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#EveryoneOutside Film 002: Climbing with Jess Sporte & Paradox Sports

Challenge Accepted. Belay on.

By: Sara Sheehy + Save to a List

Jess Sporte draws a lot of attention when she's climbing outdoors. She doesn't mind, but she also wishes it wasn't such a big deal. 

What's the fuss? Well, Jess is an amputee, living her life with one leg instead of two.

Jess's right leg was amputated when she was four months old, and from a young age, her parents insisted that she wasn't disabled. "My mom still made me vacuum the house," laughs Jess. "She wanted me to understand that I could vacuum, even though it might have been harder for me than my siblings."

Along with those early life lessons from her parents, Jess was heavily involved in adaptive sports. She attended a wheelchair sports camp, eventually transitioning to a role as a counselor. 

"The sports camp pushed independence," explains Jess. "Kids would come to the camp, and they were being pushed by their parents, and the counselors would be like 'Nope, the kid needs to push themselves.' Learned helplessness is a real thing, but once you connect a kid with a mentor that has a similar disability, they begin to see what's possible."

At camp, Jess started playing wheelchair tennis and excelled. At the height of her competitive career, she ranked 2nd in the nation for singles and 33rd in the world for doubles. Jess was on a tennis sabbatical in 2015 when she heard about an adaptive indoor climbing program. After strapping into a climbing harness that first night, Jess was belay certified within a month, and soon after began climbing outside. She hasn't picked up a tennis racket since...or looked back.

Though it wasn't her intention when she started, Jess was soon roped into climbing competitively. She has made the US Paraclimbing team for the last 5 years, but she is considering stepping back from competitions. "I have a hip replacement, and I'm starting to realize that I probably shouldn't be doing all this stuff on it. Plus, the competition is getting fierce!"

Jess has no intention of stepping back from climbing altogether, though. "I love the outdoor aspect of climbing," says Jess. " and I love seeing those views. It's a challenge, though. When I play wheelchair sports, I'm one of the most able people in the group; I'm just an amputee. But when I'm climbing with my friends and my boyfriend, it's such a role reversal. It's a huge learning curve to ask people for help, and to admit that I can't keep up, especially on the approaches."

Jess feels strongly that there should be a place for everyone in the outdoors if they want to be there. "My degree is in recreational therapy, and I believe that if you can recreate, then the rest of your life isn't as bad. And for people with disabilities, pretty much every sport out there has been adapted to para-sport. You have to either find or regain your passion and just figure out a way to do it."

Adaptive athletes are sometimes welcomed in the outdoors, and sometimes, well, not so much. Jess recounts a time where a friend of hers legally parked in a handicapped spot at a trailhead and returned to a note on their car that said: 'If you're out here hiking these trails, you probably don't need a handicapped spot.'

"There is still a ways to go in people acknowledging their prejudices and biases," says Jess. "People with disabilities who are enjoying the outdoors are adapting around what they are strong at. They may or may not need help in different areas. But they can still be out there, living a productive life and having fun."

Which brings us back to all the attention Jess gets when she's at a crag. "I'm a climber first, then a person with a disability. One of the things I love about climbing is that it's adaptive for everyone, whether they are able-bodied or not. Everyone has to adapt when they are climbing. You're eventually going to find a route where you're going to be too short, or too tall, or not have enough core strength, or whatever obstacle it is that makes you unable to send."

Jess's mentor, Maureen Beck, coins a slogan in her movie, Adaptive, Jess quotes, "Adaptive is a state of mind, it's not a label."

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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