'I leaned into the identity of being an athlete': How a nonbinary rock climber caught Patagonia's attention
Mental toughness doesn’t come naturally. Lor Sabourin, an Arizona-based professional climber, coach and guide who identifies as transgender and uses the pronouns they/them, has been working on it their whole life.
Sabourin’s journey as a nonbinary climber and life story is the subject of Patagonia’s newest 50-minute feature-length film, "They/Them." The film, co-directed by filmmakers Blake McCord and Justin Clifton, was released on Oct. 6 on YouTube. According to Patagonia, the company believes it's the first-ever feature film of such length to profile a nonbinary climber.
The documentary follows Sabourin’s ascent up a 600-foot sandstone wall coined the "Cousin of Death" in northern Arizona, outside Flagstaff, over the course of two months. But in between footage of Sabourin working on what they say was one of their most challenging climbs to date, the narrative documents Sabourin’s life as a nonbinary climber, their role in the climbing community, and their early life exploring their gender identity and recovery from an exercise and eating disorder.
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"It's been so touching to hear people sharing their own stories or just sharing that the film resonated with them," Sabourin said. "Not a lot of trans people have gotten to experience that."
But while the film is presented as a biopic of a climber coming to terms with their identity, Sabourin’s work as a coach and Sabourin’s own struggles as a professional athlete epitomize a human experience that anyone could understand.
“We’re telling Lor’s story, but there's so many aspects of that story that are so relatable to anyone, regardless of what their identity is or whether they're a climber or not,” filmmaker Blake McCord said.
Sabourin works as a coach for The Warrior’s Way in Flagstaff, a mental training program that focuses on helping climbers with the confidence and mental components of the sport, which Sabourin believes are often overlooked.
Most of Sabourin's work as a climbing coach and guide centers on how climbers can address the fear of falling, stress management and anxiety that can hinder a climber’s full potential. Sabourin also runs online courses remotely.
“People don't realize that the mental aspect of climbing is a tangible set of skills that they can actually develop,” Sabourin says. “Some people just feel that you have a good mental game or you don't. ... So with my work it's really cool to be able to give people back the joy of their favorite activity.”
'I leaned into the identity of being an athlete' to avoid facing gender, body dysphoria
In the film, Sabourin talks about experiencing dysphoria, or intense dissatisfaction, with their body and gender as early as 7 years old.
At that early age, Sabourin learned of the expectations that came with gender identity and the body appearances associated with those labels. Sabourin felt that their gender identity didn’t fit with their body, and eating and exercising was a way to manage their body dysphoria.
At age 17, Sabourin began to explore gender identity more and began to come out as nonbinary to important people in their life.
“I leaned into the identity of being an athlete,” Sabourin says in the film. “I’m a runner, I’m a climber. I have these parts about me that I can tell you about so that I don’t have to tell you these parts that feel unsafe.”
'Lor brings their whole self to their climbing and the work they do'
Sabourin’s work and activism within the climbing community is on the national stage. Sabourin is one of Patagonia’s newest climbing ambassadors. As an ambassador, they give feedback on climbing apparel, attend events and help create photos, videos and stories for the climbing community.
“Through this process, Lor’s insightfulness, kindness and vision impressed everyone involved, '' said Justin Roth, climbing marketing manager at Patagonia. “It was clear from the start that Lor is an exceptional climber, but through the process it became apparent that they are also a highly engaged member of the climbing community, a dedicated coach and educator, and a social and environmental advocate.
“Lor brings their whole self to their climbing and the work they do, and it makes them such a powerful communicator.”
While Sabourin notes that their experience and the film aren't a representation of all other trans climbers or the entire LQBTQ community, they believe that climbing and other adventure sports can be a vehicle to tell stories like theirs and, in the process, help others feel they belong.
“Athletic, and specifically adventure athletics, have really compelling stories where it brings that challenge and struggles in a really tangible way,” Sabourin said. “And so I think that's one of the reasons that certain people that are preventing trans kids from playing sports are so toxic. Playing sports is a way to develop leadership skills and to really explore who we are as a person and to develop healthy habits and to learn to deal with challenges.
"That is so powerful for a person that hasn't always been given the tools and has even been highly discouraged from exploring who they are so they need a place to do that. Climbing is a really powerful thing to help people have a new life."
You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at email@example.com or you can also follow her on Twitter.