Ashima Shiraishi

Rock climber Ashima Shiraishi — who, at 15 years old was the first woman to ever ascend the second-highest grade of difficulty in the sport — is going through changes.

Earlier this year, Shiraishi’s parents moved from New York back to their home country of Japan. She went with them, smack dab after her junior year of high school. The move came partly to be closer to family, but also because Shiraishi intends on competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo where, for the first time in the games’ history, rock climbing will be a recognized sport.

When she was a kid — all right, a younger kid; she’s currently 17 — Shiraishi would climb Rat Rock in Central Park or go to Brooklyn Boulders in Gowanus for some indoor climbing. But as of this summer her climbing has taken her international, as she traveled to Europe for the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s World Cup. It was her first time going through a circuit of competitions and climbing with athletes from all over the world, but she rolled with it, and her cool, humble head led her to fourth place in two of the finals.

“I know I can get better, though,” she says during a phone call from her home in Tokyo.

Ashima Shiraishi

Ashima Shiraishi  Ricky Phan/Courtesy Photo

When reading about Shiraishi’s accolades, it’s hard to believe that she’s a teenager. She has completed levels of rigor some climbers will never even come close to: at 8, she conquered one of the hardest bouldering routes in Texas called Power of Silence. When she was 11 years old, she climbed Southern Smoke in Red River Gorge, Ky., which is classified as 5.14 in terms of rigor. (Climb levels are rated for difficulty between 5.0, the lowest, and 5.15, the highest). She’s precocious, and speaks of her sport as providing constant teaching moments for her life.

“Climbing itself, a lot of it is about solving the climb,” she says. “When you look at it, you don’t fully comprehend where you’re going to put your feet, your hand placement. But the more you try, the more you learn about it. You find these little details and they help you excel and get closer to the goal. The more information you get from trying and falling, the more you can improve on what you’re doing. And eventually, you might end up getting to the top.” 

She attributes her naturally competitive spirit and laid-back mentality to the constancy of her parents’ presence in her life. Through all these big life changes, Shiraishi says, one thing remains status quo: her mother and father’s support. When she travels for competitions, at least one parent comes along. Her father is present for all her practice sessions, and is somewhat of a mentor. And in what Shiraishi describes as “a family ordeal,” her mom Tsuya and dad Hisatoshi work together to make her climbing pants by hand. Hisatoshi chooses the fabrics and Tsuya sews the clothing. When they lived in a Manhattan loft on West 26th Street, Hisatoshi browsed for patterned cloth in shops; these days, he scours Etsy and online fabric stores for the Pikachu, anime and lucky cat-printed pieces that Shiraishi will eventually wear.

“My dad and my mom met at a fashion university in Tokyo where they both went for school,” Shiraishi says. “Fashion is in their blood, and I’ve always been surrounded by that influence.”

Once Hisatoshi has chosen the fabric, Tsuya gets to work on the sewing machine. Shiraishi says her new neighbors in Tokyo are “picky,” and they hate the noise of the sewing machine. Those living downstairs complain that they hear and feel the intense vibration coming from the motor through the thin floors of their building. Her mom, as a result, avoids making the pants past 6 p.m. Instead, she goes hard for a whole day and pumps out a pair an hour.

Shiraishi admits she used to be into “hypebeast-type clothing, like streetwear.” But relocating to Tokyo has opened her eyes to the wealth of high-quality secondhand stores and consignment shops the city has to offer. Lately, she’s been rocking head-to-toe thrifted looks.

“I’ve been going toward different types of clothing,” Shiraishi says. “Sometimes I want to be a little more chic, and have some Burberry or something that’s nice. Other days, I’m just in Supreme. It depends on how I’m feeling.”

Shiraishi is sponsored by Coca-Cola, Clif Bar, Evolv — a climbing shoe brand that created a range especially for the athlete — and The North Face. The latter company tapped Shiraishi to participate in its recent “Move Mountains” initiative, in which her friend and fellow New York native Ansel Elgort talks about meeting her at the climbing gym and being stunned by her skills.

But her soft, quiet voice instantly reminds one that she was only eligible to get her license a year ago. She uses terminology like “so sick” and “you don’t even understand,” when she wants to emphasize how she’s feeling. Her superhuman abilities on boulders render her unlike others her age, but it’s her go-with-the-flow nature that emerges when she’s faced with a challenge that makes her so unique. Despite having moved over 6,000 miles to pursue her sport, she’s remarkably calm — and grateful for everything that’s coming her way.

“It’s amazing how climbing can take you to so many different places, because it’s an international sport,” she says. “You can have competitions globally. Or you can just climb outside, anywhere in the world, because there are rocks everywhere. Even in Central Park, you know? I feel like I’ve grown up traveling for climbing. That’s changed me and made a huge part of who I am.”

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