Being so far out of their comfort zone, tackling a route that requires both mental and physical fortitude, provides Sabourin with an opportunity to reflect and work through the challenges in their life.
In many ways, it’s much more than just a sport for them — it’s a way of exploring identity which has helped them accept who they are.
“I think it’s really hard to hide from the stress of climbing. When you go out, you’re really choosing to be vulnerable,” Sabourin tells CNN Sport.
“You don’t have to do that everywhere else in life.
“People are able to really find out how they do best when they’re in stress and to learn better ways to respond to stress and to things like fear and insecurity.”
Sabourin has recently released a film with Patagonia that explores their life as a non-binary climber, following Sabourin as they take on one of the hardest routes of their life in the sandstone canyons of northern Arizona.
It provided Sabourin with a chance to speak about their journey and address what it means for them to be a trans climber in 2021.
In tackling some dark periods of their life — including battles with eating disorders, self-harm and sexual assault — the film “They/Them” shows how Sabourin has learned to thrive in the climbing community.
“Making the film was hard in a lot of ways because, so often when we go through something hard and then come out on the other side, we want to just pretend that that didn’t happen,” they added.
“So I really had to go back to parts of my story that maybe I didn’t talk about with people in my life very often.
“And that was at first really challenging, but over time, it actually became really healing.”
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Despite always loving the outdoor lifestyle, even when growing up in the urban area of Detroit, Sabourin was a self-confessed “super-scared kid.”
It may seem improbable now when you see photos of them hanging off the side of a rock face, but there was a time when they were too scared to use the three-meter slide at their local swimming pool.
In truth, climbing wasn’t something that came naturally, but sport always played a major role in their upbringing.
They were a strong runner throughout their education but finally fell into climbing as a way of combining competition with their love of the outdoors.
“[Climbing] is very all-consuming,” Sabourin said. “Running, for example, it’s like your mind can go anywhere and you can still run quite quickly.
“And that’s one of my favorite things about running is having a place where I can just let my mind go, and climbing isn’t really that way.
“When you’re climbing, you have to have 100% of your attention on what you’re doing. And that’s really therapeutic in its own way.”
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Dealing with hate
The sport now plays a major role in their life and they balance it with their studies to become a therapist.
However, as their profile within the sport becomes more well-known, Sabourin has had to deal with online hate and microaggressions from within the community, such as people reacting angrily about using different pronouns.
In the film, they describe how they were subject to online abuse after an interview with climbing magazine “Rock and Ice” was published.
There are also times in normal life where Sabourin feels less safe than their non-trans friends.
“I guess that’s really challenging, especially having a background of experiencing pretty extreme violence at a young age for my identity,” they said.
“With the film, it definitely brings up that fear. I am putting myself out there in a really public way, and so it’s definitely opening up to the potential for more of that to happen.
“But […] in all of those interactions, people didn’t take the time to get to know me.
“What I feel is really powerful about the film […] is you kind of have to stay with me long enough to learn that I’m a human just like anyone else and that being trans is one aspect.
“Something that I really love about myself is my identity, but it actually is a fairly small aspect of my identity in the grand scheme of things.”
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Becoming a role model
The process of making the film was an intimate affair, with Sabourin often being joined just by co-director and friend Blake McCord. They didn’t want the film to make generalizations about the trans experience, but instead share their own unique story in a humanistic way.
Sabourin is aware that they may become the face for the wider community as a result.
At a time when trans people are facing scrutiny in both the sporting arena and in wider society, Sabourin says climbing has an opportunity to create a more inclusive framework that other sports can follow.
“I think it could be simpler than people believe,” they said. “They get so hung up in the political debates and the legislation.
“If we look at the value of sports to people, as humans, and the reasons that we participate and we strip it down back to that human aspect, it’s a lot simpler than we think it is.”
Sabourin says the thought of being a role model feels similar to tackling climbing projects — intimidating, but also inspiring — and admits the thought of people looking up to them has made them become more honest in their personal life.
The American has struggled with eating disorders since they were seven or eight years old and wants to trigger conversations about how it can affect both athletes and the trans community.
Now in recovery, Sabourin has learned to adopt a healthier relationship with food and exercise and has realized the destructive ways in which they were using food to manage their transition.
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They say the topic still isn’t spoken about enough.
“I’ve tried my best to be a combination of holding myself really accountable and being really firm with myself about taking steps every day, but also give myself some levity around it and not always feel like I’m beating my head against the wall,” Sabourin said.
“I want people to have a role model that’s someone who takes care of themselves, who lives a life that they think is meaningful.
“I also personally want to be a person who has those things for myself.”