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At the Whitewater Center’s Tuck Fest this weekend, 3 Charlotte teenagers are ready to rock

Three CLT teens are ready for Tuck Fest climbing April 2022.jpg
Jordan Grantz
Queens University News Service
Alyssa Smith, Mary Ellis Stevens and Julia Duffy are local favorites in free water solo climbing at the U.S. National Whitewater Center's Tuck Fest, April 29 - May 1.

In an annual celebration this weekend at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, three Charlotte teenagers who have trained together since middle school are local favorites in a wild climbing sport you’ve probably never heard of.

It was called “psycho bouldering” – psicobloc in Spanish – when it was invented almost 50 years ago on the island of Majorca, Spain.

But it’s called deep water solo at Tuck Fest, a three-day festival of music, kayaking, rafting, mountain biking, running, and other events at the 1,300-acre whitewater center south of Charlotte. In the festival’s signature competitive event, two athletes free-climb in a race up a four-story wall, without any ropes, before falling back into a pool of water 20-feet deep. Forty-thousand people are expected to attend.

Julia Duffy, Alyssa Smith and Mary Ellis Stevens have been training together for five years on Charlotte’s Inner Peaks climbing team. For the three of them — all 17-year-old students at Myers Park High School — the collaborative culture of the sport is its biggest draw.

“Climbing is unlike other sports because there’s a sense of camaraderie that doesn’t really exist in something like soccer or running,” Julia Duffy said during a break from recent practice at Inner Peaks’ South End location. “Because everyone’s pushing each other, and at the end of the day, you’re focusing on yourself and what you need to do. Climbing is a vehicle for me to push myself, but also a vehicle for me to explore the outdoors, and also for me to make lifelong friendships.”

Duffy is a member of the U.S. National Team, and the International Federation of Sport Climbing ranks her among the top 60 climbers in the world. In December 2021, she took fourth in lead climbing at the IFSC Pan-American championships in Ibarra, Ecuador. Duffy has been climbing for nine years and now trains in two sessions per day, four or five days a week.

What Is Deep Water Solo, Anyway?

Spanish climbers in Majorca formalized the sport in the late 1970s as a safer way to do free solo climbing, which is executed without ropes or people to belay the climber. Falls from free solo heights onto rocks or other surfaces result in injury or death. Athletes also need to train how to fall into water. Deep water solo climbing is often located above lakes or oceans, but there are at least two artificial deep water solo venues in the United States — at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, and at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah.

“To get better at climbing, you have to fall over and over and over,” said Mary Ellis Stevens, who is competing for the first time at Tuck Fest. “So you’re constantly falling and failing and it’s really challenging to not have that affect you. But that’s really the spirit of the sport, to keep falling and keep getting back up. Because if you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Stevens led climbing expeditions for young people last summer in western North Carolina and competes on the USA Climbing National Youth Circuit. She’s also an active environmentalist and organizer of protests for social justice and the environment.

Overcoming Intimidation

Because climbing requires strength throughout the body, climbing facilities include indoor weight-training gyms to help with upper body and core strength. Finger strength is important, and the sport is hard on joints and skin.

Alyssa Smith also competes on the national youth circuit, and this is her second year of competition at Tuck Fest.

“Tuck Fest is against very, very talented, skilled climbers, and me, I’m a local,” Smith said. “I’m a bit of an underdog. And I think that’s special. I get to compete with people who are better than me and get that experience.

Favorite outdoor climbing locations for Duffy, Smith and Stevens include Rumbling Bald at Lake Lure, Crowders Mountain, and Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

“The height aspect is really cool to me. We’re going to pretty high heights at the whitewater center, it’ll be up to 45 feet, but it’s over a pool of water,” Smith said. “Whereas if you were on 45-foot walls at a gym, you would be on a rope. So that’s a difference between the two. I like climbing outdoors as well, all of the views and just experiencing something that’s unlike any other sport.”

Tuck Fest’s Deep Water Solo Climbing Schedule

Preliminary competition for deep water solo begins at 2 p.m. on Friday. Final competition begins at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Jordan Grantz of Louisville, Kentucky, and Palmer Magri of Charlotte are students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news. Samuel Earley and Ethan Rudnet of Charlotte also contributed to this story.

Palmer Magri is a students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local news. Her summer work is supported by the James E. Rogers Research Program.