Hugo Hoyer hung from a 16-foot bouldering wall at High Point Climbing Gym, dangling halfway up above the mats below. Adults chatted, only partially watching as the boy climbed before Wednesday's practice.
There was nowhere else to grab between where Hugo hung and the highest hold near the top of the wall.
His dad, Joe Henbest, glanced at his unharnessed son, suddenly seeming nervous as he foresaw what his son was about to attempt. Hugo pulled his leg high, resting his foot where his hand had just been. He pushed himself with his legs, letting go of the holds and sliding up the wall as he stood. The 10-year-old reached as far as his body would allow, grabbing the final hold, propelling himself to the top.
"There's certain ones you can see and know they are going to go far," Hugo's coach and professional climber Lisa Rands said.
Hugo is one of the best young climbers in the country.
He traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah last weekend with his family and coaches to boulder. He and six of his teammates at High Point had qualified for the USA Climbing Youth National Championships, having done well in regional and divisional events. Hugo won, claiming another national title.
"He's obviously just a natural phenomenon when it comes to climbing," Rands' husband and fellow coach Wills Young said.
It was Hugo's first national championship in bouldering — which he prefers to climbing — and second overall.
"I like the big moves and the short climbs [in bouldering]," Hugo said. "Rope climbing doesn't have the big [jumps.]"
However, he's excelled in both.
His first national championship came in sport climbing just a season after he learned the discipline. He also qualified for nationals and placed sixth in his first competitive season of bouldering as an 8-year-old. Last year, he placed third in both disciplines.
"Kind of from the beginning, we knew [he was a special climber]," his dad said. "He's obviously gotten a lot better, but he was always just natural at it."
Neither of Hugo's parents are climbers, but they started noticing he was a special talent when he was a toddler. He would go to the playground and climb to the top of the equipment with no fear.
Young and Rands also noticed his talent the first time they saw him climb.
"He's extremely motivated, and he's just naturally more gifted than other kids," Young said. "He's extremely determined. He seems to feel no pain. That's unusual."
Nearly two years ago, his family left their Queens, N.Y., home to tour climbing cities across the U.S. They went to California, Colorado, Texas and Chattanooga, getting coaching for their son while allowing him to climb in some of the best areas in the country.
They received private coaching from Rands and Young during the trip. That coaching helped Hugo go on to win his first national championship, his dad said.
"We knew these were the people he should be hanging around with," Henbest said.
The family's intention was to go back to New York, but they decided to move to Chattanooga. They had fallen in love with the city and thought it provided the best climbing opportunities for Hugo.
However, while climbing has become a priority in the family's life, it's something they monitor carefully. They usually take a break from the sport during the summer to be together, and Hugo's parents say it is entirely up to him if he wants to continue pursuing it.
"We just try to support him. If he wants to do it, we are there to support him. But it's his goals. If he doesn't want to compete, that's fine with us," Henbest said. "There are days it seems he may need a little encouragement, but it really is about him. He loves to do it."
If it were up to Hugo, he'd be climbing more, not less.
Although young, he knows he wants to pursue a career as a professional climber. He doesn't mention Olympic dreams or personal glory when asked about the decision. He talks about wanting to travel and compete in a sport he loves.
"I just want to go around and climb everywhere," he said.
However, that doesn't mean the rest won't follow. Rands, who was the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup, believes Hugo could become one of the best climbers, anywhere, period.
"I don't see why not. I honestly don't," she said.
Contact Mark Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.