Healthy Living

20-Year-Old Rock Climber Is Breaking the Glass Ceiling with Celiac Disease

Margo Hayes is a 20-year-old rock climber with celiac disease who's reaching new heights!

20-Year-Old Rock Climber Is Breaking the Glass Ceiling with Celiac Disease

Photo: CNBC

Margo Hayes is a top rock climber in the U.S. She has been a high-level rock climber since she joined Boulder’s Team ABC at the age 10. Now at age 20, she is the first female athlete to reach La Rambla in Siurana Spain successfully. (She accomplished this feat at only 19!)

If you don’t think that is a huge accomplishment, read this: Margo had to successfully climb from the bottom of a course that leads to the top without falling. La Rambla is one of the toughest-graded climbing scenarios in the world. Her climb is also a fantastic feat since this cute little 20-year old also battles celiac disease.

In climbing-speak, the highest grade is 5.15, and the marker “c” is the hardest. Fewer than five routes in the world rated a 5.15c. La Rambla is a 5.15a grade. No female athlete has ever in the history of rock climbing, climbed a 5.15. The climb took Margo 7 days of study to do it, but she managed to achieve her goal!

Of her accomplishment, Margo says, “I am overwhelmed and humbled by the support I’ve received from the climbing community, and my family and friends near and far.” She goes on, “None of us achieves our dreams alone, we do so together, and build on those who have come before us.

“We are a community that not only supports each other regardless of our backgrounds and differences but is also one that realizes the importance of respecting and preserving our planet. The climbers at the cliffs in Siurana last weekend came from many nations and were a snapshot of what the world can be like, one of support, communication, and peace.”

Climbers all over the world stress that Margo Haye’s climb was more than just the grade of the route. It was an example for all women and climbers that they can do it if they try hard and approach their goals with a “can do attitude.”

Margo Hayes is a rock star in the climbing world. A mere seven months after her La Rambla climb, she climbed her second 5.15a, Biographie/Realization in Ceuse, France. Biographie is one of the hardest climbs of its grades and Hayes was the 15th person to climb this course successfully.

“To be one of the women who helped open the door to those possibilities, that's an honor," she tells CNBC Make It.

Hayes is ideal at her sport. She writes down her progress, travels, workouts, and even gratitude in a portable journal. Hayes has written down all her goals since she was 6 when she originally wanted to become an Olympic gymnast. However, after suffering injuries in gymnastics, she stopped trying to compete in this sport. Hayes would have been successful in gymnastics, too. Her motto is “…believing in the fact that hard work can lead to success.”

Hayes trains six days a week and climbs for at least two to five hours a day indoors and outdoors. She adds to her climbing program with running, stretching, and strength-building. She eats sweet potatoes to get fast carbs and energy to complete her climbs.

Margo Hayes is sponsored by North Face, La Sportiva, Petzl, Friction Labs and Dogeared. These sponsorships give her the support to travel, climb professionally, and get the gear she needs to climb.

In September of 2017, Margo competed in the International Federation of Sports Climbing World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. She came in first in bouldering among American women climbers but came in 10th  for the entire sport. She didn’t make it to the finals, but this hasn’t deterred Margo Hayes.

For the first time sport climing will be in the Olympics at the Tokyo Games in 2020. Margo Hayes is working to qualify, but she won’t talk about her efforts. "I think it's really important to focus on the process," she says. "If you are focused on the future or a past moment, you're not able to perform at your maximum."

With any luck, in 2020 in Tokyo, you can see this energetic rock climber scale difficult rock climbing routes on her way to Olympic gold.

Margo Hayes and Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune syndrome that occurs in genetically predisposed people who cannot eat gluten. About 1 in 100 people worldwide have this disorder, and two and one-half million Americans are thought to be undiagnosed and at high risk for health complications.

Those with celiac disease cannot eat gluten or the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. If they do, their immune system attacks their small intestines. Attacks lead to damage to the small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine. They are called villi and, when healthy, villi promote nutrient absorption. When the villi are damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed into the body.

Margo Hayes approaches her celiac disease with the same attention and determination she approaches rock climbing. She doesn’t talk about her illness but knows that if she eats gluten, she will experience abdominal discomfort, frequent diarrhea, weight loss, and painful gas symptoms. Celiac disease varies from person to person, but common symptoms also include low iron levels, anemia or low red blood counts, severe skin rashes or hermatitis herpetiformis, and growth problems.

Many athletes eat a diet rich in carbs to gain energy before a match or a climb. Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy, and if you do not eat enough carbs, your body will use protein and fats for energy. Healthy carbs include whole grains, potatoes, vegetables,  fruits, legumes, and lower fat dairy products.

Many athletes will eat a bowl of pasta before a match or a climb to gain the needed energy. If you have celiac disease, you cannot eat plates of pasta; most contain gluten.

Margo’s go to food is sweet potatoes. This root vegetable is starchy, sweet-tasting and is orange in color, which means sweet potatoes are full of beta-carotene. Sweet potatoes are a rich source of fiber and contain iron, calcium, selenium, and a great source of most of your B vitamins and vitamin C.

Celiac disease can occur at any age. Most celiac sufferers develop the disease as infants, and some people living with celiac disease are adults in the 40s and 50s. Celiac disease is more common in women than in men, and in Caucasians.

The long-term health problems in those with celiac disease can be damage to the small intestine, which interferes with nutrient absorption, malnutrition, osteoporosis, and there is a high risk of bowel cancer. Those with celiac disease are at risk of other immune system disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, and thyroid disease.

Celiac disease can be treated with a gluten-free diet. There is no cure, but if you follow a gluten-free diet, you can almost completely reverse damage to the small intestine caused by celiac disease.

Gluten-free foods are commonplace in most grocery stores and many restaurants offer gluten-free options on their menus. It is easier to follow a gluten-free diet today than it was five years ago.

Dr. Jean Wang, MD, Ph.D. of Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine says, “With proper treatment and diet, most people with celiac disease can live a normal life.”