Thursday, July 19, was a typical summer day in Grapevine, Texas, a city of 51,000 just 30 minutes northwest of Dallas. Stocky brick buildings and a gleaming white water tower were the only objects of vertical relief to break the plain for miles. The sun glared off the black asphalt. A high-pitched bug-whine filled the air like a rung cymbal and a muggy wind stirred the dead grass. The national weather service had issued an “Excessive Heat Warning.” Looking into the 10-mph breeze was like getting licked in the face by the Devil. Friday was supposed to be hotter, 109, and the next day might hit 111. It could drop to 103 in a week, but it might not go below 100 degrees again before September, if ever.
This hellish weather is one reason Outside magazine chose Dallas as the “Least-Outdoorsy City” in America, and yet Team Texas, a group of Dallas area athletes ages 8 to 19, trains right here in Grapevine and happens to be the most successful climbing team in the history of USA Youth Climbing competitions. Texas has won 10 out of 15 Lead-climbing National Championships, including the 2018 Nationals. The team has taken the top spot in 14 National Speed-climbing Championships. The current female Adult National Bouldering champion, Alex Puccio, the current female Adult National Lead- and Speed-climbing champion, Claire Buhrfeind, and the current male Adult National Speed-climbing Champion John Brosler, are all Team Texas alumni.
As the success of Team Texas illustrates, you don’t actually need outdoor crags to be a great gym climber. But there are many towns in the U.S. with good climbing gyms and no nearby climbing, and these places don’t win National Championships almost every year. What’s the secret?
One big reason for Team Texas’ success is coach Kyle Clinkscales: 43, unassuming, a neat beard, broad forehead and prominent ears. Dressed in a collared shirt, he stood calmly watching his team doing up/downs, a jumping exercise like a burpee without the push-up. On Thursdays the elite team typically tries their projects and works on dynamic movement, but one of the younger kids had left his gear strewn all over the climbing area and now they were paying for the infraction.
“It reflects on all of us,” Coach Kyle explained as the team punched out the reps. “Remember, you’re not the only people on the planet. And most things worth being part of are bigger than you.”
Clinkscales is prone to these coaching proverbs, often gleaned from his own parents. His dad, Kirk Clinkscales, worked at the Dallas Times Herald selling ads. His mom, Donna, was a secretary. Both are now retired.
Clinkscales is steady and somewhat strict, according to Team Texas athletes, but the kids make fun of him constantly for being fat and old. He’s neither, but they think it’s hilarious to rib the coach and he takes it all in stride. Like any good coach he’s the arbiter of goals and limits. More than anything, he can help you get your mind right. I spoke with several athletes Kyle described as the best he ever coached, and they all said that Clinkscales’ greatest gift is his ability to connect with kids and prepare them mentally to win.
“Even he admits that he could use some improvement at coaching the technical aspects of climbing,” says John Brosler, 21, a nine-time speed- climbing national champion (four youth and five open titles), with multiple podium finishes at the World Youth Championships. “But [Clinkscales] excels when it comes to coaching the mindset. He can analyze your body language on and off the wall, note the things you talk about at practice or with your friends, and use that to determine how you, individually, should approach your climbing. That’s what he’s best at, and that’s what makes him so unique. When you talk to him, it often seems like he knows you better than you know yourself.”
“I would call him an extremely effective and talented amateur child psychologist,” says Brian Antheunisse.
Antheunisse, 26, lives in Austin, where he works at Texas Instruments as an electrical engineer. He won six youth national championships, taking all three disciplines several times. Outside, he’s climbed 13 V13s and five 5.14c’s. “Kyle has this way of building trust and credibility with kids, like every single one, so that they take everything he has to say really seriously. Probably more than 50 kids, including myself, would tell you that he is like a second father.”
After the up/downs another kid approached and said he’d forgotten his shoes and couldn’t do his project. “Well, it sucks to suck,” Coach Kyle said. “Figure it out, cause we got work to do.”
When the kid continued to complain, Clinkscales deadpanned, “Don’t blame me if you wanna get better. Remember, you can quit any time. Your parents would save lots of time and money.”
The older kids paid no attention. They’d heard all this before. In fact, this attitude of “no excuses” is a big part of the Team Texas vibe. Delaney Miller, a Team Texas alum—who also worked extensively with coach Kim Puccio—is a three-time National Champ in sport climbing and has placed as high as 7th in World-Cup competitions. She says that her favorite Team Texas motto is “Embrace the Suck.” It’s a slogan that suggests one should not only avoid excuses, but actually welcome hardship.
