Grace Miller’s Newfound Passion For Climbing Has Helped Her Skiing, Too
by Alex Abrams
Grace Miller competes at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Grace Miller went rock climbing a few times before last year, but she was so focused on Nordic skiing that she couldn’t take climbing too seriously.
That changed in December after Miller got a message on Instagram from Maureen “Mo” Beck, a highly decorated climber who was named one of National Geographic’s 2019 Adventurers of the Year.
Like Miller, Beck was born without a left hand.
Beck invited Miller over Instagram to take part in an ice climbing clinic that Beck was holding at the 2021 Bozeman Ice Festival in Bozeman, Montana. Miller, a two-time Paralympian who lives and trains in Bozeman, decided to go.
“I always had this notion in my head that I wouldn’t be able to rock climb or ice climb with one hand, so it was just so cool,” said Miller, a native of Palmer, Alaska. “Mo, she has the exact same amputation as I do, so it was so exciting and just invigorating to see someone else actually ice climb with one hand and be like, ‘Oh, this is how you do it.’”
Miller, 22, has gotten more involved with climbing since returning in March from the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, where she finished in the top 15 in a pair of cross-country skiing races.
She has become a regular climber, and the exercise she has gotten this offseason from climbing 3-4 times a week has helped her as a Para Nordic skier, she said. She has noticed while doing laps on her roller skis that her arms are much stronger from climbing.
“I find rock climbing really fun because it doesn’t feel like you’re working out as much just because, when you’re on the wall, I’m just trying to not fall off. That’s just my main thought,” Miller said. “I’m not thinking about the fact that my arms are burning or that my fingers are tired or that my legs are in like weird position.”
Miller, who in June was named to the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Development Team again, said she’s not too competitive when it comes to climbing. She just enjoys being outdoors, and she can go rock climbing or ice climbing living in Montana.
Even though she’s new to the sport, Miller competed at the first Paraclimbing world cup competition of the season in Salt Lake City in late May. She tied for sixth in the women’s forearm amputee classification.
Miller said she didn’t go to the world cup with any expectations. However, she had so much fun in Salt Lake City that she’d like to eventually compete in more world cups.
“That was like the best thing ever. I never knew that this world even existed, so the fact that I just got thrown into it so fast was really cool,” Miller said. “And to see so many other girls with one arm climb was so exciting.
“The best part was to just (pick up) data from other girls with one hand and watching them climb the routes. When I see people with two hands climb the route, I can’t really get any information from that since I’m always going to climb it very differently than they do. So it was really cool to be able to watch other girls with one hand climb and be like, ‘Oh, that’s how they do that.’”
When she’s rock climbing, Miller tapes up her shortened left arm and uses it like a hand. She uses two ice axes when she’s ice climbing, though there are other Para athletes who climb using a prosthetic arm with an ice axe attached to the end of it.
“Thankfully from skiing, I came in with quite a bit of fitness, so that definitely helped a lot,” Miller said. “But with rock climbing, so much of it is forearm and finger strength, so it’s just trying to build that up.”
When Miller was skiing for the University of Alaska Anchorage, she was given a free rock-climbing membership. She said she used the membership a few times and climbed casually.
Miller is now hooked on the sport. To strengthen her arms for Para Nordic skiing, she’ll go climbing — usually on an indoor wall — instead of lifting weights in the gym.
She even chronicled her introduction to climbing in a post she wrote for Paradox Sports.
“Rock climbing and skiing are such different sports I wasn’t sure how I would do,” Miller wrote. “In skiing, I have to mentally prepare myself for a 15K while in climbing I have to prepare to climb a vertical wall. I love rock climbing because of the active puzzle you have to solve.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.