Monthly Archives: February 2019

Story Untold: “Climbing Is in Such a Different Place Now”

Story Untold with Shelma Jun

Shelma Jun is changing the sport of climbing. Photo by Irene Yee.

Shelma Jun is, by most metrics, an unlikely face for the sport of climbing. A late arrival to the scene — she didn’t begin until her mid-twenties — she lives in New York City, about as far-removed a place from Yosemite and Joshua Tree as they come. Which is kind of the point. A Korean-American born in Seoul, the Brooklyn-based climber is leading the way as an advocate for changing the way we view the outdoors: making sure, among other things, women and people of colour are given a greater voice.

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The creator of Flash Foxy — an online platform to “celebrate women climbing with women” — Jun co-founded the Women’s Climbing Festival in 2016 and was listed by Outside magazine as one of the 40 women who have made the biggest impact in the outdoor industry.

A remarkable feat, given climbing was a backup plan.

A longtime Californian, Jun’s family arrived in Fullerton when she was five. A middle child, she grew up involved in competitive swimming and water polo.

“My family was always really into the outdoors, and if you’ve ever seen photos of Korea, it’s an incredibly lush, mountainous region … so that was kind of already seeded into my childhood,” she says.

As she grew older, she learned surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding — the latter of which led to her switch into climbing. At UCLA, she arranged her class schedules to run Tuesday through Thursday so she could make trips to Mammoth Mountain.

“The climbing community in New York City is incredibly specialI think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.” – Shelma Jun

“The very first day of snowboarding season, I broke my arm in half … and I was told not to do anything where I could fall onto my shoulder for at least two years,” Jun says. “A girlfriend of mine invited me to go to the climbing gym. She was like, ‘Hey, if you want to do top-rope at the climbing gym, if you do fall, you only fall one or two inches of rope stretch.’”

When Jun made the move to New York in 2011, she decided to get into the sport.

“It seemed like a perfect time to explore something,” she says. “The climbing community in New York City is incredibly specialI think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.”

In time, Jun made a group of women climbing friends and began planning weekend trips to The Gunks (short for Shawangunk Ridge), or afternoon sessions at Brooklyn Boulders. She started documenting the trips on Instagram, and the attention grew. Flash Foxy was born.

“Women kept writing us and asking if I knew ways for them to meet other women … wanting to connect, wanting to get out, wanting to learn a new way of climbing … and I kind of looked around and tried to see if there was anything I could direct them to, and there wasn’t really anything like that at that time,” she says.

“I think we can change [the sport] to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.” – Shelma Jun

Two years after creating Flash Foxy, Jun planned the first Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California.

“I thought it was going to be maybe 20 or 30 of us hanging out in the desert, and we got a huge response from it,” she says. “And it became really clear that it was going to be something much larger than I had anticipated.”

The event sold out. The following year, tickets sold out in less than a minute — a response that speaks to what Jun continues to advocate for.

“The demographic of climbing is changing rapidly, and I don’t think we as women, or as people of colour, or as queer folks… if we want to be climbers but don’t feel like that identity that exists now fits us, that we have to just make it fit,” she says. “I think we can change that to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.

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Johnson Street in winter. Photo: Martin Bauman.

“Could be snow, could be dandruff.”

She looked at me from the corner of her eye, a wry smile forming at her lips. I was on the #7 bus headed downtown for my first glimpse of winter in Victoria — never mind if the season started in December for the rest of the country.

She shuffled in her seat. A heavy breath; a long life. In truth, she wasn’t my first choice of seatmate. She smelled the way socks do when you’ve been out walking in the rain. But I knew she’d sit next to me. Sometimes you can just tell.

The bus rumbled past Oak Bay Village, down Foul Bay Road and the cluster of apartment buildings advertising vacancies — a sight even rarer than snowfall in this city. FOR RENT: BACHELOR read one sign.

“Look there. A bachelor’s putting himself up for rent,” she wisecracked.

“A bold strategy,” I replied.

She chuckled. A wintry day; a new friend.

“Last time we got snow like this, it was barely enough to fill the cracks in the sidewalk,” she told me. I didn’t mention that I’d moved here in part to escape from winter, to leave the dreary chill of dark February days behind. Funny, now, that I was glad for the snow. Only so far you can go before the things you’ve left catch up with you.

We passed by a schoolyard where kids played in the snow. Plastic sleds, snow forts, half-finished snowmen. Seemed like everyone was caught up in the excitement. A blur of activity on a cold afternoon.

“When was the last time you made a snowman?” I asked her. She must’ve been in her early seventies.

She thought for a moment and smiled, eyes creasing at the corners.

“I remember teaching my daughter how to make a snow angel,” she said. “I told her to fall back and let the snowbank catch her, but she didn’t believe me. She had this big look on her face when she finally tried.”

I tried to remember my own first snow angel and drew a blank. The memories blend together after a while.

When I was young, I remember toboggan trips to Westmount Golf Course and Waterloo Park. The hills look hardly thrilling now but seemed much bigger then. I remember GT Snow Racers and jumps fashioned from parking lot snowbanks down the street. A few nasty falls led to tears — though if they were my brother’s or my own, I forget.