“It means: Be there to work hard,” says Miller. “No over-competitive d-bags. Be kind to yourself and others.”
“Embrace the Suck” is about accepting your fate,” Clinkscales says. “We just try to develop professional people, not professional rock climbers, and by doing so, you get kids to realize they want to compete and they don’t want it to be easy. Something I say to the kids is, ‘Do you like to be pumped, tired and scared?’ And they always say, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘Well let’s just climb laps on this 5.7 all day.’ Of course they don’t want to do that. So, we try to teach them that we really want it to be difficult and we want it to be scary and you want to have to try hard.”
Clinkscales started climbing in 1993 when he was 18, on vacation with a wealthy girlfriend whose parents rented a bunch of cabins in Lake City, Colorado. On a whim, he and his buddy, Kirk Jones, bought a 7-millimeter hemp rope at a hardware store and took turns hip-belaying each other from the top of a random 35-foot shale cliff close to the cabins. They tied in with a double overhand knot, “to be safe.”
“I fell once and didn’t die,” Clinkscales says, and he was instantly hooked. “When I got home a climbing gym opened up one mile from my house. How’s that for lucky?”
The gym was called Exposure, the first climbing gym in the state, and Clinkscales took to gym climbing, eventually climbing 5.13a and bouldering V8 outside.
In 1996, Clinkscales approached Greg Hoff, Exposure’s manager, and pitched him an idea. Kyle would recruit kids to coach and charge their parents. Eighty percent would go to Kyle. The gym would get 20 percent plus the usual membership fee. Hoff agreed to Clinkscales’ proposal and soon after Clinkscales walked up to a promising 10-year-old boy named Chris LoCrasto and said, “Hey I’m a climbing coach and I’d like to coach you and your brother, Frank.”
The boys were stoked and their parents signed them up. (Chris LoCrasto would go on to climb 5.14 and V12. He now co-owns five Dallas-area climbing gyms, partnered with Clinkscales and another Team Texas alum, Stan Borodynsky.)
A few days later, Clinkscales approached 10-year-old Sarah Brown’s father and he signed her up. (Sarah Brown got second place two years later at the 1998 national championships). Suddenly Clinkscales had a team.
“As far as I know,” Clinkscales says, “I was the first professional coach in the U.S., meaning that I made my living from the very beginning from coaching and as far as I know I was the first to ‘own’ the team, meaning I took a commission of whatever I charged the team members.”
Clinkscales was attending Texas State University at the time then dropped out and told his parents he wanted to be a climbing coach. “They were like, ‘Cool, just remember: Nobody cares how much you know till they know how much you care.’ They literally said that. Fortunately for the kids I didn’t know shit, which means the only thing I could do was care a lot about them and have fun working hard and getting better.”
In 1999, Clinkscales had two athletes on the fledgling USA Climbing Team, Sarah Brown and Alice Braginsky. He traveled to Italy with the girls for an international competition and Jeanne Niemer, then-president of the Junior Competition Climbing Association (JCCA), asked Clinkscales if he could help manage the kids in isolation (the area where competitors hang out before climbing). He obliged and suddenly he was the official U.S. Climbing Team coach.
Clinkscales was active in all aspects of USA Climbing. He was a board member, on the rules committee and the appeals committee. He was the first head coach for the USA National Team. He started the coaches’ committee, helped write the coaches’ code of conduct, came up with the selection process by which the coaches became U.S. Team coaches, lobbied and allocated the money to send coaches to Worlds, and created the rules for the youth team National Championship award. He’s a nationally certified route setter as well.
Daron Pair, Stone Summit Gym owner and former president of USA Climbing, has known Clinkscales for 10 years: “It is very difficult to maintain sustained excellence over a long period of time,” he says. “But Kyle has managed to do so by always putting his kids first. It is important to Kyle that every child becomes the best they can be and fulfills his or her potential.”
The team started a tradition of summer road tripping in 2000 with a month-long outdoor climbing trip. Clinkscales recruited help, bought a van, and the team hit some of the biggest sport-climbing areas of the day— Shelf Road, Rifle, Wild Iris—on their way to nationals in Portland, where Braginsky made the U.S. National Team and, along the way, LoCrasto climbed 5.13 outside at age 14.
