NOT MANY PEOPLE find their purpose and passion at age 8. But Sierra Blair-Coyle is not like many people.
A rock-climbing wall at a local mall gave a young Blair-Coyle her first taste of climbing in 2002. Eight years later, she became the youngest qualifier for the World Cup. After winning two national championships as a junior competitor in 2018, Blair-Coyle won the bouldering title at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Pan American Championships in Ecuador as an adult.
Cover-girl beautiful, with blond hair, flawless skin and a perfect smile, the 27-year-old from Scottsdale is also a model. And while attending Arizona State University on an academic scholarship, she became an early social media influencer.
COVID-19 and pandemic-related travel restrictions halted most of the climbing competitions in 2020, but by early 2021, Blair-Coyle was hard at work at the USA Climbing training center in Salt Lake City, preparing for the national team trials scheduled for March.
COMPETITION ROCK CLIMBING is a relatively young sport consisting of three disciplines: lead, speed and bouldering. Lead is to speed what the marathon is to the sprint: Requiring endurance and problem-solving, lead climbing involves longer routes taken with the aid of a harness and climbing rope. In speed climbing, athletes race to reach the top of a standard route first. Bouldering, Blair-Coyle’s discipline, involves shorter routes, called problems. Tackled with no ropes or equipment, it requires problem-solving and dynamic, gymnastics-like moves.
Practiced in many places since the late 1800s, bouldering probably began as a way for climbers to prepare for longer ascents when time was short or there weren’t higher peaks nearby. Climbers in France popularized boulder climbing as a sport in the 1930s. In the 1950s in the U.S., John Gill took the sport in a more gymnastic direction. Sometimes called the “Father of Bouldering,” Gill pioneered the use of gymnastics chalk and promoted bouldering’s acceptance as a legitimate form of climbing.
Modern competitions began outdoors, on rock walls. In Arizona, Jim Waugh began hosting the Phoenix Bouldering Contest in 1983 at locations such as Camelback Mountain and South Mountain Park. But by 1988, most competitions had moved to artificial walls to lessen the environmental impact, allow more consistency between locations and increase safety. Sport climbing’s first world championships took place in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1991, but bouldering wasn’t included until 1998 — just four years before Blair-Coyle discovered the climbing wall at Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix.
With the proliferation of climbing gyms around that time, the popularity of competition climbing was just gaining traction. Most people used the gyms to train for the outdoors, Blair-Coyle says. But she considers herself “born and bred as a competition climber.” She’d been climbing for about two weeks with a local team when she got her first opportunity to compete.
“I walked into the gym for practice, and my climbing coach was like, ‘Hey, we’re having a competition. Do you want to do it?’” Blair-Coyle recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m allowed to?’ I’d come from doing gymnastics, and I wasn’t a great gymnast or anything, but [I figured] there’s no way after two weeks they’d be like, ‘Here’s a meet.’”
Blair-Coyle finished third of three competitors. But it didn’t deter her. “I remember seeing the girls who beat me,” she says, “and I was like, ‘All right. They were clearly better than me. But what do I have to do to be better?’”
Blair-Coyle won her first national competition in speed climbing at age 11, in 2005, and entered her first professional event the following year. But she considers the beginning of her professional career to be 2008, the year when she first made the finals in a professional competition. At 16, she became the first climber to qualify for the World Cup in the first year they were eligible to compete as an adult.
That also was about the time she suffered her first serious injury, a bulging, torn and herniated disc in her back. “It was pretty painful,” Blair-Coyle says. “I remember I had a hard time walking from the car to the entrance at the mall.” As with all her subsequent injuries, she climbed through it. This time, she endured 10 or 12 rounds of injections of platelet-rich plasma, a new therapy at the time.
“I’d get my injections, and they’d be like, ‘All right, make sure you don’t go work out, because you can’t feel anything in your back right now,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘OK,’ and then I’d drive straight to the gym, because my back felt better. So I was always kind of pushing it in that aspect.”
Since then, Blair-Coyle has suffered sprained ankles, shoulder injuries and, most recently, a slight tear where her hamstring and glute connect. “I had a competition coming up in two weeks,” she says. “And another one two weeks after that, and another two weeks after that. So I couldn’t get it fixed. I climbed on it while I could, and then, the second I had a break, I went in and got more injections. But I’ve been pretty lucky on the injury front otherwise.”
Blair-Coyle says she’s given up having “presentable-looking” feet. Climbing shoes are tight, and calluses have formed on all of her toes. She also considers her hands “super weird-looking.” “Sometimes I see women and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what hands generally look like on a female,’” she says. “It’s really funny.”
Not that any of that has gotten in the way of modeling opportunities, often for corporate sponsors or brands that want to project youthful energy. Blair-Coyle landed her first sponsorship, at age 10, with Of the Earth, a natural-fiber clothing retailer. Her mother, Lisa, says it was entirely Blair-Coyle’s idea — she just started emailing companies and asking for support.
It was a sponsor that first suggested Blair-Coyle start posting more on social media. Although she was pursuing a marketing degree at the time, social media marketing was so new that it wasn’t even in the curriculum. So, Blair-Coyle created her own formula: to be consistent and interactive, and to remain true to herself. She didn’t get a lot of engagement for the first couple of years, but eventually, it started to pay off. Today, she has more than 800,000 followers on Facebook, 170,000 on Instagram and 17,000 on Twitter.
“I caught the curve because I was basically the only climber doing it,” she says. “I reaped a lot of benefits of that, and I more or less stuck with the same model. It’s worked out pretty well.”
Her impressive following has attracted other sponsors and given her opportunities she hadn’t dreamed of. One of the most unusual was a vacuum-cleaner commercial for LG. With no advance information, Blair-Coyle boarded a plane for South Korea, where she discovered the job involved climbing a skyscraper with vacuum-powered suction cups.
“That was wild,” she says. “I don’t think anything is ever going to beat that shoot.”
THE PANDEMIC BROUGHT DISRUPTIONS, but also opportunities. Among them was the chance to train with Josh Larson, head coach and route setter for USA Climbing, at the organization’s new training center in Salt Lake City. USA Climbing built the 11,500-square-foot gym to help American climbers compete internationally and prepare for the 2021 Olympics in Japan, where sport climbing will make its Olympic debut. Larson was more available than he otherwise would have been, because the U.S. team wasn’t traveling.
“I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon,’” Blair-Coyle says. “Having a coach is something I’ve never had. Having other strong climbers to climb around is something I’ve never had. There’s also really good route setting, just putting the boulder problems on the wall. I’ve never been able to have all those things at once, so I’m just trying to capitalize on it.” (That preparation culminated in the March trials, where Blair-Coyle competed but fell short of making the national team.)
While competitions have taken Blair-Coyle around the globe, Scottsdale is still home. Her childhood house — including the climbing gym she built in an unused racquetball court — was recently sold, but she bought a Scottsdale condo in April of last year. While she’s in Utah, her mother keeps an eye on things and takes care of Blair-Coyle’s two cats, Precious and Mia.
And while Blair-Coyle spends most of her time training indoors, she also likes to head out to some of Arizona’s climbing destinations for fun. One of her favorites is the Flagstaff area’s Priest Draw, a place she’s loved since she was a child.
“I really like the style of climbing,” she says. “It’s limestone roofs, which is pretty unique. I also think it was an area that was under the radar for so long. Arizona, as a state for climbing, has been under the radar. I would always tell people we have really good climbing here. Finally, now it’s gaining recognition. So, there’s also a little bit of that. I’m just so proud of how good the area is.”