With her thick blunt-cut bangs and wide, toothy grin, Ashima Shiraishi looks like any other American teenager until you watch her climb.
Over the past few years, the 15-year-old Japanese American has emerged as the face of professional rock climbing, winning indoor climbing competitions and scaling massive boulders — or, as in the sport’s parlance, “solving boulder problems” — that have bested seasoned climbers, male and female. She counts The North Face, Clif Bar, and Nikon among her sponsors and was named one of TIME Magazine’s 30 Most Influential Teens of 2015.
In March, days before her 15th birthday, Shiraishi successfully ascended Horizon on Mt. Hiei in Japan, becoming the first woman and youngest person ever to solve a "V15" boulder problem, considered the most difficult type of problem, according to the sport’s grading scale.
She is also the world’s youngest person to send V10, V13, and V14 boulders, which she did at ages 8, 10, and 13, respectively, and is a five-time consecutive ABS Youth National Champion.
Shiraishi had attempted Horizon last December but fell three times on the last hold.
“I’m really stubborn, so once I have a project in mind, I don’t really give up,” she told NBC News. “And even if my skin is looking really bad [from bouldering], I’m extremely stubborn, and I’ll just get back on it.”
So when she returned months later during a school break, she was ready. Most climbers take a break between attempts at solving difficult boulder problems to rest their bodies and minds. But in March, Shiraishi insisted on attempting Horizon three days in a row. She sent it on the third day, a moment captured in the upcoming documentary “Young Guns.”
“Her ability to focus her mind is very unique, and I think that’s something that most top-level athletes have the ability to tap into, that flow state, to block out distractions,” filmmaker Josh Lowell told NBC News. Lowell is a co-founder of Reel Rock, an annual climbing and adventure sports film tour, which Shiraishi is the face of this year. He has been filming her since she was 8 years old.
Shiraishi first discovered climbing in an urban jungle. At age 6, the New York City native saw park-goers scaling Rat Rock in Central Park. Fascinated, she says she started climbing it every day after school and began training at an indoor climbing gym soon after.
She won her first competition at age 7, competing against grown female climbers. Today, she trains every afternoon for four hours.
“It was mostly the movement that really captivated me because it was almost like dancing. It felt like I was dancing on the rock,” she said.
It’s an unsurprising comparison. Shiraishi’s father and mentor, Hisatoshi, also known as “Poppo,” is a former butoh dancer — a form of avant-garde Japanese dance where performers wear white body paint — and once led his own dance troupe in the 1990s, Poppo and the Go-Go Boys. Her mother, Tsuya, designed the troupe’s costumes; nowadays, she’s responsible for making the brightly colored capri pants Shiraishi often climbs in.
Watching Shiraishi climb is akin to watching a dance of mental and physical grit. At 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds, she could be considered at a physical disadvantage compared to taller climbers who can reach holds more readily. But what she lacks in size she makes up for in maneuvers that only a climber of small stature could pull off.
“You can’t really make excuses because you have advantages of being tall and you have advantages of being small,” she said.
In “Young Guns,” she deftly fits her petite, chalk-dusted hands into the crimps and crevasses of rocks and boulders in Norway and Japan, swinging her legs through her arms and contorting her body. In one scene, she goes into a full split, each foot in a tiny hold, the rest of her body pressed against a seemingly insurmountable wall of granite.
Shiraishi attributes much of what she has learned about mental fortitude to Poppo, a constant presence when she climbs and her belayer (the person who anchors a climber to the ground in ropes climbing).
“The most important part of climbing is not really thinking at all. Once you start thinking, you doubt yourself, and that’s the worst that could happen to you," she said. "So, when you’re climbing, when you’re Zen, when you’re not thinking at all, that’s, like, the best moment.”
Shiraishi has had to draw on that mental strength when her physical strength is tested. Last July, she landed in the ER after falling four stories at an indoor climbing gym, when Poppo made a mistake belaying her. She survived with only a few back bruises and went on to win the USA Youth Nationals a few days later.
She competes next at the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Youth Championship in China on Nov. 7.
Shiraishi hopes to compete on the ultimate stage for sports, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where climbing will make its official debut.
“It’s been a dream to compete in the Olympics one day, so now that it’s in the Olympics, I feel like it might come true. It’s one of my goals,” she said.
Olympics or not, the teenager — who likes to cook and listen to music in her free time — is already leaving her mark on the climbing world as an unlikely ambassador.
“Climbing has, traditionally, always been about upper-middle class white men out in the woods with beards and hiking clothes, and that’s not what it is anymore,” said Lowell, who is also an experienced climber. “It’s cool that the face of our sport right now is a really sophisticated, young Japanese-American girl. That says a lot about where the sport is going. I think it’s a great thing.”
Pro climbing’s latest prodigy is humbled by the praise and attention, which can be at least partly attributed to the growth of the sport: At the end of 2015, the indoor climbing gym industry had grown by 10 percent from the previous year, with 388 indoor climbing facilities in the U.S. alone.
“People tell me how inspiring I am or just how it motivates them,” she said. “I feel like I’ve never expected it, so it’s been awkward at first. But I guess I’m just grateful for it, and I’ll just try to keep on inspiring other people.”