Rock climber Ross Fulkerson balances school with training, reaches for Olympics
First-year undeclared student Ross Fulkerson won rock climbing junior national championships in 2013 and 2017 and placed 11th in the 2019 Bouldering Open National Championship at the age of 18. Fulkerson said he is aiming to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics but will need to take time off UCLA to make time for his training. (Amy Dixon/Daily Bruin senior staff)
March 5, 2020 1:43 a.m.
This post was updated March 5 at 4:48 p.m.
Ross Fulkerson said he knew he wanted to go to college and be a professional rock climber. What he didn’t know was how hard it would be to do both at the same time, especially if it involved training for the Olympics.
“I’m just not going to be able to meet my climbing goals if I put all my energy into school,” said the first-year undeclared student. “So there’s definitely a balance that I have yet to perfect, if that’s even possible.”
Fulkerson was around 7 years old when he first went to a climbing gym in the Bay Area. Little by little, he kept returning to the gym – he had his birthday party there, went to summer camps and eventually decided he wanted to join the team at Planet Granite Sunnyvale, a climbing gym in Sunnyvale, California.
One of Fulkerson’s first coaches, Justin Cubbage, said it was a combination of Fulkerson’s love for the sport and his natural gifts that allowed him to make climbing more than just a hobby.
“The really strong foundation of just passion for the sport has really helped him make the most of the raw talent that he does have,” Cubbage said. “And I think just having all the mental fortitude to, day in and day out, stay strong and stay committed to your work.”
In 2013, Fulkerson saw his dedication pay off when he earned his first youth national championship, which he then won again in 2017. The now-UCLA first-year took a trip in early February to Bend, Oregon, where he placed 11th in the Bouldering Open National Championships at just 18 years old – one of the youngest athletes in a field of full-fledged adults.
Around one week later, he returned to Bend and capped off his career at the junior level – climbers who are born in either 2001 or 2002 – by climbing his way to the top of the podium at the Bouldering Youth National Championships for a third time.
But Fulkerson’s success on the national stage and at competitions has begun serving a second function – one that isn’t available to the rest of the Division-I athletes in Westwood. Unlike NCAA athletes, club athletes such as Fulkerson are able to capitalize on sponsorship deals and cash prizes. Companies including Guayakí Yerba Mate have helped cover some of his travel expenses, and some of his peers who aren’t attending university have reached six-figure sponsorships.
While his climbing resume supplemented his academic achievements leading to his UCLA acceptance, now that he’s in Westwood, Fulkerson has realized the facilities at the school are far from ideal for a climber of his caliber.
UCLA Athletics offers an array of resources and top-of-the-line facilities to NCAA athletes, who are awarded scholarships, given priority enrollment times and are held to different academic standards in the admissions process, according to CalMatters – all of which the university deems necessary for athletes to maintain their athletic prowess.
“To compete at the national level demands a commitment of time and energy from student-athletes not normally required of other students,” UCLA Athletics states in its department mission statement. “Consequently, we provide a variety of support services and resources to assist student-athletes with their academic success, personal well being, individual development, and preparation for future endeavors.”
Fulkerson, on the other hand, receives no such resources to go along with his success at the national level.
There is a single rock-climbing wall at the John Wooden Center and it occupies the area of one single racquetball court. Fulkerson said it lacks many – if not all – of the tools necessary for effective training.
“Some climbing-specific equipment (would) be awesome to have at the gym to make training here a little bit easier,” Fulkerson said. “I pretty much just don’t train at this wall ever.”
UCLA’s club climbing team trains biweekly in the space, but the team is without a coach, and the facilities are not even sufficient for them, according to club climbing media relations chair Leah Towery, who is also a friend of Fulkerson. She said the space is simply too small and ill-equipped for her and the more than 100 other climbers on the team.
“We work with what we have, but it’s really small – it’s the size of a racquetball court,” Towery said. “Just having more volume of climbs and … different climbing walls would be awesome. … We just really don’t have the space for it.”
To try and remedy the situation, Fulkerson has started driving to San Diego on weekends – often alone – to train in a more competitive and well-equipped environment.
“I’ve definitely been off campus more than I’ve been on campus,” Fulkerson said. “I’ve actually been going down there at least 10 weekends this (academic) year. I’ve only been on campus three weekends total these two quarters. It’s been hectic.”
His weekly commute and hours of practice – plus additional travel time given up for competitions around the nation – make his schedule comparable to that of a Division-I athlete.
Fulkerson also bears the additional struggle of training without a team. Back in the Bay Area, he said the strong crew of climbers at Planet Granite was a key aspect to his development as a climber – another reason he spends so much time in San Diego with other strong climbers.
With all of the time and energy he pours into his sport, Fulkerson said he is shouldering the same load as a varsity athlete with none of the bonuses that come with it.
“It’s definitely affected my performance as a student,” Fulkerson said. “I’ve been gone literally every single weekend training and competitions, unless I tell my teachers like, ‘Hey, I’m a professional rock climber, I’m trying to juggle a lot of things right now.’ They don’t know. They just see what I turn in.”
But the sacrifices Fulkerson makes in terms of his time, effort and academics aren’t the only things he has in common with the varsity athletes at UCLA. His ultimate goal is to compete alongside them in the Olympics.
In August 2016 – Fulkerson’s sophomore year of high school – it was announced that climbing would be an Olympic sport starting in 2020. As soon as he heard the news, he knew it was a dream he would pursue.
“Just having grown up climbing with all these guys like (2020 USA climbing Olympian) Nathaniel (Coleman) and these people who are in the Olympics, it’s like, ‘Wow, I feel like I’m not too far off,’” Fulkerson said. “I definitely know I can get to their level if not more. Especially like four years, that’s a lot of time.”
As he works toward the 2024 Paris Olympics, Fulkerson said he has come to realize that he will simply be unable to attend UCLA and train at the same time.
Unlike the Division-I athletes who call Pauley Pavilion and Drake Stadium home, he instead plans to take two years off and dedicate that time to pursuing his Olympic dream.
Even with his temporary departure from Westwood set in stone, Fulkerson said he hopes UCLA will invest in his sport down the line – especially with the 2028 Olympics set to be hosted in Los Angeles.
“UCLA just doesn’t know the potential climbing has right now,” Fulkerson said. “Especially as it goes into the Olympics here in 2020, there’s going to be so much more to gain on UCLA’s end from having a good climbing team and there’s just so much money already pouring into the sport and the growth is insane.”
Whether UCLA is likely to raise funding for climbing in time for Fulkerson to have the resources necessary to stay in Westwood while training for the Olympics is unknown. But with everything he’s done to get to where he is now, Fulkerson said he has sacrificed too much to give up.
“I want to see it through,” Fulkerson said. “I’d definitely regret just letting that go. It’s part of the reason why I really want to really commit to the Olympics and not half-ass it,” Fulkerson said. “I know I can do school and climb, but there’s a lot of sacrifices that I don’t think I’d be willing to make if I looked back and said, ‘Oh, yeah, well I could have done it better.’”