Jeremy Petrovich sits in a wheelchair at the base of a 44-foot wall. He slowly slips on black and green climbing shoes and pats chalk dust onto his hands.
“Everything else is just games,” Petrovich says. “Climbing is sport.”
A lot has changed in Petrovich’s life. He nearly died in a car accident, which put him in a coma for three months before leaving him paralyzed.
“I have a traumatic brain injury,” Petrovich says through a computer-assisted communication device. “I was in a car accident in 2005.”
He can’t speak as clearly as he once did; his words are slow and sometimes unintelligible.
But at the Vertical Adventures rock-climbing gym in Columbus, things are looking up. Jeremy’s mother, Mary Petrovich, helps hoist her son onto the wall.
“He’s not a beginner climber. You can just tell by his technique,” Mary says. “His footing and feet movements that he’s climbed.”
"Park at the bottom, climb, come down," Petrovich says of his training routine at the gym.
Petrovich was once one of the strongest rock climbers in the country. Fifteen years ago, the Columbus man competed at the International Federation of Sport Climbing Youth World Championships in France.
"I was on the junior national team," Petrovich says.
The car accident threw a wrench in his plans. Now, at 33, Petrovich has returned to the climbing wall with plans to compete again – this time, in the 2018 USA Climbing Adaptive National Championship.
"His Brain Won't Let Him"
It’s not just his mother who marvels at his ability.
Jordan Kessler, the adaptive programming director at Vertical Adventures, says Petrovich is incredibly strong and can move swiftly.
“His movement even now still is incredible," Kessler says. "Unlike any other climber you’ll see around him in any competition, he just moves and shifts his body and places his feet in ways that show the degree at which he was climbing before his accident."
Petrovich met his best friend Kenny Barker at Vertical Adventures when Petrovich was nine and Barker was about a year older. As Petrovich climbs the wall, Barker climbs alongside him and insults him in jest.
“His technique is still there. Like, he has impeccable technique,” Barker says. “It’s all still there. His body still knows how to climb. It’s just his brain won’t let him.”
Once Petrovich clutches a rock-climbing hold, he knows what to do. He’s lithe and steadily ascends the wall. He makes a couple of spastic movements, but otherwise climbs smoothly.
"Bad," Petrovich says of his climbing performance. He's improving, is nowhere close to where he used to be.
Before the accident, he was much smoother. In 2003, he was considered the fourth top climber in the U.S. by the United States Competition Climbing Association, now USA Climbing. Petrovich’s ingenuity and body movement enabled him to on-sight 5.13.
“The higher the number, the harder the climb. For reference, the hardest climb in the world right now is 5.15, and that’s only been climbed by a handful of professional climbers,” explains Christine Kessler of Vertical Adventures in an email. “So for Jeremy to have been able to on-sight (meaning he climbed it all the way to the top with no falls the very first time he saw the route) is really incredible.”
Petrovich set multiple ascents at Red River Gorge, a popular Kentucky destination for rock climbers, meaning he was the first to find, clean and climb routes.
One night in 2005, Mary says, Petrovich was hit by two cars as he left Vertical Adventures.
“They don’t really know, but they figured he was crossing over to go to Wendy’s to get something to eat and come back,” Mary says.
Left with no visible injuries but a small cut on his head, doctors told Petrovich he would never move his right leg again.
“He proved them wrong later down the road. He walks with it,” Mary says. “He can’t walk out in the open on his own, he uses a walker. He doesn’t have the balance there, but he will hold on and can walk around.”
No one knew whether Petrovich would wake up once he fell into a coma.
“I was devastated,” Barker says. “I lived in the hospital for six weeks. And then he just like started to wake up probably four weeks or five weeks in? I can’t remember. But it was a slow process. For months of him waking up, coming out of it, being able to start moving his hands.”
Back On The Wall
Mary helped her son rehabilitate and slowly regain strength.
“It’s depressing if you just sit around in the house,” Mary says. “That’s what he loved.”
The two visit the rock-climbing gym at least three days a week. They started popping back into the gym a year or so after the accident. Jeremy started climbing more regularly around 2013.
Now, Petrovich helps coach other athletes who are training to compete in the Adaptive National Championship. Kessler himself recruited Petrovich.
“Jeremy’s climbed at such more advanced levels than I ever will be able to touch,” Kessler says. “His ability to read beta and read movement on the wall far exceeds mine, so when it comes to helping other climbers figure out the correct movement or the right sequences of moves, Jeremy’s always great.”
Petrovich is one of seven competitors on Vertical Adventures’ team for the championship, which it will host for the first time one June 23. It will be Jeremy’s first competition since 2005, since the accident.
But Petrovich says he's motivated to keep training, because of the joy he gets from climbing.
“Because it’s fun,” Petrovich says. “Kind of.”
After the competition, Petrovich plans to continue climbing – hopefully back to the top of the sport.