Ashima Shiraishi has been described as a “climbing prodigy,” a “bouldering phenom,” and the “Gretzky of granite.”
While the 2020 Olympic rock climbing hopeful has risen to prominence in the sport, Shiraishi doesn’t want to be defined solely by her ability to seamlessly maneuver up and down rocks and walls.
“Climbing is a big part of my life but it’s not the only thing I enjoy doing,” Shiraishi said.
The 18-year-old is an avid photographer, enjoys baking and fashion. Shiraishi also recently announced her first book, How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion, will be released on April 7, 2020. The 40-page children’s picture book, published by Random House Children’s Books Make Me a World imprint, is illustrated by Yao Xiao.
Not only has Shiraishi ventured into the publishing world, she may be dabbling in the fashion industry sooner than later, saying “there’s something coming up” that she can’t talk about yet. She is currently sponsored by The North Face, where she teamed up to help promote the sport for Global Climbing Day, as well as Nikon, Clif Bar, Evolv, All Nippon Airways and Petzl.
Born in New York City, Shiraishi began climbing at Rat Rock, a boulder 15 feet high and 40 feet wide, located at the south end of Central Park when she was 6 years old. When the New York weather got too cold in late fall/winter, she honed her talents indoors at gyms in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
By the time she was 14, Shiraishi, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Japan, became the first female climber and the youngest person to climb V15—the second-hardest grade level in climbing—on Horizon at Mount Hiei, Japan. She won three consecutive International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) world youth titles in both bouldering (climbing without rope or harness) and lead climbing (climbing with rope and harness) from 2015-17.
“What I fell in love with was the movement of it because it’s very therapeutic, and when you’re focused you’re just flowing up the wall,” she said. “It obviously requires a lot of physical strength but also a lot of mental strength. I think climbing is hugely mental and in order to keep pushing past your boundaries you have to believe in yourself.”
The belief in Shiraishi has certainly been there. She was featured in The New York Times when she was 11 years old, The New Yorker when she was 14, and Outside Magazine at 17. In Japan, where she’s been featured on everything from billboards to television, Shiraishi is known as “Spider Girl.”
“The pressure with media in this modern world is pretty intense,” she said. “It’s hard but you can’t take things to heart, you can’t be too personal about it. I’m a pretty sensitive person so it’s been hard sometimes hearing things and having my name be heard because I like to be under the radar.”
Shiraishi’s name will only be more prominent should she qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Making its Games debut, sport climbing will feature three disciplines next summer at Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo: speed, bouldering and lead.
The first group of Olympic qualifiers solidified their place next summer at the 2019 IFSC Climbing World Championships in late August in Hachioji, Japan. The next qualifying event is the IFSC Climbing Combined Qualifier from November 28 to December 1 in Toulouse, France.
“The Olympics is going to give rock climbing a huge amount of exposure and that’s obviously going to lead to more people trying it out,” Shiraishi said. “Just people knowing about it is cool.”
Whether or not she qualifies for the Olympics, Shiraishi hopes to continue to use her platform and following to inspire others not just to climb, but in any endeavor they’re passionate about.
“I want people to find something they love and follow that passion,” she said. “For me, climbing is that outlet, but for someone else it might be photography or ballet; it could be anything and I want other people to have that same connection that I have with rock climbing.
“I want people to try things out and see what they’re passionate about. My message isn’t ‘Start climbing,’ it’s ‘Find something you love and keep doing it.’”