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Paraclimbing athletes hope for inclusion in the Paralympic Games


As athletes prepare for next year's Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games in Paris, some competitors are looking beyond that, to 2028. They're hoping that their sport of paraclimbing will be included in those games. This week's Paraclimbing World Cup in Salt Lake City is an important step closer. Emily Chen-Newton reports on the sport's chances for Paralympic inclusion.


EMILY CHEN-NEWTON, BYLINE: Ropes and rigging equipment clap against the walls of the L'Escalade climbing gym in Lexington, Ky.


CHEN-NEWTON: The after-work crowd hasn't arrived yet, but Alex Dornbusch is here training for his next competition. He tightens the Velcro on his climbing shoes...


CHEN-NEWTON: ...And dusts a thin layer of chalk onto each hand. Dornbusch is a paraclimber. He competes in the category for those with severe limitations to their range and power. Those limitations, however, don't apply to his competitive spirit.

ALEX DORNBUSCH: I am the ultimate trash-talker. That stuff just fuels my fire, man.

CHEN-NEWTON: Because of a traumatic brain injury in high school, Dornbusch can only rely on the right side of his body for quick dynamic moves, while forcing his left side to hold steady. His partner in the gym loops their rope through a metal safety device...


CHEN-NEWTON: ...And Dornbusch scans the route, planning his path up the 60-foot wall. When he starts to climb, he matches his movements to his breath.

DORNBUSCH: (Breathing rhythmic, strong breaths).

CHEN-NEWTON: After his brain injury, Dornbusch dedicated himself to soccer and made it on the U.S. Paralympic team. He missed playing at the London 2012 games due to an injury, so he wants another shot at the Paralympics. Sunny Yang wants his turn too, and he's training next to Dornbusch in the same gym. Yang and his wife settled in rural Kentucky after emigrating from China because he fell in love with the region's sandstone cliffs. He calls climbing his soul sport.

SUNNY YANG: Climbing - you don't compare with other people. You compare with yourself, making yourself become better and better.

CHEN-NEWTON: In 2015, he was hit by a car while out for a run and was told, because of his spinal cord injury, he would likely never use his arms or legs again - heartbreaking news for such an avid climber. So he turned his sport into his rehab.

YANG: Little by little, climbing helped me to move my bodies. Honestly, if I don't climb, maybe I'm still paralyzed.

CHEN-NEWTON: For many paraclimbers like Dornbusch and Yang, their sport actually makes the rest of life more livable.

DORNBUSCH: Especially, like, the first couple times I climbed, I noticed how much better I felt.

YANG: Every second, even now, I was fighting. You don't know. I was fighting. So I want to go to climb because climbing make me concentrate on the next move, which make me temporarily forget this uncomfortable feeling. If I want to live, I have to climb.

CHEN-NEWTON: Being chosen as an additional sport in the Paralympics is a possible pathway to the official lineup later. But a lot rides on the upcoming Salt Lake competition, says Marco Scolaris, the president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing. He says being chosen would show a global audience...

MARCO SCOLARIS: That it's a sport where, actually, you really can be part of the community no matter you have a disability, you don't have a disability. That could change life for many people.

CHEN-NEWTON: So not only would its addition to the games allow athletes to push their limits, but, as Scolaris emphasizes, it could open the door for someone with a disability who never thought that they could climb to put on some tiny Velcro shoes and give it a try.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Chen-Newton in Lexington, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAREN MORRIS SONG, "GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Chen-Newton