight belt.
Watching people of her own skin colour murdered by police in the confines of quarantine had filled her small apartment. “I’ve never talked about race or being a woman of colour so vocally as in the last 6 months. I didn’t allow myself to be as enraged as I am, because I thought I just needed to be tougher and suck it up, and then it was this dam of fury I had no idea I was walking around with.”
Even though she and her husband turned their spare bedroom into a bouldering wall, to continue building on her winter training regime, she felt diminished – the energetic drawdown from being so viscerally awakened to systemic racism, and recognizing the familiar trauma in her body, tugged against her goal. In short, her season to send sucked. Titan remains a project. “It’s hard to admit that it’s so important to me. Within the context of everything else that’s going on in the world, it’s so trivial. I feel guilty for wanting to get on it and for feeling pissed that I couldn’t get on it in the state I wanted to be in.”
What did emerge, out of this pandemic summer, was a greater willingness to speak truth to power. To name systemic racism. And to ask her community, the climbing community, to do better. “There’s a glossy version of the climbing scene that doesn’t exist for the rest of us. When I talk about community, I am talking about people who will support you when you’re going through difficult things and who want to know and understand what it is you’re talking about.”
If climbing is really a community, then many hands can pitch in and make light of that work. As anyone who’s ever been on the sharp end, trying to send, knows, the people on the ground can lift you up, or drag you down, depending on what they bring into the space: support or scepticism, allyship or blinkers.
“If you’re a climber who calls themselves an ally, it’s time start showing up in action,” says Chapman. Don’t leave activism all to the tired Black and brown people, while you focus on your project. “I want to see people standing up for each other. People need to be seen and know that they matter.” For herself, that means not giving up. “If I can move someone in a positive way, that helps them grow, that maybe nudges them to a place of growth or change that will benefit them, in whatever way I can do that, that’s what I want my impact to be. If it’s climbing 14a, sending Titan, or even not giving up on it – if that inspires someone else, or shows someone else what determination looks like, that’s what I want.”