I remember snow soccer games at Empire Public School. Some recesses, we swapped the ball for an ice chunk, and goal posts for winter boots. Looking back, I don’t know why, or how we managed to keep track of the thing. Some games are best left unquestioned, I suppose.

I remember snowballs tossed on long walks home from middle school. Each hydro pole became a target, and when that grew boring, I’d aim for my friends. They got pretty tired of that, as I recall. A few still don’t trust me near a snowbank. The others don’t know me well enough.

I remember winter wars in high school, when we’d head to Westmount Public School to tackle each other in the snow. T-MAX hoodies. Teenage boys. Testosterone. I remember the fear of God being caught behind enemy lines without an escape path or the flag. I still hold a grudge from being tackled too hard into the playground. That was over twelve years ago now.

I remember stolen dinner trays from the Medway-Sydenham cafeteria. First year at Western University. Makeshift sleds flung down UC Hill. I remember the bonfire we held back at the dorm: hand sanitizer poured on a night stand and lit with a cigarette lighter. I forget whose idea it was.

So many memories, I forget too easily. A heavy breath; a life well-lived. I looked back at my friend on the bus.

“How did she like the snow?”

“She loved it. Then I told her to push her brother in.”


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Story Untold: “Accept the Struggle”

Story Untold with Simon Whitfield

A four-time Olympian and member of the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, Simon Whitfield won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Games. Photo from

Simon Whitfield is in a good place. It’s a Tuesday night, and the four-time Olympian has finished his weekly soccer outing in Victoria, British Columbia — a men’s league where the competition is a far cry from the rigours of racing against the world’s best triathletes.

“I can’t just run the entire time; I get sore now,” Whitfield jokes. “I’m out there making truces [with the opposing team].”

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At the end of the night, he unwinds with a beer at a host’s apartment and reflects on what has led him to this point: a spot in the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, a pair of Olympic medals, a budding rivalry with the Gorge boys of the Vancouver Island Soccer League.

Make no mistake: at 43, the Kingston, Ontario native is still an athlete. 19 years after winning the first-ever Olympic gold in the triathlon at the Sydney Games, and seven years after his last hurrah at the London Olympics, Whitfield still swims, still cycles, still runs. Add paddleboarding into the mix, and one gets the impression he could still outperform athletes twenty years his junior. But these days, the drive is different.

For as long as Whitfield has lived, there has been sport. Growing up down the road from Queen’s University, he’d head to nearby Tindall Field, or — more often the case — around the corner to Couper Street for makeshift games of road hockey, where centre ice was marked by a pothole and he and his friends took turns pretending to be Wayne Gretzky.

“It was one block long,” Whitfield jokes. “C-o-p-p-e-r at one end, and C-o-u-p-e-r at the other end. It’s like the French Canadians and English Canadians couldn’t decide.”

At twelve, he competed in his first triathlon, a Kids of Steel event organized at Sharbot Lake. (“I did it in a pair of boxer shorts,” Whitfield recalls.) By the race’s end, he was hooked.

“I just loved the outdoor atmosphere of it,” he says. “It was a festival of sport where you did this thing, this excursion.”

“I was itching to push ahead with this thing I loved to do, and there was no containing me then.” – Simon Whitfield

Before long, Whitfield was in the pool at 5:15 a.m. on training days. At 16, he moved across the world to attend Knox Grammar School in Australia and continue his training.

“I was itching to push ahead with this thing I loved to do, and there was no containing me then,” he says.

A year after his arrival in Wahroonga, on the northern fringes of Sydney, Whitfield learned that Australia would be hosting the 2000 Summer Olympics, and the triathlon would make its debut as an Olympic sport. The stars had begun to align. Flash forward to 2000, and the triathlon would begin and end at the Sydney Opera House, the very same place he had once graduated from boarding school. Was there any doubt of what would happen?

“It was magic. A fairytale,” says Whitfield.

At 25 years old, he won the race and became a Canadian hero. When the Games ended, he carried the country’s flag into the closing ceremonies.

“I will say, the only thing I wondered at the time was, ‘will I get goosebumps again?’ Because I had this pinnacle experience … like, ‘wow, that just happened.’ And then I wondered, like, ‘how do you recreate all that circumstance?’”

“I had this pinnacle experience … like, ‘wow, that just happened.’ And then I wondered, like, ‘how do you recreate all that circumstance?’” – Simon Whitfield

It would take eight years to reach the Olympic podium again, this time earning a silver medal in Beijing. Finally, he was asked to carry the flag once more, this time at the opening ceremonies in London. After his fourth Olympics, Whitfield retired from competition.

“I just wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices required. Plain as that,” he says. “There was a time in my life when I thrived on sacrifice. Truly. I thought everything I did was based around … was I sacrificing and giving more than other people were, to fortify myself for the next moment I had to compete.”

“I paid for it with relationships,” says Whitfield. “When I look back, in the end, it’s the people.”

Nowadays, the father of two has a different focus: namely, those closest to him. There’s still the love for sport, but the temptation to relive past glory? Not in the slightest.

“I work towards contentment,” he says. “I accept the struggle as part of it. And it’s actually where the good stuff is.”

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