Before she could reach the pinnacle of her sport, Kyra Condie had to learn how to fall. It’s an undeniable fact of competitive climbing; when your primary opponent is gravity, you’re going to lose a lot of battles on the way to the top.
“That’s one of the hardest things about climbing,” Condie said. “There’s a lot of failure. To get better, you need to be trying things that are too hard for you. You need to be falling all the time.”
Condie didn’t fully understand that until a decade ago, when she was knocked off the wall for four months. After the Shoreview native was diagnosed with severe scoliosis at age 13, she underwent spinal fusion surgery, pausing her promising start with the climbing team at St. Paul’s Vertical Endeavors.
Spending all that time with her feet on the ground made Condie realize how high she wanted to go. Though she has limited mobility in her back — 10 of her vertebrae are fused into one solid bone — she has become one of the top climbers in the U.S., winning a spot on the team for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Condie, 23, is among four Americans set to compete in the sport’s Olympic debut, originally scheduled for this summer before the coronavirus pandemic caused a one-year postponement.
Climbing at the Summer Games will be a combined event, incorporating each of the sport’s three disciplines: speed, bouldering and lead. Condie is particularly strong in bouldering but is an adept all-rounder, winning the 2019 U.S. combined title and the 2018 Pan American championship.
With her spine fused from the base of her neck to the bottom of her rib cage, Condie can’t always twist and bend as other climbers do. That has forced her to become more creative with her moves, but it hasn’t slowed her ascent.
“That surgery would have stopped a lot of people,” USA Climbing head coach Josh Larson said. “Kyra loves climbing too much to let something like that stop her. It’s like she needs to climb. It’s what keeps her happy.”
Even the pandemic can’t keep her grounded. After her Salt Lake City training gym shut down, Condie collected a few dozen holds and some plywood, cobbled together a mini climbing wall in her attic and kept right on going.
“The back surgery took climbing away from me, and that’s when I really jump-started my work ethic,” Condie said. “I appreciate it even more now.”
Climbing from the crib
Condie first scaled a climbing wall when she was 10 years old, at a friend’s birthday party at Vertical Endeavors. She showed an appetite for height long before then.
“We had to move her to a toddler bed when she was a year old, because she climbed out of the crib,” said Cathy Condie, Kyra’s mother. “She would climb out of the baby backpack, right onto our heads.”
Kyra turned door frames, trees, and the top of the refrigerator into her own kiddie Everests. She tried other sports, but nothing clicked. On the wall in St. Paul, she found a pursuit that felt ideal for her, one in which the outcome rested solely on her body and her brain.
Condie was invited to join the Vertical Endeavors team and did well, despite nagging pain in her back. Concerned she might have scoliosis, her parents took her to a doctor, who found a 70-degree curve in her spine that could be corrected only through surgery.
When Condie asked if she could return to climbing, a nurse practitioner told her there were other things in life. The family promptly left the clinic and sought another medical team.
“Kyra was like, ‘What are you talking about? There’s nothing else in life,’ ” said Tom Condie, Kyra’s dad. “We didn’t know what was possible, but we wanted to find out.”
A different doctor told Kyra that if she wanted to keep climbing, the surgery shouldn’t stop her. On the way home from the hospital — after two rods were implanted in her back, to hold her spine in place while the bones fused from her T2 vertebra to her T12 — she asked her parents to stop by the climbing gym.
“We have a picture of her with her team, in her bathrobe,” Tom Condie said. “Whatever the record was for the fastest recovery from that surgery, she was going to break it.”
Olympic journey on hold
In 2016, climbing was added to the Tokyo Olympics competition list, through a new rule that allows host countries to put extra sports on the program solely for their Games. That was perfect timing for Condie, who was two years into her animal science studies at the University of Minnesota after graduating from Mounds View High School.
She completed her undergraduate degree in the spring of 2018, then put off veterinary school to train full-time toward the Olympics. Last November, Condie went to an Olympic qualifying competition in Toulouse, France, to chase the second and final Summer Games berth available for American women.
Her performance put her in position to earn the spot. But with several athletes yet to compete, she and her parents had to wait nearly an hour to see if she could hang on.
“It was probably the most nervous I’ve been for a competition in my entire life,” said Condie, whose seventh-place finish made her an Olympian. “I wasn’t sure I had done enough until there were three climbers left. Then I knew, and I just started sobbing.
“My parents ran over, and for a second, my mom thought I was crying out of sadness. Then she realized they were happy tears. It was really sweet to be able to share that with my parents.”
To prepare for the Tokyo Games, Condie left The A — the tough, tiny climbing gym she helped build in northeast Minneapolis — for Salt Lake City. USA Climbing is headquartered there, allowing Condie to work with its coaches after many years of being self-taught. She also can train with other elite American climbers who live in the area.
For the time being, she’s working out in her attic. When she designed her homemade wall, Condie got several thick pads to cushion the floor underneath.
By her logic, if she’s not falling, she’s not trying hard enough.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Larson, her coach. “And Kyra’s always able to find a way. That’s what sets her apart.”