This week, I had the chance to sit down, over coffee, and hear the story of Arêt Basewear co-founder, Olivia Martens. We talked about how she discovered climbing as both a hobby and a home (in the climbing community).
Originally from Hawaii, Olivia, one of three kids, was briskly moved from Honolulu to the mainland of Denver, Colorado when she was seven years old. Her mother, a Vietnamese refugee, and her dad, an All-American Midwestern, made the drastic change to find better healthcare options for her sister, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. While in Colorado, Olivia found swimming (at age eight) and headed off what would be a 15 year-long competitive career. A small handful of climbing trips occurred during her time in Colorado. At that time, climbing was just something her cousins did on occasion to pass a summer day. It was not the life-altering sport she would come to know in the future.
After being recruited by UCSD for her impressive swimming at 18 years of age, Olivia moved to San Diego, California, to start down the road of her pre-medical degree and, of course, to get in the water. In her Junior year of college, filled to the brim with intensive daily training—all while balancing a school load equally as demanding — Olivia suffered immense tragedy as she lost a close childhood friend in a swimming accident at a neighboring school.
“That hit me. I couldn’t even get in the water some practices — I was upset all the time. My coach asked me, ‘How much time are you going to need?’ Hearing that pressure from her to move on, and to get back in the pool because, ‘We have some big meets coming up,’ I ended up working myself up into a relapse of mononucleosis. I trained through because I didn’t know. I had mono for the big meet; then I got walking pneumonia, then pelvic inflammatory disease. My body was shutting down.”
At that point, her hand was forced. She physically couldn’t swim, and seeing her coaches were more concerned with wins than her wellbeing and mental stability, she took a step back from the sport. Olivia turned down her spot in the NCAA nationals and, after a long fight with her self, realized it was time to say goodbye to competitive swimming. Her senior year started promptly afterward and she found herself stuck in a vacuum of depression. Her boyfriend didn’t support her decision to stop swimming, her teammates didn’t understand. She was felt alone in mourning the loss of her identity as a swimmer and the darkness that follows when you lose something that you feel defines you. She finally went back home to Colorado that year and took a three-week-long Christmas break. “I was with my brother and sister and I realized…there is way more to life.”
Her sister was showing vast improvement since the last time Olivia had seen her. After being mostly non-verbal throughout her childhood, Olivia saw her sister becoming more independent. Inspired to return to school, Olivia switched her focus from general medicine to Cognitive Neuroscience. Schooling, from then on, was much more personal.
“Everything that I was learning directly pertained to her [my sister]. I could see into a typically developing brain and the patterns of cognition that sequence together and then how hers were so atypical — I could see exactly where those tics came from.”
" my body was shutting down... "
Back in San Diego, from Colorado, she spent some of her free time lifeguarding at a pool on campus. Coincidentally, her commute would walk her right by the Outback Climbing Center, which would stay vastly ignored (by Olivia) until after a fellow lifeguard invited her off campus to go climb at a gym nearby.
“He had no idea what I might be able to do, so he said here, this is a 5.7, and I flew right up it, so he put me on a 5.9 and…same thing. Everything he put me on, I just did. So we just kept climbing. We started going more and more and I thought, ‘Okay, this is good, I’m feeling good, this is something I could get into, and something I probably need.’” At that point, she started taking advantage of the small climbing gym, which had always set a stone’s throw away from the pool where she spent most of her time (in previous years).
That summer was spent finishing her research, visiting her family in Vietnam, and promptly driving back to California upon returning back to the states. Back in San Diego, she found a job, got a climbing membership – one that was quickly put on pause after breaking her ankle attempting an aerial on a slack line. The climbing pause was short-lived lived. She was still healing for all of eight months, but she started climbing ropes the second she got an orthopedic boot. Three months of boot life and she was finally able to start putting pressure back on her foot. This was the green light she needed. Olivia proceeded to pull off the boot, tape her ankle and hastily reunited with her surfboard. She spent the summer surfing up the California coast until August came to a close, the sun cooled down, and climbing—once again—called her name.
