Community Spotlight: Justin Salas. Paraclimbing World Champion
Meet Justin, a friendly, laid back guy from Oklahoma, who loves the outdoors. He has a passion for climbing and has become a familiar face on the international competitive climbing circuit. He’s acquired a whole host of accolades including three gold medal wins at the USA Adaptive Climbing Championships and even a World Championship title. Oh yes, and did I mention? Justin is legally blind.
Early days of vision loss
Having always worn glasses, Justin knew he didn’t see as well as his friends, but unexpected changes in his vision at 14 years old left him confused and his doctors at a loss for a diagnosis.
Justin describes how he noticed his central vision was deteriorating. “I was looking at the moon and it was hard to see the middle, like someone had cut a piece out of it. Eventually, the dead spot got big enough that I couldn’t even see the moon anymore.”
After this, there was a time where he carried on as usual, but Justin remembers the moment that changed everything. “I was riding bikes with my friends. Back in the day we would ride BMX all over Tulsa, and I was trying to cross a street. All of a sudden, I realized I really couldn’t see. It was like my brain had this click-on moment when it was like ‘you can’t see well enough to know when it’s safe to cross’. I was stuck.”
The time that followed involved significant changes in Justin’s life. Even today, there’s a lack of understanding about the spectrum of vision loss amongst the wider population. It can be confusing because someone with failing vision can still manage to navigate familiar spaces, and sometimes, people around them refuse to believe there’s any vision loss at all. This is what Justin experienced. Starting high school, when any young person needs the support of their teachers to navigate this formative time, Justin didn’t get that support. When his teachers refused to acknowledge his vision loss, he could no longer continue his education at school. His parents supported him the best they could and continued his education at home, with a focus on learning about accessibility, how to find things out and learn without sight.
Not only had Justin’s life changed in the present, but he realized his future had changed too. As a child, he had dreamed of being a fighter pilot, but this was no longer possible with his deteriorating sight. He describes his education from this point as “what I needed to get by in life,” with no trajectory to college or a definite career path. His parents, who had no experience teaching a visually impaired teenager, gave him the support and encouragement he needed to help him through that difficult time, and prepared him for his very own, unique future.
Discovering new heights
His previous pastimes of soccer and BMX were no longer an option for Justin, and he wasn’t sure what he could do instead. It was around this time that a friend of his suggested he try climbing. Initially, Justin felt “Of all the things, climbing seems to be something you need sight for. It’s kind of life and death, right?” But his friend persisted that Justin could do this and didn’t give up, so eventually, Justin tried it. And his friend was right. Sure enough, with his help, Justin climbed.
Before he knew it, Justin was climbing boulder problems and routes. He was taken aback by how “user-friendly” climbing was when someone gives you directions. “Suddenly it wasn’t about my visual problem, it wasn’t such a big memory game all the time. It was freeing.”
Having always been an active guy who loved the outdoors, the physical aspects of climbing appealed greatly to Justin. However, he soon found that climbing also presented some benefits for his mental wellbeing, which was in need of some TLC at this transitional time.
The way Justin talks about how climbing makes him feel, suggests a sense of calm and peacefulness. “Once you’re moving on the wall and climbing, it’s like the woes of reality fade away. Then you become lost in the movement, and it doesn’t matter so much what’s happening outside this sphere of you and the wall. That’s what predominantly attracted me to climbing, as well as the physical aspects.”
The physical strength and fitness achieved through his training and the courage and bravery he practices with each climb, has helped Justin cope with the challenges that come with adjusting to life with vision loss. “Holistically, climbing has given me a way of wrestling with fear in a completely different way, and it’s true what they say, that everything we desire is on the other side of fear. Climbing has prepared me to deal with things that are hard, like crossroads in life and having the ability to be OK with uncomfortable situations.”
Climbing without sight
Justin has worked with his sight guide for around seven years. They’ve developed an incredibly efficient system in that time, and Justin explained how it works. “My sight guide will read or look at the route in its entirety. Usually, the competition will send out a video of somebody climbing the route, so he gets to see how it’s climbed, where the hard parts might be, where the rests are. Then he describes this to me in very precise detail, all the way down to how many fingers might fit on a certain hold. We build that mental image and by the end of it, I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do. Then when we get there, we carry on the communication, and he is basically confirming what we have talked about.
