For Van Malkie ’24, the sport of rock climbing isn’t just a hobby; it’s a metaphor for his life’s journey. In rock climbing, you can choose the level of difficulty of the course you chart. There are many options and hand and footholds along the way. For Van, the early parts of his life course were set by factors beyond his control, and challenges abounded. Yet despite and perhaps because of these challenges, Van is thriving today, both as a climber and as a young person.
After an initial foray into soccer, Van began climbing at the age of eight. Interestingly, it was not a good fit at first. “I was terrified of heights,” he says. “I still am on some level. Climbing has always been fun for me, but it didn’t start as something I expected to be good at. I was a very active little kid.” His mom, Tracey. signed him up for a trial class at Peak Experiences, and the seed was planted.
The choice has paid off in spades. Van has competed at the national level since 2019 in all three climbing disciplines: speed, bouldering, and lead (ropes). Most climbers aspire to make it in one discipline, but for Van, he relishes the challenge and diversity of all three. “I don’t have a favorite. Speed [climbing] is a newer discipline, so younger generations of climbers excel there versus more traditional climbing. It requires coordination that ropes [climbing] does not, and you use dynamic movement and not just pure strength.”
This year, Malkie finished 9th in Speed at the North American Cup Elite Series, where he was competing against professional climbers (not age-graded). He also finished 25th in Lead Climbing and 35th in Bouldering. Nearly all of the athletes competing against him specialize in one of the disciplines.
Those accolades are particularly impressive considering Van is not a naturally competitive person. Says Tracey, “It was a stretch for him to compete. What drew him in was the idea of doing what they (the best climbers) were doing. But to be able to compete, he had to change his mindset and focus.” This renewed focus led Van to nationals the first year he tried it at age thirteen.
“Van is a truly unique snowflake,” says Michael Stratton ‘02, head of the Trinity Outdoor Program, who has worked closely with Van since his freshman year and has particular insight on him as a climber and a person. “He is one of the most driven athletes I have ever encountered, and has the raw talent and potential to make it to the international competition level.” Like most outdoor sports, there is a whole vocabulary of terms in climbing, as Stratton explains. “When you ‘flash’ a climbing route, it means you climbed it on your first try, without even falling,” he says. “Van is well known for ‘flashing’ peoples ‘projects’ — while wearing his Crocs.”
And while the disruptions of the pandemic waylaid many climbers, the opposite was true for Van. “During COVID I got stronger,” he says. “I jumped four levels in just five months. Every year my progression has been really fast and I am a V-12 climber now.” At this point, he is regularly competing against professionals as well as climbers who are homeschooled and devote their entire focus to climbing. His parents look to support Van holistically and help him keep perspective on climbing, and Van appreciates this.
“I am not driven to drop everything to climb. I need to balance out social life and hobbies, and I value school. Even though school is a challenge for me, I enjoy it.
School gives me life experience to build on the experiences I have already had,” he says.
For a sixteen year-old, Van has had a lot of life experience.
Van was born in Guangzhou, China, and had surgery as an infant for a cleft lip. He was adopted by Tracey and Scott Malkie at age two and he began his life in the United States. “Scott and I have always seen in our role as parents that we are here to carry Van on his journey and help him in whatever ways that means,” says Tracey. “Our experience is different from many typical families because it was never a given of how things would go. Everything required flexibility and perseverance.”
In addition to his adoption, he has faced stereotypes and assumptions from others throughout his life. “Even [as a toddler], I realized that I looked different from almost everyone else. This has been true at the schools I have attended and even with climbing initially,” he says. “I’ve heard stereotypes where people assume I am a straight-A student because I am Asian. It is really difficult to encounter so much Asian sentiment or ignorance in so many places and instances. It has made me learn to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I have opened up more this year as a junior.” Part of that transformation came from meeting many other Asian climbers in the climbing community as he has traveled and competed. “There are so many people that look like me and understand what it is like to have assumptions made about them, “ says Van.
“They have always embraced him right away,” says mom Tracey, praising the diversity of the area climbing community. “[They have] pulled him right in and given him the confidence to be himself.”
How has this increased confidence manifested for Van at Trinity and how have these challenges shaped him today? Van is a member of the P.A.L.M. club (Pacific-Islander, Asian, Latinx, Middle Eastern) that explores cultures as well as a very active member of the Outdoor Program. He competed in May at Dominion Riverrock, climbing again against professional climbers, this time in front of his home crowd and classmates.
“Acceptance at Trinity has been really helpful. I don’t feel judged here,” says Van.
“The Outdoor Program has been hugely helpful and a comfortable space for me. Mr. Stratton helped create a good path here. He knows so many people in the outdoor community. The teachers here are so much more interactive in getting to know you and excited about their classes, and there is lots of support.”
Stratton adds, “Van has created a comfortable home in the Trinity community. As a freshmen, Van was a confident Titan on the climbing wall, but so shy in the halls that he would just want to hang with me during his study halls. But as a junior he has grown into a leader in the Outdoor Program and exudes a charismatic presence in the halls. He has also expanded his skills to cover whitewater kayaking, mountain biking and hiking.”
“I am introverted yet putting myself in situations to be a leader,” Van says, determined to support others through their own challenges. “People have a lot more happening than what you see on the surface… The challenges I faced when I was younger allowed me to have empathy and compassion for others… I know I want to use my life experiences and skill set to help others in whatever I do.”
Tracey recalls that Trinity always felt like the right place for Van, even years before he enrolled. “Van felt like it made absolute sense for him,” she says. “Scott and I say all the time to Van, ‘discover your path’ — and the school truly lives that mission. There are other kids doing their thing, totally unrelated, and everyone is celebrated, and he sees that and has confidence to pursue his goals and embrace his unique skills and abilities.”
As Van continues to climb on his upward trajectory, it is both in a metaphorical and literal sense that we all wait to see just how high he will climb.