10 years ago, Molly Burdick was diagnosed with congenital heart disease. After years fighting PTSD due to her illness, and often too scared to leave the house, her life changed forever when she watched a climbing video of Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra. Fast forward 7 years and, despite all the odds, physical and mental battles, she had secured a place on American Ninja Warrior. Womenclimb talked to Molly about her incredible story, which shows how much you can achieve with the right determination, courage and support.
Womenclimb: Can you remember what first drew you to the climbing wall?
I was a classically trained ballet dancer as a teenager, with my heart set on going professional. Ultimately, I got burned out of the sport, and was unsure where else to look for something that was a combination of art and sport. I didn’t discover climbing until I was really sick from my heart, around the 2011 timeframe. I was watching a documentary on television between Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra. I watched them fight for every move gracefully, with focus, and strength that I admired. I knew that as soon as I could get my heart healthy again, I HAD to try it! In 2016, I visited my local climbing gym with my son, tried a few routes and I was hooked! My heart and body were so weak, but a part of me felt like I was dancing on the rocks, so I wanted to continue and see what I could do in this sport.
WC: Your climbing progression has been extraordinary – what would you say are the most important techniques and skills you learnt that helped you improve so rapidly?
The most difficult grade I have climbed at this point is a v7 (7c+), and I have been climbing now for almost 3 years, which includes the 7 months I was unable to climb after my shoulder surgery. My progression was so rapid, because I was fighting for my life, and still continue to do so. I try to be as relentless as possible on the rocks, because I know that if I give it 110% each day, then maybe, somehow, I will get extra years in my life by making my heart stronger. I have gone through having my heart stop, multiple surgeries and interventions on my heart, and even PTSD from the traumatic experiences with my heart. I just know that no matter how I’m feeling, or how exhausted my heart is, I can step up to the wall, put my hands on those holds and have the same even playing ground as anyone with a “normal” heart. I train almost every day of the week, both running and climbing.
I have a group of amazing climbers that I train with who push me and don’t allow me to have any excuses. That is the big thing in improving exponentially – you can’t have excuses. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, sore, or just “don’t feel it” for the day; if you want to succeed, you have to push through those barriers to become stronger. It’s so important to also train your mind for climbs; so many movements require different styles of breathing. This allows you to either make huge moves, or stay settled enough for more balancy-type maneuvers. I still have so much I plan to accomplish with climbing, so v7 will not be my hardest climb. My goal at the end of 2019 is to send my first v9 (8b).
WC: I read on your Hearts for Adventure blog that you’re not fearless, but that you accept it and deal with it head on. Can you explain a little more about this process, and how you’ve trained your mind so successfully to not let the fear win?
I struggled with PTSD every day for nearly 5 years due to my heart. I was always afraid of my heart stopping again, and for that reason, I really cocooned myself and never took risk. I wanted to basically be in a safe plan all the time, near a hospital, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about death. However, by doing that, I never lived. As my son got older, I knew I wanted to be the Mom that was playing sports with him, teaching him how to snowboard, and showing him life. I wasn’t getting over my fear, so I had to just do it scared. The daily panic attacks lasted a while, until I climbed outdoors for the first time in 2016. I was anchored 100 feet up on a wall in Smith Rock, looked at the view around me, and realized that I now needed to safely get myself situated so I could repel down. There was no one else up there with me, so I had to just breath, think carefully, and not panic. I was able to do it, and that’s when I realized the difference between REAL fear and IMAGINED fear. I had been so worried about what could happen with my heart, that I let it take away focus from things in life that are real.
Since then, I have trekked up mountains, gone into hypoxia due to lack of oxygenation while up there, and always managed to get down safe. I make sure that I am prepared, along with everyone I am with. I carry emergency items such as heart medication, and those who are with me know emergency protocol. I have found that the more I educated myself and others, the less fear there is in doing things. I have been able to climb all over the pacific northwest in the United States, snowboard, and compete in climbing competitions due to my new outlook in life. All I know is that I will never let fear win again – I have worked so hard to get where I am, living the life that is best for myself and my family, that even if I can’t be the fear, I will do it scared. I am determined to live a long life filled with adventure, taking my son and husband along the way.
WC: How do you mentally balance out risks when you’re out climbing? Are there some risks you’re not willing to take?
I always look at the climbing ahead of me to determine what I am willing to risk to live an adventurous life. The key for me being “Life”. I could have died from my heart problems, but I didn’t. I’m here, which means there is more I need to accomplish. With that being said, I will never do anything that will risk my life. I need to be here for my son so I can show him the world, and teach him how to live. Yes, accidents happen in climbing, but there is a lot to do to minimize the risk.
When sport climbing, I only climb with individuals I know and trust. I also use a helmet when climbing or belaying in case of falling rocks, and have taught my son to do the same. I am also very interested in trad-climbing, and ice-climbing, but there is more risk involved, especially with placing my own gear, so I stay away from that and stick to routes which are already bolted. I also don’t mountaineer or go to extreme-elevation locations; I know that would most likely stop my heart, so I refuse to do that. When bouldering outdoors, I have multiple spotters and multiple crashpads. Although high-ball boulders excite me, it is another style of climbing that I will not do because of risk from falling. As always, I bring heart medication with me, so that if my heart decides to act up, the medication will help me get to the nearest hospital so I can see another day.
WC: What motivates you now in your climbing? How do you keep pushing yourself each day?
The potential of life motivates me. Climbing can take me all over the world, and in the next 5-8 years, I plan on going to Mallorca and Greece with my son for some epic climbing! I know the world is such a huge place, and so each time I climb, I know it means I will be healthier and stronger so that I can see as much of it as possible. I just think of my son each day I’m pushing myself, because it means I will continue to be able to keep up with him. I also remind myself that I’m not doing this for me, but the millions of others with Congenital Heart Disease who are afraid of living, but scared of dying. If I can break boundaries and show that a life filled with adventure is possible, then others will follow. I want to pass this torch to the next generation of heart patients coming up; If I’m not going to be the first professional climber with Congenital Heart Disease, then I want to make sure that I at least created a path to see it happen! That is what motivates me – how many people can I reach, and what child will see this and what I’m doing and say “I’m going to be the first professional/sponsored climber with Congenital Heart Disease”!
WC: What’s next for you?
This will be my hardest training year so far – calls for American Ninja Warrior should be going out this week, so I’m hopeful I will be running the qualifiers in March! I am also planning on continuing my USA Climbing membership, competing in various locations across the US and going to Nationals next year in 2020. I will be fighting hard this year to see if I can qualify, and am looking forward to every minute of it!
I want to see a world full of individuals living a Life Without Limits. This is why the American Heart Association created a tanktop for me. I wear it to all competitions, and hope that more people will also believe. All funds from the sale of this tank top go directly to research, which helps individuals whose disease have reached the end of science. I want to see more lives saved.