It was Tuesday, which, for professional climbing model Sierra Blair-Coyle, means it was actually #TumblrTuesday. Unless you’re a millennial somehow preternaturally fluent in the hieroglyphic language of hashtags and emojis, you might ask yourself, What the heck is a #TumblrTuesday?
I Googled it and learned that #TumblrTuesday is “A day to share your Tumblrs”—with that day being Tuesday, I presumed.
Oh, OK. That makes sense, I guess.
After another series of leaps and bounds over logic and reason, I eventually understood that #TumblrTuesday isn’t just about sharing SBC’s Tumblr. It’s also a chance to ask her any question you would like.
I visited her Tumblr and scrolled through the archive. Why, yes, indeed—just about any question you could ever imagine asking a person is asked of SBC on her Tumblr.
Her terse answers are bolstered, somehow, by a brilliant use of emojis which—despite being just a bunch of colons and parentheses—have a surprisingly emotional effect. Here are some verbatim examples of what goes on on #TumblrTuesday:
Do you have a boyfriend?
No : )
Would you ever date someone who doesn’t climb?
Yes : )
Do you speak French?
Unfortunately no : (
Being one of SBC’s many followers on social media, I guess I have always been half-aware that she runs this weekly Q&A thingamajig. But, like cat memes and other online distractions, I never really paid much attention to it. Recently, however, I became curious for no reason at all, and decided to see what #TumblrTuesday was all about.
Why not? I mean, why wouldn’t I want to ask Sierra Blair-Coyle a question?
Since I’m such a pompous fartbag, however, I asked the following:
“Are you a climber or are you a model?”
She responded almost immediately.
Both! : )
Along with around 30,500 others, I follow SBC on Instagram. I’m also one of 202,000+ people who “like” her athlete page on Facebook. I can’t speak for the reasons why any of those other hundreds of thousands of people follow her, but my reason has always been pretty simple.
She’s totally hot.
In her photos of herself, which she posts each day to her popular social-media outlets, she is usually smiling and happy, wearing a cute outfit and often doing something that vaguely resembles real rock climbing.
Based on how she presents herself online, SBC appears to be genetically devoid of any physical imperfections and incapable of writing anything provocative or negative. The captions to her selfies seem to follow a tried-and-true formula of banal affirmation + sponsor plugs + sponsor hashtags + (of course) lots of happy emojis.
Usually I “like” whatever it is she posts, smile, and move on with my day. But after asking SBC whether she considered herself a climber or a model a few weeks ago, I’ve continued to ponder that question on her behalf long after our brief Tumblr encounter.
What is Sierra Blair-Coyle? I wondered.
I don’t mean who is she; I mean what. Who she is is just a Google search away. I discovered from reading her website that she’s 20, from Scottsdale, Arizona, in college, and likes to compete in bouldering competitions. She has climbed as hard as V9 and won some kind of junior national climbing competitions. Above all that, I have no doubt she’s the perfectly intelligent, friendly, uplifting person that she portrays herself to be on Facebook.
Still, that doesn’t tell me what she is. And what she is is much more interesting.
I’ve recently noticed a rise in a number of professional outdoor athletes whose job qualifications are as much, if not more, rooted in image as they are in substance and achievement.
Welcome to the age of the Athlete Model.
Athlete Models are not just female, though often they are. For example, I can only think of one male Athlete Model in the climbing world.
The Athlete Model seems to be mostly contained to what you might call “lifestyle sports”—athletic endeavors such as climbing, surfing and (non-competitive) skiing, et al. These sports don’t hinge on actual competition or performance the way traditional sports do—e.g., there is no football without the Super Bowl, but we will always have climbing with or without the World Cup.
Partaking in the climbing lifestyle is as good of a reason to climb as any other—just as great as sending the gnar. The Athlete Model, then, is the avatar for this happy lifestyle. They are an idol who we like, literally, because they can consistently generate a compelling visual story of themselves leading a fun, active, healthy, carefree lifestyle. All of which is only relevant to us because that lifestyle is vaguely related to that sport that we share with our Athlete Model idols.
