Gabe Galen climbs over obstacles to reach FISU World University Championship
Second-year business economics student Gabriel Galen climbs the wall. Galen won a national championship at the USA Climbing Collegiate National Championships in April. (Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin)
May 26, 2022 12:26 a.m.
Gabe Galen thought his competitive climbing career was over.
As the then-18-year-old accomplished athlete met with doctors in early 2020 to discuss the intense pain he was experiencing in his arm, Galen was told he needed a bone marrow biopsy to rule out bone cancer.
Between his recovery from the procedure and COVID-19 shutting down climbing gyms, he was kept off the wall for 18 months.
“It was definitely a really sad time for me because climbing was my entire life,” Galen said. “It’s honestly what brings me the most happiness.”
After the biopsy came back negative, Galen was diagnosed with a rare autoinflammatory disease known as chronic recurrent multifocal osteomyelitis, which most frequently causes pain and swelling in the bones, skin redness and occasional fevers. In 2018, there were roughly 460 documented cases in the world.
Two years and many hours in the gym later, Galen, a current second-year business economics student, proved his competitive climbing career was far from over.
In April, Galen traveled to the USA Climbing Collegiate National Championships in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, leaving with a national championship title in bouldering after being the only climber to finish all four climbs in the finals.
With his surgery and recovery long behind him, Galen no longer has to use a competition from years in the past when talking about the peak of his career. When asked about his greatest climbing achievement, he said it was the collegiate national championships.
“This competition,” Galen said. “I mean, I’ve never won a national championship.”
The road to Galen’s national championship started more than nine years ago when he tried climbing at a friend’s birthday party. He quickly fell in love with the sport, and after joining a competitive team in his hometown of Redmond, Washington, he started spending more and more time in the gym.
By the time he was in high school, it became 20 to 25 hours a week of training and climbing. Galen didn’t look for internships, join clubs at his school or play any other sports. For him, climbing was what he loved and how he wanted to spend his time.
“A lot of people at UCLA, they did like clubs and leadership positions in high school and all this other stuff,” Galen said. “If you looked at my Common Application, it had like two things, and it was just climbing and climbing coach.”
Even though Galen started climbing later than many of the kids on the team, his background in athletics, including a double black belt in taekwondo, and his dedication to the new sport allowed him to eventually surpass his competitors.
“A lot of it goes back to his own personality and his own drive and commitment,” said his mother, Britt Galen. “He’s always had that internal drive and is very goal-oriented, so that helps keep him on track.”
In 2018, Galen notched the best result in his youth competition career, finishing third in his age group at the Bouldering Youth National Championships. The result landed him a spot on the U.S. Youth Climbing Team and earned him his first qualification for an international competition at the IFSC Youth World Championships in Moscow.
However, his first actual victory in a national competition came at the USA Climbing Collegiate National Championship in April.
The competition started with a qualifying round featuring more than 75 male competitors, but Galen – who topped all six of the boulders – comfortably made the 23-person cut for the semifinals by finishing in third. Two days later in the semifinal round, Galen only managed to finish one boulder problem out of the four. Still, his fifth place finish proved enough to qualify for the finals.
“He would also agree that he didn’t feel like he did his best in the semifinals,” Britt Galen said. “That helped to refocus him so that he could really do his best the next day in the finals.”
Galen was spotless in the last day of competition. He stood alone at the top of the leaderboard as the only climber to finish all four of the climbs, the last of which he finished on his seventh try with less than a minute remaining by jumping horizontally to snatch the final hold.
However, it wasn’t long ago that Galen couldn’t do big dynamic jumps from hold to hold. In fact, he was off the wall entirely.
Following his surgery in 2020, Galen was forced to stop all weight-bearing activities on his arm to avoid breaking the weakened bone.
When he eventually received the all-clear from his doctors, all climbing gyms in his area had already shut their doors. He was forced to try and train in his bedroom on a fingerboard, a training device where climbers hang off of replicate climbing holds to work out their fingers – hardly an ideal setup for a climber of his caliber.
But when the climbing gyms reopened, Galen set his sights on regaining his strength, staying for as long as nine hours each day.
“I’m very proud of him. … I’m just glad that it (his autoinflammatory disease) hasn’t sidetracked him,” Britt Galen said. “We didn’t know what the future might be.”
Currently working as a climbing coach at a gym in Culver City in addition to his studies, Galen usually trains before his practices at times when most other students have classes. In the lead up to the national championships, he oftentimes found himself training completely alone.
“I can’t carpool anybody because they would have to stay until I’m done coaching, and nobody wants to do that,” Galen said. “Nobody wants to be at the gym for nine hours.”
Without a coach and with only the occasional training partner, Galen works tirelessly in the gym, rehearsing the drills and exercises that took him to the international stage as a kid.
One of Galen’s few training partners is first-year economics student Vincent Lee, who said Galen’s dedication is unmatched.
“He’s a psycho,” Lee said.
Through this work ethic, Galen found a way to overcome his time off the wall and reach a new height in his competitive climbing career, qualifying for the U.S. collegiate team in the process. He will represent Team USA and UCLA in June at the FISU World University Championship in Innsbruck, Austria.
While his competitors at schools such as the University of Utah or Colorado College train, travel and compete alongside their teammates, Galen will have access to much more limited resources in the lead up to the event.
But for Galen, his late ascent to youth competitive success, the improvement in his climbing following a rare diagnosis, and his eventual national championship win in the face of inadequate training resources were all against the odds.
Being at a disadvantage will be nothing new.