HERA- Sarah Hay, climber, business owner and soon-to-be Mum

by Aktive
Published on Friday 12 November, 2021
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I’m 36 years old, a climber, climbing coach, route setter, business owner, soon-to-be Mum and lover of sports and the outdoors. I also have a degree in Music & Performance Flute! I was introduced to climbing when I was about 19 years old through a friend who took me to a local outdoor crag (climbing area). I was immediately hooked, discovered indoor climbing gyms, travelled NZ and overseas to climb at some amazing outdoor crags and indoor facilities, started coaching climbing and route setting at the local gym, and dreaming about opening my own climbing gym. I spent some years planning, researching, and searching for financial support until I met my business partner John and we opened Northern Rocks in 2019 (a very long story cut short!) which is a dedicated indoor bouldering facility.

I was coaching children for competitions and thought I would have a go too. I have competed at regional and national competitions, achieving national titles in bouldering and lead climbing, and competed in Australia, Oceania and a World Cup. I sit on the Oceania Council for Sport Climbing and enjoy creating opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, especially girls and women, to have a go at climbing.                                  

What does it mean to you to be physically active?

Being physically active is an essential part of my life. I enjoy doing the sports and activities that I love or trying new activities, whether for competition or just recreational fun, and sharing the experience with others when possible.

What activities did you do before/as well as climbing?

I’ve been physically active all my life. My parents encouraged the family to participate in as many activities as we could while growing up, and that is probably what started a lifelong love of getting out there! I competed at the national level for hurdles, triple jump and long-distance running. I also played tennis and badminton, took part in dancing, dragon boating, cross country, horse riding, surfing, cycling and triathlon.

These days, as well as climbing I absolutely love being in the pool and swimming lengths, plus yoga and powerlifting. I got into powerlifting after Northern Rocks opened and was immediately hooked. Powerlifting transferred into increased power, strength and confidence on the climbing wall as well as being an awesome sport in its own right.

How does being physically active make you feel?


Being physically active makes me feel like me. It is part of who I am and my lifestyle. I will always find a way to be physically active despite work or personal commitments and physical injury.

Physical activity is a big part of my mental health, it helps me to feel calm, focused, free, confident, strong, healthy and connected. Climbing is a continual learning process as the climbing routes are always changing and challenging, and there are always new movements to learn. Climbing for me is like moving meditation, with movements that can be strong and powerful, slow and graceful, or test balance and flexibility. Indoor climbing involves climbing holds that are positioned on the wall to form a route or boulder problem which needs to be ‘solved’ to reach the top. New routes/problems are reset every week and are different at each gym or competition, so there are endless physical and mental challenges to keep me engaged, or addicted! Outdoor climbs also offer a wide range of movement, style, rock type and location. There are a huge number of climbs and boulders to master outdoors, and the grading difficulty ranges from easy to impossible. Bouldering is a social sport where groups of friends will solve a boulder problem together and support each other, and for sport climbing, you work with a belay partner and climb together.

How do you overcome setbacks?

Setbacks are never setbacks if you can find a positive aspect to the situation. Injury preventing you from climbing, for example, can be used as an opportunity to work on other conditioning aspects or strengths. Not achieving the result I was hoping for in a competition can be used as a real learning experience for how I set up my expectations going in, thinking about what success really means, what skills and learning did I gain from the event other than the end result, is the placing important anyway, and why?

Commitment, dedication, positivity and talking the situation through with trusted friends and family really helps put a ‘setback’ in perspective. There have also been a great many setbacks and challenges in starting a new business but perseverance, drive, a vision for the end goal, determination and supportive relationships helped get me through each situation.

As I write this I’m 37 weeks pregnant and I’ve really had to adjust my activity as each trimester progresses. For someone who has been super active for a long time, this has been challenging! Staying active in pregnancy is healthy and I’ve been able to find activities that suit where I’m at such as reducing climbing, adding in some more suitable conditioning exercises, walking, swimming (until the pools closed due to Covid!), yoga, and resting so I can grow this healthy beautiful life.

What are the key factors that have enabled you, and continue to enable you to be physically active?


Commitment, self-motivation and a love for being active! I know that being active is great for my mental and physical health, and I’m super self-motivated to get out there.