These visual lifestyle stories told by the Athlete Model are highly relatable. For example, many of us will never know what it means to climb V15, but we can all probably relate to hanging out with friends and taking groupies at the boulders.
The Athlete Model is a direct byproduct of social media, and their existence is completely legitimized by the companies that support them. If the goal is lucrative sponsorship, then it appears that there are now two ways to achieve this ends: you can work hard to become one of the best athletes in the world at your sport, or you can generate a large social-media following by looking good at doing whatever it is you like to do.
I can only assume that when it comes to choosing representatives/ambassadors, all companies look beyond a climber’s resume and/or skin-deep beauty. I assume companies ultimately seek out individuals who are very talented, very likable, very good-looking and, on top of all that, have a large following on social media.
Who can blame these companies? I fully agree that paying someone to pimp your products to their hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans will, in every way, provide a much better ROI than paying some nappy-headed kid to spend all day brushing obscure 5.15 crimpers in the woods.
The fact is, if Athlete Models are a “thing”—which they are—it’s only because we created them by following their feeds. So what does that say about us and what we value as a community?
Let me rephrase something. The number of Athlete Models is a direct byproduct of social media. Athlete Models in general are not new. In the past, writing your own ticket involved working with photographers and hoping you land a magazine cover.
Rikki Ishoy was maybe one of climbing’s very first Athlete Models.
In his Story Behind the Image blog, Corey Rich, who took this iconic cover shot—which remains the best-selling climbing magazine ever to this day (think about that!)—described Ishoy (who is now a lawyer in Denmark) like so:
“In a weird way, Rikki almost became a professional climber after this cover ran. She was a good athlete, but perhaps not the best in the world. But she was smart. She was good looking. And she was willing to work with me to create the media that was necessary to filling the pages of editorial and advertising in the climbing magazines.”
Today, thanks to Go Pros and iPhones, people can become their own photographers, their own publishers and create their own audiences with or without a magazine’s help.
This is no easy feat, trust me. Try creating a Facebook page with hundreds of thousands of fans. Not just anyone can do this.
A new video of ski model Sierra Quitiquit, titled “How Did I Get Here,” is not a traditional ski film in which we see someone shredding a bunch of gnarly Alaskan spines. Instead, it’s a film about how SQ became an Athlete Model.
The logline for the video reads, “From the runway to the big mountain, professional skier and model Sierra Quitiquit is quickly redefining what it means to be a modern woman.”
I’m sure she can make a nice turn through snow, too, but that hardly seems to be the focus of the film. So what, exactly, does the proverbial runway have to do with skiing?
This type of hyperbolic conflation of image and substance is becoming much more common. It’s so rampant these days that we don’t even realize that once upon a time being a professional athlete had to do with athleticism, not recognition or fame. Now, it’s the other way around: athletic recognition is the byproduct of popularity.
A recent interview with Crux Crush calls SBC, “arguably the most recognizable female climber today.”
Another interview with the Gear Institute, describes SBC like so:
“She’s not only one of the youngest and most talented climbers in the world right now, but more than 200,000 people follow her on social media channels.”
Look how overtly unaware we seem to have become in our celebration of image over achievement. In my mind, that sentence actually reads, “I believe she is one of the most talented climbers in the world and I only believe that because 200,000 people follow her on social media.”
Athlete Models are not without purpose or function, nor are they undeserving of their status. That’s not what I’m saying here. In fact, you could easily make a strong argument that Sierra Blair-Coyle, who has only climbed two V9s, should be paid more than Adam Ondra, one of the best rock climbers in the world.
It’s the fact that you can seriously make this very argument today that is concerning. That’s what’s different. What’s changed today is the degree to which we idolize Athlete Models and conflate their popularity with substance and achievement.
Will that ability to nudge the cutting-edge forward eventually be considered less valuable, less worthwhile, and less impressive than having high levels of engagement on Facebook Or has that already happened?
These are all moot questions, however. The fact is, climbing will continue forward. Climbers will push the limits. And I’m really happy that someone like Sierra Blair-Coyle is around to remind hundreds of thousands of people to smile each day—including this pompous fartbag right here. ; )