“We have bunk beds and my sister sleeps in a dog bed, not like a circular dog bed but a hammock that goes in between the seats,” laughed Nekaia Sanders, as she described her family’s Sprinter van. Whenever the family makes the trip to Salt Lake City to give Sanders, the 9th in the world for Women’s Juniors Bouldering, better access to the National Team Training Center, they stay in the van. “My mom likes to build our character,” she explained. “It’s fun.”

The eighteen year old’s climbing journey began when, in an attempt to exhaust the limitless energy of the Sanders siblings, her aunt took the whole family to the Circuit Bouldering Gym. Little did she know the impact the outing would have on Sanders’ life. The family took to the sport right away. “We were just obsessed with it,” said Sanders.

Nekaia Sanders climbing

Credit: Bree Robles

Obsessed enough, that everyday for a month straight the family made the hour drive to go climb at the gym. Not a single rest day in sight. “Everyone in my family has an obsessive personality,” laughed Sanders. “So it was all in immediately.”
It wasn’t long before the siblings joined the Circuit Youth Climbing team. The team was the perfect introduction for Sanders into the climbing community. Though there weren’t many girls her age on the team at the time, Sanders was not dissuaded. Her focus lay solely with the rocks and how stoked she was to climb them.

That zeal carried her through to 2017, when young Sanders placed first in Female Youth B Bouldering at the Youth National Championships. In order to raise the funds necessary to get Sanders to Austria for World’s, the Circuit Gym hosted a fundraiser at a local theater. The event featured a showing of Uncharted Lines, hosted by director Paul Robinson.

“It’s actually a pretty funny story,” said Sanders. “I had to get up on stage and thank everyone for coming. I was in an awkward phase and had never done any public speaking because I’d been homeschooled my whole life. I got on stage, and Joel Velasco (a Circuit Bouldering Gym coach) said everything I could’ve said before me. It felt like a minute, it may have just been fifteen seconds, but I just stood there and laughed. I could not get anything out and they took the mic away from me.”

Being a part of the competitive climbing community since childhood, Sanders has grown alongside her competitors, watching them evolve from energetic nine year olds to the capable climbers they are today. Now at the Training Center in Salt Lake City, she enjoys climbing with other competent and motivated girls. “Everyone is nice and supportive,” said Sanders. “It’s nice to have girls that are willing to be your friend and train together.”

In her last year competing in the Youth Division, Sanders plans on doing the full competition circuit, but is looking forward to small competitions hosted by local climbing gyms the most. As Sanders explained, “There’s more of a crowd and the energy is less about pressure and more excited about having fun.”

Though Sanders is no stranger to the pressure cooker that is competition. At Youth Nationals last year she made an amazing comeback after just barely qualifying in 20th place, scraping by semis at 6th place, then in the final round, she topped out three boulders and finished in a solid 2nd place.

Sanders expanded upon her experience at the event and how she pushed passed the wave of doubt.

Nekaia Sanders climbing

Credit: Bree Robles

“It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with for a long time just because I’m an intense emotional person. I do end up spiraling sometimes. In the first round I was really excited for the comp and nervous, so I just didn’t perform my best at all. And I think I carried that into semis. And then I was doubting myself and looking back at past failures in comps and feeling those impending doom feelings. So I called my coach and we talked for a long time about how it’s okay to not be perfect and if I’m already worried about it, just let that go and have fun. Like, if you already think it’s gonna go badly, just be like ‘okay, it’s going badly, but at least I’m gonna have fun doing it.’ I think that really helped and then it was a full turnaround. I was like ‘woah, who is this? This is crazy, I feel so confident.’”

As anyone who’s grappled with self-doubt knows, the process is not resolved within a single victory. At Open Nationals, Sanders went into the competition feeling physically strong, but struggled internally. Constantly fighting back her own doubt, Sanders wasn’t able to perform up to her own expectations in Bouldering, and she came away feeling disappointed in herself.
“I’m gonna be honest,” said Sanders. “After Nationals my confidence took a big hit, and I’ve been trying to dig out of that hole, you know?”

For Sanders, part of that rebuilding process has included working with a sports psychologist. Over the past six months she’s followed a mental training plan with the goal being, as Sanders said, “setting up a good base, so when I’m not feeling good I have an internal composure and confidence. In the future I think that will help a lot.”
She hopes to carry these practices into her life beyond climbing. “The thing that’s actually going to matter when I’m done climbing is that I have those skills for work, whatever I choose to do, and the self efficacy of ‘I did something hard’ and I know how to push myself.”

