Episcopal’s Climbing Team Reaches New Heights

If one school sport in Alexandria epitomizes striving for goals, it’s Episcopal High School’s climbing team, which has existed for 18 years.

Flynn Donnelly, class of 2021, from Charleston, South Carolina.
Photos: Matt Thompson

Alexandria, VA – If one school sport in Alexandria epitomizes striving for goals, it’s Episcopal High School’s climbing team, which has existed for 18 years, but rarely gets any press. Zebra is going to change that. We talked recently with Episcopal’s climbing coach, Patrick Thompson:

Zebra: The team has been around for 18 years. How did it get started?

Coach Thompson: The team was started as a club, part of our Outdoor Leadership Program, and morphed into a competitive team.

Zebra: Are you a teacher at Episcopal? If so, what do you teach?

Coach Thompson: I am a math teacher and I’m the director of Outdoor Programs.

Zebra: How did you get involved with the climbing team?

Coach Thompson: I was brought to Episcopal to help with the Outdoor Program. My focus back then was on whitewater kayaking, but I knew how to climb and jumped in as a coach. In 15 years as head coach, the team grew into a varsity sport and we built the league. Now, one of my former climbers from the early days, Emily Urquhart, works with me as Assistant Coach.

Zebra: Were you a competitive climber yourself?

Coach Thompson: I was not. I had done some climbing, but I was an avid whitewater paddler.

Zebra: Is there competition to becoming a member of the team, or is any student who’s interested eligible?

Coach Thompson: We do have to make cuts, unfortunately, due to availability of seats on the vans we drive to practice. Eventually we’d like to build a climbing center on campus and expand the team.

Zebra: What is the team’s record? What was their record last year?

Coach Thompson: This season the boys are 1-1-1 and the girls are 1-2. The WAICL (Washington Area Interscholastic Climbing League) championship is really what matters, however. Last season, our boys placed 4th out of 9 schools and our girls won the league championship for the first time. It was an amazing night for those seniors who had worked for years to finish their competitive climbing careers with a trophy in hand.

Zebra: How important is teamwork to the team’s success? or is it basically an individual sport?

Coach Thompson: Teamwork is crucial. Although each climber is moving up the route individually, they are being belayed by their teammate. The kids literally hold each other’s lives in their hands. They learn to trust each other, so that when they are tired and want to quit, their friend can tell them to move their right hand to a certain hold and press as hard as they can, or step up with their left foot on a tiny crimp. They listen to each other and finish the climb because of that trust factor.

Bobby Zahorsky, class of 2022, from Madison Township, Pennsylvania.
Photos: Matt Thompson

Zebra: Does the team have any rivals? If so, what is your record against them?

Coach Thompson: Episcopal’s rival school is Woodberry Forest School in Orange, Virginia. It’s fun because climbing is the only sport where our girls team can beat the all-boys rival team, and has multiple times in the past. This season, we beat them in our first meet of the year and face them at their gym on Saturday. The rivalry exists, but what is so neat about climbing is that the kids all just want to do their best. They drop some of the antagonistic spirit, help the other team’s climbers through routes, and work together. Hopefully we score higher, but in the end climbing is a friendly sport.

Zebra: What are the challenges of coaching the Episcopal team you have now specifically?

Coach Thompson: We have a young team. We graduated the championship group of seniors and have nearly all underclassmen. There are only four juniors and the rest are 9th and 10th graders, many new to climbing. We have a ton of potential and I am so excited by the growth of the team already.

Zebra: Are there any anecdotes or moments from this season that really characterize the team?

Coach Thompson: Today we did a very hard workout called “yo-yo’s.” Picture a toy yo-yo going up and down. That’s what our climbers had to do. It is essentially a shuttle run, only up and down the 60 foot wall, over and over again. It is exhausting, but they all were able to complete it and the cheers and high fives at the end really capture this team’s spirit.

Zebra: What is the relationship like between the team and academics, if there is one?

Coach Thompson: I often get compliments, and even some jealousy, from my colleagues who say that the climbing team always seems to have the best kids at school. We pride ourselves on being strong on the walls and in the classroom. They are leaders and support everyone. They are truly a kind group of young people and I am so proud to work with them.

Zebra: Episcopal was responsible for the formation of the league. How did that get started? And what did the league look like in the beginning?

Coach Thompson: The Washington Area Interscholastic Climbing League began about 12 years ago. Before that, our team and the Voyageur Program at St. Albans and National Cathedral Schools in D.C. would go head to head a few times a season. We recruited Woodberry Forest and began pitching the league to other independent schools in the area. In the last 5 years, we have grown to 11 schools from the IAC, ISL, and MAAC conferences.

Zebra: Are any of the students superstars in climbing? If so, who are they? What are their accomplishments? How old and what grade? And are they planning on competing in a collegiate setting?

Coach Thompson: The league has seen some amazing climbers come through. Ellie Sepulveda climbed for Georgetown Day School and now is competing in national USA Climbing competitions and international IFSC competitions. She won the Pan American Games this fall. On our team, our best climber is Sam Lipschutz. He is a sophomore from Bermuda. He climbs for Sportrock’s junior team as well. He competed this fall in his first USA Climbing season in bouldering and will continue to do so in lead climbing this spring. He is on pace to be very good.

Josh Lipschutz, class of 2023, from Warwick, Bermuda.
Photos: Matt Thompson

Episcopal’s climbing team practices every day at Sportrock Alexandria and competes at various climbing facilities throughout the area. We wish them future success and appreciate coach Thompson’s participation in this article. Go Maroon!

ICYMI: Thunder from Down Under: Titans Battle Australia