While waiting for her turn on the climbing wall in the
bouldering finals of last month's Gorge Games at Hood River,
Ore., the top-ranked female competitor scurried around the
roped-off isolation area with a box of Lucky Charms cereal in
the crook of her arm and a Curious George doll swinging from the
chalk bag clipped to her waist. Isolation areas at bouldering
competitions--in which competitors ascend wickedly sloped walls
of rock or plastic--are typically tense places, stocked with
climbers in various stages of meditation, pondering the task at
hand. Tori Allen, however, is not the cerebral type, before a
competition or during one. When faced with an intricate
"problem" on a climbing wall, she barely takes a moment to screw
up her face in thought before leaping to catch the first plastic
hold. "I don't think," she says. "I just climb."
When she does, Tori changes into what her mother calls "a
mutant." Making up for her small stature (at 4'11", she must
travel the same distance between holds as 5'11" rival Lisa
Hathaway), Tori flings her 78-pound body from hold to hold,
catching herself, at times, by only two fingertips. While most
of her opponents at the Gorge Games were forced to peel away
from the 20-foot wall in defeat, Tori easily reached the top on
each try, en route to winning gold.
In 2 1/2 years of competitive climbing, she has made the finals of
elite bouldering events 11 times. Such a tick list is impressive
in itself but especially when you consider that Tori Allen,
maddeningly gifted and unabashed, has just turned 13.
At an age when many kids are cursing their physical
bedevilments, Tori "has figured out exactly the right way to
move her body," says Lisa Rands, whom Tori coaxed into an
impromptu limbo contest moments before the two tied for
first-place at the 2001 Bouldering Nationals in March. That's
partly because she benefits from useful genetic traits. Her
uncommonly long and strong fingers and toes, and her
disproportionately long arms, known in climbing as a "positive
ape index," are reminiscent of an old friend from tropical West
Africa, where Tori spent her formative climbing years.
August 19, 2001
Steve and Shawn Allen spent from 1992 to '96 on a Christian
mission to the village of Savalou in Benin. While there Tori
adopted Georgie, a kitten-sized mona monkey who obsessively
followed her as she scampered up and down trees. Georgie was
bitten by a snake and died before the family moved to
Indianapolis, when Tori was eight, and she has since amassed a
collection of some 200 toy monkeys. At competitions she throws
tiny monkey dolls to the crowd.
"She's accessible and energetic, and she has already become a
great ambassador for this sport," says Jeanne Niemer, president
of the junior competitive-climbing circuit and a leader in the
movement to get bouldering into the Olympics. Adds prominent
speed climber Hans Florine, "Tori has a shine on her." In a sport
rife with reluctant stars, such poster-child candidates are rare.
Tori's stage presence may also be a result of her African
experience: "She was the only white kid in a village of 5,000,
and people stared," says Steve. Tori has been at ease since
making her first public climb during the Christmas season in
1999. After dragging her parents to a makeshift climbing wall in
a mall near their home outside Indianapolis, she reached the top
on her first try. "The guys on the ropes couldn't believe it,"
Less than a month later Tori entered her first competition, a
regional qualifier for junior nationals, and won--the first in
what remains an unbroken string of nearly two-dozen wins at the
19-and-under junior level. Last summer Steve and Shawn bought the
climbing gym that Tori and her younger brother, Clark, now 11,
had begun to frequent. "We wanted to be with our kids," says
Steve. "We didn't know the first thing about climbing."
Although her parents' business venture provided her with
unlimited use of a gym, Tori has never had a formal coach. She
has learned partly by climbing alongside her precocious
prototype, Katie Brown, who began bouldering in 1995 at age 12
and recently retired after several years of dominating the
competitive ranks. Having been convinced by Brown and other
veterans that real climbers spend time on real rock, even though
most bouldering competitions are held indoors, Tori regularly
visits Kentucky's Red River Gorge. Last year, on Red River's
treacherous Harvest route, Tori performed what many believe to be
her most impressive climb. With her father belaying her and an
incredulous crowd of hikers watching, she became the youngest
person to conquer upon first sight a route with a 5.13a (out of a
possible 5.15a) degree of difficulty.
Such feats attract attention--and sponsors. Tori already has
endorsement deals with 10 companies, and her reputation can only
grow this October, when Tori will go to Yosemite to attempt to
scale the Nose of El Capitan for a video produced by Florine.
Before that, though, she will begin a much scarier adventure:
high school. The child of missionaries, Tori has always been
homeschooled. When she walks into Lawrence Central next month,
she'll be a year younger than most of her freshman classmates.
"I'm friends with a bunch of boys," she says, referring to the
Lawrence track team, with which she trains for the pole vault,
her second sport. Yet Tori worries that the girls will be jealous
of the attention she receives as a climber. "I'm not expecting
them to like me much," she says.
Tori is already used to getting flak on the junior circuit, on
which mothers grumble about the unfairness of their daughters'
having to compete against a "pro." At pro events Tori often draws
glares from her more senior competitors, most memorably Pam
Wimberg, age 32, to whom Tori once marveled, "You're old enough
to be my mother!"
"People don't want kids taking what little money there is to be
had in climbing," Florine says. The Allens say that Tori could
earn as much as $100,000 in sponsorship and prize money next
year, and Shawn says her rivals "are afraid that Tori will take
the money and run" because many young boulderers drop out of the
sport before reaching their potential in the adult ranks. Brown
retired at 18, and 15-year-old phenom Ethan Pringle has already
complained of burnout.
Tori keeps her climbing passion fresh by diversifying. She trains
three times a week for the pole vault, in which she won the youth
girls' division at the Hoosier State Games in May with a vault of
8 feet. She also lends her muscular fingers to her church
youth-group band, in which she plays the electric bass. Not that
either of these activities can compete with the monkey inside
her. Tori is already looking past high school and envisions going
to Pepperdine in Southern California. "I mean, have you seen the
rock out there?" she says. "How could you not want to get out
there every day?"
Tori sometimes draws glares from older climbers, including one to
whom she said, "You're old enough to be my mother!"