Through these tough moments of reflection, Sanders has been open about her processes and struggles on Instagram. The motivation behind this vulnerability, she explained, is that “whenever I read the world’s top climber’s posts and they say ‘I failed at this comp or I didn’t get to where I wanted to and I have real emotions about these things or I did super well at this comp and I’m ecstatic and I have real human emotions not just cut and dry.’ It makes me feel validated. So self reflection, narcissism, and a way to say that these things are hard and it’s not always nice and sometimes they’re absolutely insanely amazing, but it’s not always this pretty thing.”
So, she shares the beautiful and messy parts of her life trying to be an authentic representative of the sport and her own ups and downs. “There’s value in them. Negative things, so many people are scared to share negative things or even to feel negative things, but there’s value and weight and growth that can happen from them.”

Nekaia Sanders climbing

Credit: Bree Robles

Two months out from Open Nationals, Sanders has worked to practice what she preaches. Taking the steps to restructure her mindset so she can take a constructive view of the competition, she seeks to find where her potential growth lies.
With such drive and determination, it’s not hard to believe Sanders’ response when asked if she takes a more mellow approach to other aspects of her life.

“Yeah, no. I’m not a mellow person,” she laughed. “ I’m definitely the type of person where if I wanna do something I wanna do it well and I push myself at it.”

As she pursues her associates degree, Sanders makes sure to prioritize her schoolwork and training on equal levels. Though climbing and academics take up a majority of her time, Sanders still enjoys exploring other interests in her down time. Recently she’s found relaxation in more artistic hobbies like painting.

“I’ve always been very creative, but over lockdown I got super into painting on shirts and then that stemmed into painting on whatever material is around the house. But I almost exclusively paint faces.”

At times she combines painting with one of her other favorite pastimes, listening to audiobooks. Her current go-to genre has been the classics. Sanders will also listen to audiobooks on runs, though it has backfired at times, she explained, “I read this really sad book that I’m in love with, but I was running and I was crying while running and it was not working.”

Along with painting, running, and reading during quarantine, Sanders was of course training. She was able to train at home on a moonboard in her garage and a spray wall her family built in the yard. “My mom’s really nice,” laughed Sanders.
Family has been important to Sanders throughout her life. “My family is definitely my best friend,” she said. “So we get along really well.” She still climbs on occasion with her older brothers when their schedules allow, but recently her younger sister has joined in training with her consistently since August. “She’s been doing all the same sessions with me, which has been cool because I’ve never had a solid training partner before.”

Going into this year, Sanders is looking forward to several exciting changes. She plans on enrolling in university to finish out her bachelor’s degree, at this time she’d like to pursue something in the psychology field. She’s also excited to get her driver’s license. Though she does feel nervous at times when driving, the freedom of having a car outweighs that fear.

She also has plans to move to Salt Lake City this Fall, and the idea of constant access to the Training Facility delights Sanders. This convenience would certainly tie into her goals which she outlined as such:

Nekaia Sanders climbing

Credit: Bree Robles

“Each year I kinda have the same goal where I want to push myself and find my limit. How much am I willing to train, how much training is beneficial, how well can I do at comps, how strong can I get? And just enjoying the process of having the opportunity to devote all of my time to this one silly little thing that can be a lot of fun.”

Balancing climbing, school, and mental health is no small task. When life doesn’t go quite as planned it can be easy to find yourself feeling stuck. However, in her pursuit of self improvement, Sanders allows herself the room necessary for growth. It is in this space one finds the affable, thoughtful, and athletic human she has grown to be. With her drive and passion, Sanders continues to greet the future with gusto and one cannot help but cheer her on whether at the National Team Invitationals later this month, or at the DMV taking her driver’s test.

Reflecting upon her annual goal, Sanders laughed.

“It really isn’t much. I just always want to get stronger.”

ALEX FIG is the founder of Butter Mag, an online magazine that strives to highlight women and queer folks that you're reading right now. A casual outdoorist, she enjoys climbing, surfing, skiing, and skateboarding during her reading breaks.

ALEX FIG is the founder of Butter Mag, an online magazine that strives to highlight women and queer folks that you're reading right now. A casual outdoorist, she enjoys climbing, surfing, skiing, and skateboarding during her reading breaks.


Cover Image by Jan Virt @janvirtphotography
Other Images by Bree Robles @breesframes


Instagram: @nekaia.sanders
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0 thoughts on “Nekaia Sanders

  • I really liked the connection between climbing, competition, and mental health. Creating balance is so important and something I’ve been focusing on as a beginner climber it has been a great way for me to find that balance in my life!


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