This month we’re shining the FA Member Spotlight on Rachel Van Loon! She brings passion, positivity and hard work to the FA community, and we can’t with to share her story with you. When she’s not traveling, you’ll find her conquering a new route at FA Uptown, studying to be a Physical Therapist, or planning her next trip. Read on, and say hi to Rachel if you see her around the gym!
How did you get into climbing?
There were a couple of sudden, unexpected changes in my life that lead to me to some pretty intense soul searching. Someone in my life recommended that I learn to be more disciplined in mindfulness, especially being in the present.The need for increased mindfulness and physically pushing myself in a different way led me to climbing.
What do you love about climbing?
The community, the way I can express and challenge myself physically, and the way I’ve learned to be patient with the learning process.
Do you prefer bouldering or sport climbing? Why?
Bouldering. It’s powerful, technical and primal feeling, yet disciplined and frustrating in the right ways. I enjoy sport climbing, but my first love is bouldering.
Since you’ve traveled so much, where has it taken you and what are your favorite places to climb outdoors?
I’ve bouldered in:
- Bishop, CA
- Berkley, CA
- Lake Tahoe, CA
- Jackson Falls and Holy Boulders in Southern Illinois
- Smuggler’s Notch State Park in Vermont
- Governor Dodge State Park and Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin
Bishop is currently my favorite spot to boulder, but Lake Tahoe and Smuggler’s Notch are close runners up. Bishop’s beauty is unmatched and it has changed my life and climbing perspective.
I’ve spent time sport climbing and deep water soloing in Thailand and have trad climbed and bouldered in Korea. I think about going back pretty frequently because I don’t feel I was able to see enough! Both countries offer so much and I’ve seen so little.
What other activities do you participate in?
Olympic weightlifting, surfing (very poorly and infrequently), camping, hiking, backpacking, fishing and cycling.
Do you have any specific climbing projects or fitness goals for the year?
I’m beginning the year at a pretty significant physical deficit because of a very slowly healing stress fracture on my spinal column, but my indoor climbing goal is to send a V7 and my outdoor climbing goal is to go back out east and do some sea cliff sport climbing.
Not climbing related, I would like to take at least one surfing trip and learn how to snowboard.
What keeps you busy when you’re not climbing?
School. There is nothing else. It’s almost completely consuming. I’m a kinesiology student at UIC and intending to pursue physical therapy. I’m graduating this year and beginning to prep for grad school applications.
What is your favorite Chicago spot for food, music, art or culture?
Honestly, I like to fish and sit by the lake, especially when there’s a gnarly storm. When there’s not a gnarly storm, there are a lot of great food and beer things happening in Pilsen and Chinatown that I’ve found myself at more recently.
If social justice is your passion, there are a few organizations doing good work in Chicago. I’m involved with Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and two organizations I respect are Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Black Lives Matter Chicago. FA also has a good group for POC called Sending in Color. They’re doing amazing, exciting things.
What do you love about the Chicago climbing community?
The Chicago climbing community has changed my life in an all-encompassing way. They’re my family. It’s not always easy to love and understand them, but I think that’s what family is. They’ve pushed me more, called me out more, and loved me more than most people in my life. The past two years were a difficult period in my life, but climbing helped get me through it. The lessons I’ve learned from climbing have continued to teach me in my everyday life. I’m eager to continue learning, though it is not always easy.
What is something about you most people don’t know?
I have multiple sclerosis (MS) and epilepsy. I also have two children. The oldest is almost 15 years and the youngest is almost 10.
Multiple sclerosis is a neurodegenerative, autoimmune disease that doesn’t yet have a cure and leads to physical disability. The body attacks itself in the brain and spine, which is why physical impairments on some level are inevitable. The electrical signals from the brain and spine are interrupted because the nerves get scarred and don’t heal.
Epilepsy is a seizure disorder.
I experience new, progressive symptoms of MS somewhat regularly. This is one reason I try to remain as active as possible. I don’t know when doing these activities will no longer be an option for me. It’s a sobering reality.
I’m not sharing this to gain pity or attention, but rather to encourage people. I’ve learned to listen to my body and communicate bad days or bad feelings with those I’m close to. Sometimes I need more help than I can get, but in these times, I find I’m more resilient and stronger than I think. If you find yourself struggling with something that feels scary or overwhelming, I’m here to listen. I’ll cry with you. I’ll laugh with you. I’ll help you in any way I can. You’re not alone, especially in the Chicago climbing community.