SPOKANE, Wash. – For some the first step in reaching their potential is coming to peace with their limitations.
Hannah Tolson knows that from experience.
“I was never much of an athlete,” she explained. “I was pretty uncoordinated so I never really found a sport that suited me.”
Thanks to the insistence of a middle school athletic director and a nearby rock climbing gym, she found her passion and discovered just how good an athlete she really is.
“Everybody had to try a sport. I tried it out and fell in love with it,” Tolson said about rock climbing.
That is how Hannah began her ascent. When the Phoenix native clipped in for the first time, she had no expectation that a successful career in the sport would follow.
“Competition climbing was never super on my radar. I thought I was too old to jump into it and to really achieve something great,” she explained.
It took her just two years to dispel that notion. Hannah placed eighth at youth nationals as a 14-year-old.
“That planted the seed in me like, ‘Oh my gosh this could be something that I could really do and be good at,’” she said.
Tolson’s success continued through high school but when it came time to pick a college, competitive climbing was not a factor.
“I love school and I love learning and that was probably more my focus and Gonzaga checked all my boxes I guess apart from having a climbing team,” she said. “It took me about a week of college to realize that I really wasn't ready to give up competitive climbing.”
As a freshman, Tolson completed in her final year on the youth circuit. With that stage of her career winding down in the spring of 2016, she came up with a plan to start a climbing team.
In order to compete in USA Climbing's Collegiate Nationals you have to belong a club team. Before her arrival, Gonzaga did not have one. Tolson has since changed that. In March, soon after forming the club, she competed for the first time as the lone representative of Gonzaga's team and won. Shortly thereafter she earned an invite to nationals. This was all happening while the Gonzaga men’s basketball team made their historic run to the national championship themselves. Tolson was not a basketball fan before she got to GU.
“I can't say I really know how it works that much but man am I excited,” she explained.
With the program making its first run to the Final Four, Tolson followed the Zags to her hometown. There she watched alongside hundreds of fellow students as her school came excruciatingly close to claiming a national title.
“I was really sad for the guys. I know what it feels like to work really hard for something and to not have it come to fruition,” she said.
Not long after the buzzer sounded, she realized she could help Gonzaga claim some measure of revenge.
“This might be another sort of Zags and Tar Heels rematch right now,” she said.
Just as she expected, her toughest competition in the Sport Climbing Nationals was Kerry Scott, from the University of North Carolina.
“By the finals day of nationals when I was sitting in first and she was sitting in second I was like, ‘Oh my God this could like really happen,’” Tolson said.
Since Hannah was the top qualifier, she simply had to complete the climb in finals in order to win.
“Up until that point I hadn't even really let myself consider winning to be a possibility because I thought that would really stress me out,” she explained. “When I'm about to compete I have this mental battle with myself where one minute I'm fine and ready to climb and the next minute I like want to curl up into a ball so it is an emotionally exhausting experience.”
As the top qualifier, Tolson climbed last with 22 other competitors going before her. This meant waiting for her turn in earshot of the arena.
“Towards the end of the order you start to hear more cheers from the crowd because more people are getting up higher on the climb,” she said.
The last climber before Tolson was her Tar Heel rival, who made it all the way to the top.
“That's kind of when I realized, alright game on I have to do this thing too now,” she explained.
Once she began her ascent on April 29 in San Diego, 26 days after the Zags loss in the national championship, the hardest part was already behind her.
“Before I climb I'm always really nervous but right when I get on the wall this sort of calm comes over me and I try and just go on autopilot. I was definitely trying to breath take it one step at a time one move at a time,” said Tolson.
She stayed focused on nothing more than what is next, until she locked in the final clip and secured a national championship.
“I started crying and I went to find my Mom immediately. It's been kind of years of near misses for me and years of sad car rides home and I should have done this and I could have done this, so this was kind of the culmination of all those disappointments. It was retribution,” she said. “I love representing Gonzaga and it might be part of the reason I was kind of able to pull it together and take the win this time.”
In April, Tolson gained a clearer understanding of her potential, reaching the pinnacle of collegiate climbing. In three years she will set her sights much higher. Rock climbing was added to the list of events in the 2020 Summer Olympics.