What: American Bouldering Series 14 Open National Championships
When: Feb. 22-23
Where: Colorado Springs City Auditorium, 221 Kiowa Street, Colorado Springs
More info: http://absnationals.org
F or a year and a half ending last April, Alex “AJ” Johnson lived out of her mother’s tan 1999 Safari GMC van — no frills, few showers and nothing but climbing and her teacup Chihuahua, Fritz, to keep her company.
Johnson, now 23 and living in Boulder full time, said her mom, Trish Johnson, cried when she took off from their home in Hudson, Wis.
But then again, her mom “always cries” when she leaves, Johnson said, adding that her family was on board with her decision to live in her van and travel the country.
“Did I have a choice?” Trish Johnson said, laughing, in a phone interview as she prepared to fly to Colorado to watch AJ compete at the American Bouldering Series 14 Open National Championships this weekend in Colorado Springs.
Trish Johnson said she considered buying AJ a gun for her birthday for nights when she slept in truck stop parking lots, but decided against it.
“Life’s about living, and if you choose to live in a van…” Trish Johnson said, trailing off.
AJ finished her cross-country travels last April, when she moved to Boulder for good to train with coach Kris Peters. Before that, she said she always considered herself an “off the couch” climber — she’d spend months bouldering or climbing outdoors before showing up at an indoor climbing competition with little or no indoor preparation.
This year, though, she started prepping for nationals in January. But Johnson has her sights set on the 2013 Bouldering World Cup in June for a third World Cup gold medal.
Johnson’s last World Cup gold medal was in 2010, after she took time off from Colorado State University to live abroad and climb full time.
But Johnson burnt out in Europe. She moved back home to Hudson and thought hard about her next move, which ended up being the 16-month solo van road trip.
Johnson categorized living in the van as a “finding yourself kind of trip,” though she couldn’t put to words what she learned about herself during her time on the road.
“It was just something different and new,” she said. “It just got me out of a funk. I was exhausted when I came back from Europe and just needed to do something new and not live in Hudson anymore. There were a bunch of climbing places I hadn’t been to yet that I really wanted to go to, so I took the van and went.”
Johnson grew up in a small St. Paul, Minn. suburb, population 12,000, just across the Wisconsin border. The nearest climbing gym was a 30-minute drive from her home, which meant mom Trish drove AJ four or five times a week until she was old enough to drive.
“I did a cartwheel in the street when she got her drivers license,” Trish said, laughing. “I didn’t have to drive to St. Paul and sit in the corner and knit.”
Her mom sobbed when AJ left for her van trip and decided to move to Boulder, but understood that in order to pursue climbing full time “she couldn’t do it in Wisconsin,” Trish Johnson said.
AJ’s climbing coach Kris Peters has high hopes for AJ. Like Kobe Bryant, who’s “at the top of his game” at age 34, Peters said he sees Johnson climbing for years to come if she takes care of herself.
Though Johnson is around 5-foot-7, her long limbs make her seem at least six feet tall to most outsiders, mom Trish said. That length and height often gives Johnson an advantage over more muscular climbers, her coach Peters added.
“With her length and her height, she has the ability to be athletic, dynamic — to jump,” Peters said. “And she has incredible finger strength as well, so when she goes for a hold and she hits it, it’s like a little vice. Her hand just hits it and locks.”
Peters added that if they keep working together for the next year or so, he’s confident Johnson will set the next standard for women’s outdoor climbing, he said.
“I want to see her push the limits for women’s climbing,” he said. “In my honest opinion, Alex is probably the best female climber in the world right now.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.