The yellow school bus left downtown Pittsburgh and headed south, into the wilderness of Ohiopyle State Park. None of the students on the bus were going to be in their element – precisely the point of the field trip, which was hosted by The North Face, the Student Conservation Association and Public Lands, a new outdoor retailer that recently opened in Pittsburgh.
The three organizations, who share a mission of making the outdoors more accessible for all, had a simple goal for the trip: to introduce a handful of local students to the transformative power of outdoor exploration. To mentor the students, TNF brought in athletes Ashima Shiraishi, Manoah Ainuu and Tom Wallisch, each of whom attributes this kind of early outdoor experience to the change. the trajectory of their life. To dig deeper into the topic, we asked Shiraishi, Ainuu, and Wallisch how their childhood experiences transformed them into the athletes, leaders and advocates they are today.
Mentors make the difference
Ashima Shiraishi, who grew up in New York City, says her rock climbing career began as a fluke. Her favorite playground was next to a large boulder called Rat Rock, and when she was six, Shiraishi saw some men climbing up and decided to join them. “One was a 70-year-old Japanese man named Yuki,” says Shiraishi. “He introduced me to climbing and guided me. Without it I would have climbed the boulder, but I wouldn’t have realized that there were more possibilities on this boulder than just the climb.
After climbing for 14 years, the Olympic athlete took on the role of mentor herself, working with a rock climbing gym in Long Beach to create a free community wall and looking for opportunities like a school trip. “Climbing won’t solve every problem in the world, but for some children rock climbing can be a place of comfort, something they can hope for and find a state of fluidity,” says Shiraishi.
Community is everything
Compton, the Los Angeles neighborhood where Manoah Ainuu was born, is not known for its opportunities for outdoor recreation. But when his parents took him skiing Big Bear Mountain when he was five years old, Ainuu immediately became hooked. “I remember being so excited that I went to bed with all my snow gear,” Ainuu says. “My parents weren’t keen on the outdoors, but they saw value in the outdoors.”
When he was nine, Ainuu and his family moved to Spokane, Washington, where he was able to ski and climb more and more. But Ainuu understands that not everyone can live in a mountain town, so he believes it’s up to athletes, brands and communities to bring the outdoors to more people. “It’s so important for us to create a welcoming environment,” Ainuu said, citing programs like sliding scale in climbing gyms as an example of how to do this. “Personally, being able to ski and climb as a child reinforced my love for the outdoors. “
Children are our future
Tom Wallisch has a weakness for children on excursions. Like them, he comes from Pittsburgh, far from the great outdoors. His parents made skiing, hiking, and camping a priority, so Wallisch grew up exploring local parks and skiing a humble hill on winter weekends. And from that small mountain he built a professional freeski career that took him to the top of the X Games podium. Most importantly, he built a respect for the outdoors.
“Many of my best memories come from protected and preserved places,” Wallisch says. “Not everyone has that kind of childhood, and it’s hard to love and protect something you’ve never seen. You have to develop this link. That’s why Wallisch jumped at the chance to help a group of Pittsburgh kids develop their own connections to wild places. “Ideally, this initiation leads them to explore parks near their homes. We just plant little seeds, and those seeds will grow.
The field trip was based on a simple premise: If you take the kids outside, they become better versions of themselves, today and tomorrow. Shiraishi, Ainuu, and Wallisch are living examples of how an early relationship with the outdoors can create lifelong passions. And with more models like them, the future is bright.
The North Face is the world’s leading outdoor brand with a mission to provide the best gear, support the preservation of the outdoors and inspire a global movement of exploration. Public Lands, a new outdoor retailer from Dick’s Sporting Goods, aims to celebrate and protect public lands for all.