Ashima Shiraishi rubs her hands with chalk and considers the craggy cave in front of her. It looks like something huge took a bite out of The Cliffs rock climbing gym in Long Island City, New York, then studded the surface with shapes placed at impossible distances. But this is just a warmup for Shiraishi. In seconds, she spiders halfway up the wall. Then, she’s dangling overhead, somehow upside down, somehow by one hand. Mouths hang open, and everyone looks up.
At age 15, Shiraishi is the best female rock climber in the world. Give her time to finish high school, and she just might become the greatest climber—man or woman—of all time.
Shiraishi started climbing at age six, scrabbling up boulders in New York City’s Central Park. By age eight, she was setting records as the youngest person ever to complete climbs around the world, and only a few years later, she snatched world titles for being not just the youngest, but the first. In March, she flew to Japan and became the only female ever to conquer a boulder with a grade of V15. (Boulders around the world are rated from easiest to climb, V0, to the world’s most difficult—and the next on Shiraishi’s list—a V16.)
“In climbing, gender really doesn’t matter,” Shiraishi says. “You’re just facing the wall. Even if you’re bigger or smaller than someone, you’re tackling the same thing. It’s just your determination and focus and dedication, and that’s what makes you stronger.”
At the gyms where Shiraishi now practices, everyone recognizes her climbing style and supernatural sense of calm. While others look down when they climb, checking their work, Shiraishi dances on the wall in geometric designs, improvising patterns when she exhausts the hundreds of hard ones that are set by the gym.
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“When I climb, I’m doing what I love to do,” she says. “I feel like a leader of myself, not a leader of a sport.” But she’s inspiring to everyone; in just an hour at the gym, tiny girls and tattooed dudes both approached her. Her influence may be about to get a lot bigger. Climbing is being considered as a new sport in the 2020 Olympics.
By then, Shiraishi will be 19—and she imagines that many more women will be climbing right beside her. “I feel like climbing is just going to keep on getting bigger,” she says. “In every country, everywhere, you’re surrounded by rocks. There are rocks everywhere in the world.”