Justin and his guide clearly developed a system that works. In 2018 he won the World Paraclimbing Championships and became the first paraclimber to achieve V11 (The V scale is a rating system that measures the difficulty of a climb, starting from V1, the most basic, up to V16, the most difficult).
In 2020, as the global pandemic put the brakes on so many competitive sports, Justin began to hone his reactionary climbing skills. He explained how this is a different kind of challenge to a legally blind climber as it is done outside, without a sighted guide. “I have to feel my way up the wall. I can’t see any grips, so I just quest on and see what happens!” Reactionary climbing can be challenging for any experienced climber, but for a climber with little usable vision, they have to find alternative ways to tackle that challenge. without any visual cues, it takes Justin longer to find places to hold. He has had to build the physical strength it takes to hold himself with one hand for extended periods, while he feels around for a grip with his other hand. He is also reserved in his movements, maintaining a slow pace. “You’ve got to be pretty confident to pause long enough in each position to feel around for the next hold and then move. It can take a long time. I’m working on endurance all the time.”
A new challenge in paraclimbing
When I asked about his future climbing goals, he explained “Climbing will always be a part of my life, but it is niche and paraclimbing is even more so. It means the marketing and compensation looks different to other sports. As part of a first wave of paraclimbers we kind of set the tone for future generations. We have to push the hardest, we’re breaking ground and saying, ‘We deserve the same compensation as able bodied athletes’…We want to show the younger generation this is a legit lane if you desire to go down it.”
Justin has worked with Oklahoma based NewView, an organization that empowers individuals with visual impairments. Amongst their many projects, NewView runs sports camps for visually impaired children. Justin joined them as an instructor and through speaking to the young people, he provided motivation and inspiration. This was a meaningful experience for Justin, “it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It reminded me of my experiences as someone their age, learning to be blind and learning what it was like to climb for the first time. If I can give that back to anybody, even if it was just one person… that kind of accomplishment supersedes any kind of achievements in my personal climbing pursuits right now.”
What’s next for Justin?
As some restrictions eased in 2021 Justin began travelling again. In June, his travels took him to Las Vegas, where he was hit with another moment of impact. Not vision loss this time… he met his girlfriend. Suddenly life wasn’t just about himself and his pursuits, and now, almost a year later he finds himself looking to their future and thinking deeply about what that looks like. As Justin approaches a new season of life, despite all the “existential problem solving” as he called it, it seems climbing will still feature in one way or another. In particular, he wants to use his experience in climbing to help others. He’s finding ways to advocate for others with visual impairments, with a focus on accessibility and getting more people into the sport of paraclimbing.
Justin seemed to light up as he told me about designing a climbing facility in Texas, which he did with accessibility at the forefront. “I designed the climbing walls, the training spaces and oversaw the accessibility features of this particular gym… I paid particular attention to ease of access and how people would get around. It needed a clean, well lit space… We tried to make the gym as accessible as possible.” Justin describes the experience as being “an honor, a dream come true,” and it certainly sparked his interest in consulting with fitness organizations on their facilities and events on issues of accessibility. With his unique background and insights, Justin has so much to contribute to accessibility in sport, which would benefit both organizations and the athletes themselves.
Part of a community
Like many people with vision loss, in the beginning, Justin didn’t have a “blind community” to turn to and learn from. Over the last couple of years, Justin has been getting to know others who have experienced vision loss. He says he’s learning how to talk about his own experiences, and he’s figuring out what it means to him to be part of this community. As he has become more comfortable talking about his blindness, he has learned that “it’s a great thing to be able to talk about it and inform people of all the amazing things people with disabilities can do, and to educate people about the broad spectrum of blindness and the terminology around it.”
Justin also feels a major part of his role in the community is using his knowledge and experience to help younger people with sight loss find their place. Many people with sight loss feel a sense of being alone, having never known anyone in a similar situation. For young people in particular, it can be so Impactful to have positive role models they can identify with. With the internet and social media at their disposal, young people with sight loss can now find those role models wherever they are in the world. And with the passion, honesty and kindness that comes across simply through talking to Justin, it seems certain he will be a valuable inspiration for the next generation.
What is inclusion to you?
“Inclusion is when a blind person is not a spectacle and they’re not the center of conversation simply because they are blind. Inclusion is about understanding what blindness is and what having a disability means. It’s about being educated so that people feel comfortable about disability.”