Fast forward to present day — Olivia works as a Cognition Specialist at a pediatric neurology clinic working with children who have been diagnosed with autism. She also serves as the pattern creator and co-founder of Arêt Basewear.
The story of Arêt Basewear is, in a single word, serendipitous. After coming back from her ankle injury and trying out a few new gyms, Olivia found herself a solid crew of ladies to climb with and learn from. Among her climbing crew is route setter, Bridget Kilgallon, who realized, during passing small talk, that Olivia was a missing piece to her puzzle. Bridget was trying to start a sportswear company. Like plenty of climbing ladies, she loathed sports bras for their ill-fitting, shoulder pinching, and overall one size (doesn’t) fit all shape. Bridget had a vision for a new kind of base wear that would allow for movement and compliment the shape of those women who have large/broad shoulders. The idea was lovely but Bridget had no idea how to bring it into reality. During their conversation, Olivia mentioned that the bikinis she liked were crazy expensive, like $100 for a top, $80 for bottoms, and how Olivia would probably be making her own (again) this year.
“My mom taught me to sew my Halloween costumes and from there I would make some of my clothes, prom dresses—and, in college, I started making my own bikinis, because nothing fit. Right then Bridget started going off about what they were trying to create, how they wanted something that was flattering and comfortable for athletes, mostly for climbers with our huge backs—shoulders, lats, traps—everything they wore pinched somewhere or dug into something. And having a swimmers body, I totally got it.”
They (Olivia and Bridget) immediately started hunting down fabrics and sewing prototypes. As soon as the two were content with a design, Olivia taught Bridget to sew the pattern and they started pumping tops out and getting them on every girl they could find. The next few months was all about finding girls in climbing gyms and asking them to try the designs out then collecting as much feedback as possible. Changes were made and they opened up shop for hand made orders, quickly became flooded with business. They realized it was time to find a manufacturer but they wanted production to remain in California.
The first attempt at a partnership was crushing. Olivia brought the manufacturer finished pieces, patterns, (the works), and asked him to recreate what she had made. Every time the manufacturer would come back with something else. It was never right. He couldn’t, and wouldn’t, see their vision. Time and time again he would present them with something that felt as uncomfortable as the sports bras that had driven them to want to create their own in the first place. Despite feeling beaten down, frustrated, and desperate for production relief, they stood their ground and broke up with that manufacturer.
Around that time, Olivia was in the dressing room of a climbing gym, fitting a friend for a top, when a mother of a youth team climber came in and saw the it (the top). “She said, ‘Wow, that looks really great, really awesome construction.’” “She was complimenting my work and I just thought, oh my gosh, thank you! Turns out she worked internationally as an apparel designer, and she loved our design. She told me, ‘If you ever want to talk, I can put you in touch with people.’ She sat down with us and told us, ‘These people are great at this, and this girl can get you these people.’” It was a whole new world of connections. We found Lindy Bliss, who was THE patternmaker. She works with Prana, Disney, Kavu, all of the big guys. We showed her the top and…she loved it. She saw exactly what we were intending and loved our design and wanted to help us create it our way.”
The approach was trying but, through a series of the most fortunate events, they found the right support system to help them get to the next level. “Now, it’s just the outreach–telling more people, getting more people involved and psyched on it, and for me, specifically, it’s creating the next design.”
Olivia’s story comes full circle, from a Colorado raised ex-swimmer lost in California, to a career-ready Cognitive Neuroscientist (with a side job creating women’s wear) and her new found home in the climbing world, living beach side in San Diego.
I asked Olivia what her climbing goal was, she said, “ Keep everything fun. I never want to get into the headspace that I was in with swimming. It was so full of anxiety. I put so much pressure on myself and for no reason. I need it to be fun. I broke my finger last August on the same fall I sprained both ankles, and I’m finally to the point where I can start pulling down hard again, and I can start training again. We’re going out to Bishop next week for the Women’s Climbing Festival and I really want to push my limits with highballs. Getting up high on even an easy climb is a rush, and getting out of my comfort zone is just, awesome.”