Climber Tori Allen captured an X Games gold medal in speed climbing in 2002. After finding fame early in life, she hoped for normalcy as a teen. She's found that in Steamboat Springs, where elite athletes are commonplace.
Climber Tori Allen finding solace in Steamboat Springs
Seedhouse: "It's got a good variety of climbs, and there is usually a good group of climbers hanging out there."
Rifle: "Fun hard climbs. It's very steep and overhanging. It's some place to go and fall and have stuff to work on."
Sarvis Creek Domes: "It's a long hike, but it's a really good climb."
Steamboat Springs It is hard to pinpoint when Tori Allen’s childhood ended or whether it even has.
The 24-year-old found celebrity at an early age.
At 12, she was a professional rock climber. At 13, she held all four major domestic titles in rock climbing. In 2001, she became the youngest female to summit the nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The next year, she won the X Games at age 14. She has her own action figure and shirts depicting her image. She’s made numerous rock climbing magazine covers.
Despite her hectic lifestyle early on, the boisterous blonde never seems to stop smiling, and her personality always shines through. On Wednesday, she wore fashionable Zubaz-like pants and a black sweater with white polka dots.
“It’s wacky Wednesday at work,” explained Allen, who works at Central Park Management.
To get her talking is easy, but Allen is used to publicity, and is conditioned to talk.
“Really, in a matter of moments, my lifestyle became a blur of fairy tales,” she said. “It really was a roller coaster of a life.”
Things aren’t as hectic anymore. She moved to Steamboat in 2010 and has found a little anonymity in a town where elite athletes are commonplace. She hikes, backpacks, plays rugby, rides her bike and, of course, climbs.
In September, she was back in the spotlight when a climbing wall was dedicated to her at Lycee Francais de New York school. There, she spoke to sixth- through 12th-grade students, reliving her exuberant tale.
“She was extremely well-received,” said Pascale Richard, the director of cultural events at Lycee. “She’s an incredibly nice personality. I was totally under a spell. She is so positive. She’s open. She’s radiant. I think that face she has in life comes forth. The kids responded.”
A rock star
Allen didn't always share her history as readily. In college, her roommates found out about her climbing career by Googling her. It’s part of the reason she likes the anonymity Steamboat provides.
“Oh, I love that,” she said. “As a kid, I’d say in high school I just wanted to be normal. My dad would ask what normal meant. This is why I like it here. People like me here because I’m just Tori, not this climber.”
The roots of her decorated climbing career grabbed hold at age 4, when she moved to Savalou, Africa, with her parents on a Christian mission. There, she had a pet monkey named Georgie, whom she would follow around — even if that meant going up a tree.
At age 10, her parents took her to Galyan’s Sporting Goods, where she saw a climbing wall for the first time. A couple of trips later, employees at Galyan’s urged her parents to take her to a climbing gym. Three months later, she won her first Junior Nationals title, and at age 12, she was a professional rock climber. In 2002, she broke a world record in speed climbing at the X Games by more than four seconds.
Tori Allen winning the X Games
Celebrity followed. She wrote a book. She had an agent. Every weekend was a plane flight with photo shoots here and interviews there.
She made waves across the climbing world.
“The thing she told me that always stuck in my head was there would always be another competition,” said professional climber Sierra Blair-Coyle, who cites Allen as her hero in climbing. “It really made me think one competition doesn’t define you as an athlete. Honestly, Tori is a great representative to climbing and always will be.”
Allen's newfound fame also came with tremendous amount of vitriol. People called her the Anna Kournikova of climbing. They called her stuck up. They called her money grubbing. They said she just wanted fame. Message boards tore her and her family apart.
School wasn’t much easier. She was young for her class, graduating at 16. In the high school halls, she was considered a dork. She didn’t fit in, and other students would mock her with her action figure. She ate lunch and attended school dances by herself.
She essentially lived two lives.
“A lot of climbers didn’t like what I brought. I brought a lot of publicity to the sport,” she said. “Then on weekdays, I’d cry and cry because I wasn’t popular. It was just emotional things. But then on the weekend, it was like I was a celebrity signing autographs.”
Allen admits her parents did everything they could to shield her from the negativity and that, in hindsight, she really didn’t know much about it.
After graduating from high school, she had a decision to make. She wanted to keep climbing, but she also wanted to accept a pole vaulting scholarship to Florida State University. Because she was a professional climber, she had to choose.
The NCAA prohibits collegiate athletes from competing professionally or accepting endorsements while competing for their schools, so Allen battled the NCAA.
After a failed lawsuit — along with former Olympic freestyle skier and University of Colorado football player Jeremy Bloom — Allen decided on school and a degree in fashion design.
“I really found myself in college,” Allen said.
Out of the limelight
Allen found friends and her niche in college. She admits she never was great at pole vaulting, never having finished better than third in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I was very mediocre,” she said. “I struggled. I had to work my tail off. Climbing came natural.”
After getting her degree in 2009, she didn’t have anything to do. Her family used to visit Steamboat in the winters, so she set her GPS for Steamboat Springs and drove the 40 hours to the Yampa Valley in May 2010.
What she found in college just continued in Steamboat.
She found solace in being herself, and she still has that childlike nature and outlook on life.
“I mean, I had Captain Crunch Berries for breakfast,” she said.
Climbing always will be a part of her life. There even is talk of speed climbing being part of the 2020 Olympics. If that’s the case, she’ll start training again.
Although climbing has defined so much of her life, she is out to prove that climbing isn't her be-all, end-all.
“I want to be known as the girl who is always smiling and always having a blast,” she said. “I definitely left my mark in climbing. No matter what they say, they know Tori Allen. Right now, I’m just so comfortable in my life. I love my job. But I’ll never give (climbing) up. It’s in my blood. I’m a climber.”