Before she knew rock climbing was a sport, Piseth Sam was sending routes. On the playground near the projects she grew up in, she would scale a rock that was part of the neighborhood park she and friends played “tag” on. The adventurous kids would scale the rock’s face to escape from becoming “it.”
With her days of playground tag long behind her, she found herself working as a personal trainer and massage therapist at a climbing gym. She started climbing recreationally on her days off of work. Eventually, a friend saw her climbing and mentioned that she was perhaps better than a recreational “climbing once in a while” kinda person and that she could consider taking climbing more seriously. “I didn’t have good examples of climbers with boundaries – climbers who took care of themselves, so it turned me off to the sport. But I started training and climbing more aggressively.”
She’s now crushing technical boulder problems in between training clients. But Piseth is much more than an inspirationally strong athlete, massage therapist, and personal trainer. She’s a green card holder, a business owner, a female of color, an immigrant, and queer. Born in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, she and her family came to America when she was five.
She doesn’t remember much of her life before the age of 12.
During this transition, she found solace in being outside. “As a kid, outside was everything – outside was safe, outside was adventure, outside was where I could escape and just be part of something greater than what my microcosm was. The outdoors plays a huge role in helping people realize they’re just a speck on a speck.”
As a “speck” in the larger picture, Piseth knows why she’s here in this world. “To bring joy into this world to help people feel better in their bodies.” She uses a trauma-informed approach in her training that includes details our modern and hurried culture doesn’t pay attention to. Piseth looks at her client’s entire life history back to their grandparent’s health, what the birth mother ate while she was pregnant, and any accidents her client has experienced. To Piseth, all of these elements play into who we are. “I think about every single thing this person has gone through in their life and what they have been met with, and that’s how we work together to figure out what would be the best approach to help them turn fitness into a lifestyle, not just a hobby.”
‘Health is the greatest gift of self-love,’ is a message Piseth stands by and something she’s learned throughout her life. This self-love is all-encompassing love. It’s showing up as you are. “As long as you are making choices that make you feel good, that will guide you. That will give you the answers to everything that you’re asking.”
Sometimes the answer to a question can be found in something simple like a haircut. Piseth always kept her hair long, recognizing it as a cultural construct of femininity, when in reality, it only left her questioning why she had so much damn hair in her way. “As a queer person, I always wanted to cut my hair short.” So she chopped it off. “I cut my hair for myself and I was like, ‘I have never felt sexier in my life and I’m owning this short hair because I’m whole. I don’t need affirmations from other people. I’ve learned just to have it for me’.”
This self-love can take time to learn, a lifetime even. Piseth finds our societal pressure to be perfect and perform at a certain level is far from self-love. “I imprisoned myself. I was afraid to engage in a lot of things because I immediately had this expectation for myself to be good. And I think that’s why I really enjoy doing sports and engaging in things where I really suck because that is where I’m going to grow the most and learn the most.” To Piseth, weakness has nothing to do with the physical body but everything to do with mentality. We learn and we grow from challenge. Without trying something we suck at, we’ll never grow. “If you don’t try at all, that’s a sign of weakness.”
Piseth wants us to try it all, to suck at whatever we’re trying and learn from those experiences. One of Piseth’s greatest lessons was learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Rooted in her childhood, she’s had to learn to flourish without external influences. She’s always been comfortable in her skin. Piseth says that at the end of the day, we should only be seeking approval from ourselves rather than giving power to outside influences.
“Remember that you deserve to not be in pain, to feel good in your body and in your mind, and you deserve to be happy,” are Piseth’s parting thoughts.
Now, let’s all go tattoo that to our bodies as a constant reminder to entangle fitness and lifestyle together, love ourselves, stay hydrated, and cut your hair short if you feel like it, because no one needs to fit into someone else’s ideals.