2018 was the 18th annual month-long summer road trip. The team has been to 20-something climbing areas outside of Texas. This year they headed to the Red River Gorge.
Why does Clinkscales do these road trips? “When you get kids out, they grow as people,” he says. “These days parents try to fix everything for their kids. When you’re on the road with Team Texas, parents can’t fix things for you.”
And then, predictably, he quotes something he probably picked up from his parents: “That which is hard to endure is sweet to remember.”
“When you climb outside,” Clinkscales says, “you can’t blame your failure on the route. It’s not some ‘stupid’ route set in a gym. The climb is gonna be there when you’re long gone and there’s five stars by it in the book. And you’re 15 hours away from home dealing with conditions. There are climbers from other places who will throw away their entire trip because conditions are bad but we don’t live in Colorado or Salt Lake. When we go climbing at the Red River Gorge, we go in the summer and it’s crazy hot and the humidity and all of that. People whine about the heat and we are just like, it’s a climbing day, we are going to go rock climbing and that’s what we do. And if it’s raining, we go rock climbing. If it’s 1,000-percent humidity, we go rock climbing.”
By 1999, Team Texas had 20 kids, in- cluding 12-year-old Stan Borodyansky, who focused on speed climbing. Borodyansky now co-owns the Summit gyms with LoCrasto and Clinkscales. He’s an active coach as well, specializing in speed, the discipline Team Texas has dominated from the advent of U.S. youth competition speed climbing in 2003. (The only team national speed- climbing championships Team Texas hasn’t won were this year’s nationals and the 2006 competition when they didn’t field a team.)
Most climbers scoff at speed climbing, says Clinkscales. “But we work at it. It is something that we care about. My parents always told me: ‘If they’re going to give away medals, you might as well try to win them.’ Way back in the day, everybody was too cool to do speed climbing and we were just like, why? It didn’t make sense. You get to compete. So we worked at it.”
And the work has paid off in 14 national championships. Team Texas athletes John Brosler and Claire Buhrfeind are the current adult male and female national speed climbing champions. Brosler is the U.S. record holder for the 10 and 15-meter speed wall and holds the record in Male A and Male Jr. for speed climbing. He is a five-time adult national champion.
Claire Buhrfeind is the current sport and Speed-climbing National Champion—she took fourth place in bouldering—and many see her as America’s best hope for an Olympic gold medal in climbing in 2020, the first year Olympic medals will be awarded for climbing. Since points will be tallied for lead climbing, bouldering and speed, Buhrfeind’s time on Team Texas, where the athletes have always trained speed, might give her an advantage over athletes who have never focused on the category.
“In the women’s field, we stack up incredibly well,” Clinkscales says of America’s Olympic competitiveness. “We have a realistic shot because of the three-discipline format and because there won’t be any real specialists competing. You’ll have to be competitive in all three disciplines. I think that bodes well for American women. Claire and Alex Puccio both have an incredible shot. We haven’t quite gotten there with the guys.”
Is Clinkscales psyched about climbing being in the Olympics? “Yes, very psyched about it. I truly believe that if Margo [Hayes] or Brooke [Raboutou] or Claire or Puccio or Nathaniel Coleman or Kai Lightner—one of those guys that has a big personality and is just a really, really good kid—lands anywhere near the podium at the Olympics, climbing will go to a level that none of us ever imagined.
Toward the end of our interview I asked Clinkscales to name the best gym climber in America.
“You have to give it to Puccio because she has won 11 bouldering national championships and she literally has alligator blood running through her veins. She’d have had the same success in sport and speed if she’d have cared half as much as she did about bouldering. Now she does, so look out.”
Last, I asked Clinkscales the question I’d been wanting to ask since I first heard about Team Texas’ successes. How do they consistently beat teams from Salt Lake and Boulder and other climbing epicenters with great weather, the best crags and even better gyms?
His answer surprised me because it wasn’t about training techniques or motivational speeches. It was about gym etiquette.
“If you come into one of our gyms,” he said, “we have specific areas where our team trains. We try to keep the kids out of the regular gym population as much as we possibly can and I think our members are appreciative of it. But it also creates a very intimate environment with the coach and the kid. It’s a place where we can work on weaknesses. We are right there and kids know when you are in it or not, and that’s what fosters the growth. Our kids don’t usually quit Team. They go all the way through and become leaders. It’s #teamtexasfolife.”
This article appeared in Gym Climber 1