How Montclair’s Jesse Grupper Climbed His Way to the 2024 Olympics

The 27-year-old New Jerseyan is heading to Paris this summer to fulfill a dream he's had since childhood.

Jesse Grupper at New Jersey Rock Gym in Fairfield
Montclair native Jesse Grupper makes a stop at his home gym, New Jersey Rock Gym in Fairfield, ahead of his first Olympics in Paris. Photo: Michael Paras

Jesse Grupper plots his ascent, grabs onto a hold, and effortlessly scales the wall at Fairfield’s New Jersey Rock Gym. The 27-year-old climber, a Montclair native, got his start here more than two decades ago, when no one could have imagined he would one day reach the pinnacle of his sport. Grupper is headed to Paris this summer, one of four men on the U.S. Olympic climbing team.

Grupper’s path to this point has been no more a straight line than your average climbing route. In his life, Grupper, who started climbing at the age of six, has striven for excellence in academics, made time for his family and friends, and pursued meaningful volunteer work. Yet, through it all, his sights were set on competing at the highest level.

“Watching the Olympics on that TV screen when I was a kid, it became a dream of mine,” says the Montclair High School graduate. At the time, he was partial to the swimming events because his mother competed locally in synchronized swimming.

“Michael Phelps was super motivating for me as I was doing my floor crunches,” Grupper remembers of the legendary American swimmer, who remains the most decorated Olympian in history. “But, of course, climbing wasn’t in the Olympics at the time.”

[RELATED: NJ Olympians Competing in the 2024 Paris Games]


Things changed with the sport’s Olympic debut in 2021 and, for Grupper, with an announcement that this year’s Games will include only the two traditional indoor climbing disciplines at which he excels: bouldering, which is performed on lower walls without using a rope, and lead, which is similar to the role of the lead climber in outdoor rock climbing, where the athlete is attached to a rope for protection and clips it into a series of hooks, called carabiners, anchored at progressively higher points on the nearly 50-foot wall.

Jesse Grupper climbs at New Jersey Rock Gym in Fairfield

Grupper has been climbing since he was six years old. Photo: Michael Paras

Of course, in Paris, both disciplines will involve holds spaced in unfathomably difficult patterns that test the skill of each world-class climber who attempts them.

Grupper was faced with a challenge nearly as great last fall at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, where he topped the podium in combined bouldering/lead by a sizable margin, clinching his berth on the U.S. Olympic delegation. Though a two-time World Cup champion in 2022, Grupper was trailing stiff competition from some of the 11 countries represented, making his come-from-behind victory all the more stunning—to the crowd as well as to Grupper’s parents, who were watching their son compete on television from New Jersey.

“We were crying. It was like a feature film,” says Grupper’s father, Jonathan, who deems the Pan Am gold medal “Willy Wonka’s ticket” to the biggest stage of all. “We were sitting in our home in Montclair with our hearts and brains totally across the universe in Chile.”

Jesse Grupper bouldering at New Jersey Rock Gym

Grupper shows off his strength while bouldering. Photo: Michael Paras

One key person who experienced the emotional moment firsthand was Grupper’s longtime coach, Randi Goldberg. Watching her most famous student capture his biggest prize reminded her of her first interaction with a young Jesse, then about nine years old and part of the New Jersey Rock Gym’s (NJRG) junior development team.

At the time, Goldberg coached only the gym’s advanced climbers.

“I was walking around at a competition we were hosting, and here’s this kid I’d never seen, who doesn’t compete,” Goldberg recalls of Grupper. “He asked me if he should try this one particular climb he had never done before. It wasn’t pretty, but he refused to let go, and he nailed it. That was exactly the kind of attitude I wanted on my team.”

From there, Grupper’s rise to the top of the sport was steep. He qualified for USA Youth Nationals the very next year, notching a third-place finish in sport climbing, the rope-assisted event in which athletes compete before they begin lead at age 12.

Jesse Grupper climbs a rock wall

Grupper makes his way to the top of a lead wall. Photo: Michael Paras


By then, Grupper’s life was heavily focused on a range of indoor walls in New Jersey and elsewhere. But beyond those walls were home and school, where he had friends outside the climbing community who admired his achievements, even if they did not fully appreciate the logistics of a sport that was still, in the late aughts, somewhat niche.

As Grupper progressed through middle school, he practiced four or five times a week, balancing training and competitions with classes and homework. Eventually, he followed Goldberg when she left NJRG for Philadelphia Rock Gym, preserving their winning coach-climber combination with trips to Philly once or twice a month. Goldberg supplemented those in-person sessions with customized workouts she sent him to follow, and he continued to train at NJRG.

Along with competition, Grupper used his passion to pay it forward, becoming heavily involved with Peak Potential, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that holds adaptive climbing clinics for children with disabilities. He volunteered regularly at NJRG, one of the group’s host locations, where he and other climbers belayed, or secured the ropes, while harnessed participants moved from hold to hold as their bodies allowed. Grupper also helped organize fundraisers at the gym throughout his teen years for a range of other causes, and ultimately chose a college major he could parlay into helping others.

[RELATED: Hoboken Climbing Gym Teams With Nonprofit to Help Kids Reach New Heights]

After graduating from Montclair High School in 2015, Grupper matriculated at Tufts University, where he studied mechanical engineering and founded the school’s Biomechanics Club, which created assistive devices to help people with disabilities.