Working in a climbing gym is both great for motivation and a hindrance – as a business owner/manager there is always something to do or work on outside of set shifts so it can be easy to forget about making time for myself. I prioritize time to do my own exercise, either before work, as a break midday or aim to finish work early to climb with friends, or make time on a weekend. I also love route setting which we do regularly at the gym, This is where we design and set the boulder problems on the wall, which is a great workout! My husband is really into waterskiing and mountain biking so of course I am very happy to participate in these activities whenever possible.

Setting goals also helps me keep physically active. It might be a goal to spend some time focusing on building endurance and technique, or aiming for a competition event, projecting an outdoor climb, or just having a phase of having fun and taking a step back. Thinking about, acknowledging and accepting where I’m at and which goals are suitable for the period of life I’m in helps me stay motivated to keep active. Also, physical activity helps us all to stay positive and enthusiastic so it’s a win-win cycle!

What advice would you give young women and girls looking to get physically active?

Make the first step and just give something a go! Try a range of sports and activities, whatever is within your budget and community. See if there are any opportunities through your school or friends. At Northern Rocks we often have school groups coming through the gym either for EOTC, a fun day out, or for NCEA. This has helped introduce bouldering to many young women who might not have thought bouldering was for them, or even knew what it was!

Don’t be trapped into stereotypes of what girls ‘should’ do. Find role models who inspire you and have the confidence to try an activity, be proud of being active, set yourself a goal and keep yourself accountable with a friend or family member if that helps.

One aspect of climbing and bouldering I love is that it is a gender-equal sport where girls and women can really excel. Climbing requires finesse and technique, balance and problem solving, and you don’t have to be the strongest person in the gym to do really well on the climbs or boulders, or to surpass your male companions! You might get to the top of some easier climbs just using strength but as soon as you start progressing through the grades, technique and subtle adjustments to foot placements or body position are key.

Where can young women and girls go to find more information on climbing?


The easiest way is to look up your local climbing gym(s) or climbing club, or to get in touch with me and I can point you in the right direction (info@northernrocks.co.nz). At most climbing gyms you can turn up and give it a go. The staff there will get you started and answer any questions you have.

At Northern Rocks we’ll give you a facility tour, and then you’re free to try all the boulder problems for as long as you like. After your first visit with us you receive a free week of climbing, during which if you bring another new friend, you get a second free week. Make the most of this time to try climbing, bring friends and see if it’s something you’re keen to commit to. Most climbing/bouldering gyms offer after-school classes and programs for young people to get involved with. At Northern Rocks we have after-school or home-school (during school hours) climbing classes for youth at all levels, from beginner through to advanced, recreation to competition preparation, holiday programs and some outdoor trips. We have a lot of girls in our classes which is awesome and the majority of our climbing coaches currently are amazing women who are inspiring and great climbers themselves.

We also run our Bo(u)lder Women events throughout each month, which are open to all girls and women, and can include workshops, climbing technique classes, or strength & conditioning for women. We open the gym early once a month for girls and women only to use the whole facility, with female staff and coaches provided to help with technique and advice. We’re about to launch a dedicated page on the website to Bo(u)lder Women (Be Bold!) and in the meantime, you can see our youth classes and current offerings on our website:https://www.northernrocks.co.nz/ Check out “youth” and “classes” in the banner menu.

The AIMS Games intermediate school competition events held at Mt Maunganui each year includes climbing, bouldering and speed climbing, see more info here: https://nzaimsgames.co.nz/future-dates/

This year we launched the Auckland College Climbing Series with the Auckland Sport Climbing Club which involved a number of competitions hosted throughout the climbing gyms in Auckland. We were overwhelmed by the great participation this year and can’t wait to hold these events again next year. These are open to all high schools and also intermediate schools that are associated with a high school. http://www.aucklandclimbing.co.nz/auckland-college-climbing-series/

At Northern Rocks we also host a range of social and competitive events, including Boulder Bash community bouldering events where everyone is welcome at any level, and the National Indoor Boulder Series (NIBS) which will be running in 2022 or Climbing NZ National Championships which are hosted across the various climbing gyms in NZ each year.
NIBS: https://nibs.nz/ 
Climbing NZ: https://www.climbing.nz/