He balanced these activities with bouldering and lead, competing on the collegiate circuit as a member of the Tufts climbing team. Someday, college varsity climbing may become a reality, just as Olympic climbing did in 2020. A primary objective of USA Climbing, the sport’s governing body, according to CEO Marc Norman, is to be officially sanctioned by the NCAA.

For the past four years, Grupper has been a research fellow at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, designing exosuits and similar robotic devices for post-stroke and other paralysis patients.

This work, like climbing, requires a keen understanding of human musculature and its interplay with limbs. But Grupper sees a greater analogy. “In climbing, you’re given a problem,” he says, using the technical term for a bouldering challenge. “Engineering is the same. There are many ways of doing both, but the point is making it to the finish successfully. If you’ve used your creativity to get there, the satisfaction is huge.”

Currently, Grupper is working remotely for the biodesign lab, on a part-time basis, from his temporary home near the USA Climbing facility in Salt Lake City. He relocated there in March 2023 to devote himself to trying to make the Olympic team. Olympic climbing hopefuls—and even those who have qualified—are compensated only for their cost of travel to the Games and certain competitions. Unlike other prominent countries that compete in the Olympics, like Russia, whose athletes’ training is federally funded, U.S. athletes rely on their respective sports’ governing bodies, although better-established sports tend to have more robust coffers. Grupper and his elite climbing peers also receive some limited sponsorship from gear manufacturers.

Grupper’s move to Utah followed several years of honing his technique, punctuated by news of the revised Olympic format. Climbing in the 2021 Games, the sport’s initial appearance, had included a third discipline, speed, in a single combined event for men and women. Although bouldering and lead are timed events, speed climbing is done at a breakneck pace and requires a very different skill set. The best at the discipline do not tend to be the best at bouldering or lead. Each country’s delegation at the 2024 Games includes two men or women in the combined event, and two more in speed.

Armed with the knowledge that his dreams converged on Paris, Grupper further harnessed his energy and threw himself into competition. In his breakout season, 2022, he exceeded his goal of one World Cup medal by earning four. He had reached a crossroads. “I was really surprised by that phenomenal season after a lot of smaller wins,” Grupper says. “I had had some setbacks, too, and then to hone in on my weaknesses and conquer them, it showed me there was a lot more I could do in the sport.”

Jesse Grupper at New Jersey Rock Gym in Fairfield

Grupper says he dreamed of competing in the Olympics long before climbing was added to the competition. Photo: Michael Paras


Grupper has faced other obstacles along the way. Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis during his first year at Tufts, he began a regimen of oral medication until that eventually stopped working. He began receiving infusions every eight weeks for his condition, requiring a short hospital stay each time, and now avoids dairy and gluten, which can trigger a flare.

He is also navigating a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend of seven years, Hannah Smith, a doctoral student in biology at Harvard. The couple met through Smith’s college roommate, with whom Grupper had climbed growing up. A casual climber herself, Smith says she “loves it when he teaches me a little bit.” She and Grupper are planning a late-summer trip to Norway, after she completes her PhD, that will include some destination spots for outdoor, or “trad” (short for traditional), climbing. But first, Smith will be cheering Grupper on in Le Bourget, a Paris suburb whose brand-new climbing venue is the only facility built expressly for the Olympics in any sport. “It’s been so much work for Jesse to get there,” she says, “so I hope he can give it his all and have an amazing experience, whatever happens.”

Joining Smith in the stands will be Grupper’s immediate family: his father, Jonathan, his mother, Cathlin, and his sister, Maddy. A nationally ranked climber in her own right, Maddy also got her start at NJRG in Fairfield, where Jesse, who is four years younger, would tag along for the car ride to her team practices. Just six years old at the time, he was immediately hooked. “It’s probably hard to watch someone do something and love it and not want to do it, too,” Maddy says with a laugh.

Their differences in age and gender allowed them to avoid direct rivalry, she adds, and they have several close friends in common from climbing, as well as a shared bond with their supportive parents. Maddy will join Grupper and Smith in their Scandinavian travels.

For now, Team Grupper’s attention is trained squarely on the Olympics. The other men’s combined sport climbing athlete, Colin Duffy of Colorado, competed in 2021 in Tokyo at just 17 years old—the youngest climber from any country at those Olympics. Grupper is particularly strong in lead, but the pair will face formidable competition from each other as well as a host of standouts, including Austria’s Jakob Schubert, the bronze medalist in Covid-delayed Games.

Until then, Grupper has been attacking the walls in Salt Lake City, with an occasional swing back east to see loved ones. This spring, during a climb at NJRG, he paused after topping the hardest lead route the gym had ever set up, in anticipation of the returning hero.

On the facility’s wide-screen TV, the Pan Am Games played on an endless loop, Grupper’s win highlighted. He grinned, never tiring of his sport. “I definitely have these external goals, and of course Paris is at the center of that,” he said. “But I also have an internal drive to be better than I was yesterday—in climbing, but other things, too. I don’t see that ever changing.”

Pamela Weber-Leaf, a writer for more than 25 years, has been following climbing since 2016, when her daughter fell in love with the sport.

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