WATCH: The journey of 2 adaptive rock climbers

Meaghan Cusack climbs at Movement Lincoln Park in Chicago. (Lauren Turner/Medill)

By Ivy Fan, Gelsey Plaza and Lauren Turner

Medill Reports

John Freeland and Meaghan Cusack, who both have had amputations, use prosthetic limbs to rock climb. Coming to the sport during different seasons of their lives, they now compete in national and world competitions, breaking stereotypes and proving that anything is possible if you put your heart and mind into it.  

Originally filmed during the spring quarter of Medill’s 2021-22 cohort.

John Freeland, rock climber: Climbing to me has sort of the first thing where I’ve sort of like, taken this sharp turn and said, “Hey, I want to do this thing.” Because it’s a lot of fun. And it’s good for me physically, but also, you know, mentally there’s a big mental game in the climbing, both in terms of figuring out how to move your body and, for me, you know, if you’re older, like how to efficiently move your body so you’re not getting exhausted. So it’s always very, I find it, it’s fun, it’s just a ton of fun to come. And so it’s, you know, I feel like in some ways, I feel like I’m like a kid again, you know?

I’ve been climbing for about 10 months now. So, I started climbing at Maggie Daley last summer with Adaptive Adventures. And now I’m climbing pretty much everywhere.

Jourdan Thunberg, adaptive sports coordinator for Adaptive Adventures: At Adaptive Adventures, we have several different programs. We provide outdoor recreation programs, kind of more of the adventure sports for people with physical or visual disabilities. So, our goal is to get anyone out there who maybe has an injury or a disability, being able to allow them to recreate the same way that anyone would. You know, to see people who maybe are very recent off an injury and can’t do the things that they love. And now they’re able to do it again, in a different form is the most amazing part about my job. One thing that I think is really unique and special about our program, and very rewarding to see, is that our climbers get involved and you can see the way that they increase their ability each week.

Freeland: This is where my prosthesis paid off, is making a climbing foot that screws in.

I lost my leg when I was 16 to cancer, osteogenic sarcoma, which ends up and starts in your knee. At that time, the safest option was to amputate, rather than to try to remove the tumor. And so I lost my leg then. And so I’ve had part life with leg and part life without leg.

Kevin Kubick, Freeland’s coach: John came in really not knowing anything about climbing, pretty much a brand-new climber, at 51 years old, which is pretty inspiring. He’s taken it very seriously. And he’s become a very, very strong and talented climber in such a short amount of time.

Thunberg: John is really an inspiration because he didn’t give up. He, you know, wasn’t really sure exactly what to do when he came to the program and how to work with his disability to be able to climb the wall the best way possible. And sometimes it can be a little defeating, trying to figure out which option is best for you.

Kubick: I mean the fact that he’s like coming in so late in life, and he’s always wanting to do more, and I always have him in my emails or my texts asking for more workouts and more advice. And not only that, he’s like, he’s very, very kind in the way that he’s always like, “Thank you so much for your help.” You know, it’s good to hear that as a coach.

Thunberg: A lot of people give up and say, “You know what? Forget it, you know, I’ll just climb this way or I won’t climb at all,” or anything like that. And so John not only kept going, he brought other members of his family with him and is really excelling in the program and outside the program. I mean, he’s on an adaptive climbing team, goes to nationals, does lots of things. And you know, the sky is the limit for him. He is going to keep going, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Meaghan Cusack, rock climber: When I was 10 years old, I was a gymnast and took a fall off the balance beam. Was in a lot of pain and it was in my ankle, it was shooting to my knee. And I had been experiencing that for a couple of months. Finally, we ended up getting an X-ray of my knee, and we found there was a tumor. So, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when I was 10 years old. It was in my tibia, the top part of my tibia. We tried many, many surgeries, different things to try and save the leg. I did chemotherapy, all of that. In the end, it just kind of made more sense to go with amputation. The leg that we were trying to make work really just wasn’t healing, wasn’t working. So, I was amputated when I was 12 years old.

Freeland: Meaghan climbs differently than I do. We have the same disability, but we have a different body type. Her technical skill is much better than mine, because she’s been at it longer. And so it’s fun to see how we climb things differently. Like I go to her, I’ll be like, “Did you like that route? Or not?” Because we often can tell each other if it works or not for us. Because sometimes at the gym, the routes aren’t really made for someone with our disability. Just being together and being able to sort of push each other to do better is great.

Cusack: Definitely not. I’ve never done silver nail polish in my entire life. Did you lend it to somebody else? Are you sure?

We are makeshifting a water leg to get in and out of the ocean.

I have spent many times at the beach and near water. And it can be very fun, but getting in and out of the water, that gradual getting in and out, can be very difficult.

Thomas O’Doherty, licensed/certified prosthetist: You need to evaluate what the patient is missing and need to evaluate the patient’s type of lifestyle. And then, when we’ve evaluated what we’re going to produce for the patient, we need to go run through the process of making the device.

Emily Zoltai, assistant: All we’re doing is just cutting this pipe, making it a little bit shorter. It’s important to kind of have all of these components in our lab to make our jobs a little bit easier when we’re kind of brainstorming what to put on the prosthesis.

Cusack: The leg that I currently wear is not waterproof, it cannot get into water. So, it gets really hard getting in and out, and moving my leg back and forth, and feeling like I have to rely on other people.

Freeland: I’ll say, I like this corner.

I’m in my 50s. So it’s like, I’m never going to be as strong. It’s very interesting to see that you can climb smart, right? You can like think about how to climb efficiently. When you’re younger, you can just power through it. But when you’re older, you’re like, “No, I have to think about like how I do this carefully.”

Thunberg: He’s grown so much since we’ve seen him in the program. He came out once, the next time he brought his family. His kids got belay certified, his wife is now belay certified, they come and volunteer with our program, they climb with him or on their own. He is one other one who is really growing with the program and taking it to new levels.

Freeland: The problem is shoes, though. Then you have to buy shoes, and you only use one of them. But the cool thing about the competition is that I swapped. I met a guy who had the other foot, and they gave him the other one of this, and he gave me this one, which was pretty cool. Though people swap shoes, also people have issues of, you know, some of the people we climb with, their feet are two different sizes.

Cusack: What I admire most about John is his willingness to try anything in front of him. He isn’t afraid to try and is definitely not afraid to fail at something. He puts his all into it and just focuses on the learning process. John has great energy and is so much fun to climb with. He’s incredibly encouraging and is always wanting feedback to improve his technique.

I feel like with climbing, it’s such a communal sport. So, I love being able to go to the gym and people are just interacting with me. And I really appreciate being treated like an athlete when I go. I love talking to people about climbs, and about difficult parts, and about easy parts, and all of that. And not kind of being seen as this adaptive climber the whole time. But just like, “Oh hey, I’m a climber. I’m here. I just did that route. What did you think of it?” That sort of thing. So, that’s huge. But I love how powerful I feel when I climb. I love just the feeling you get in your body when you’re moving up and you’re like, “Gosh, I’m about to get the next hold, and you get something that was difficult for you.”


  • Freeland competed at the Paraclimbing World Cup in Salt Lake City, Utah in May.
  • Freeland also went outdoor climbing in Moab, Utah. One of his top climbing goals is to climb outside more.
  • Cusack visited Mexico in May and was able to swim and do other outdoor sporting activities thanks to her amazing prosthetic care team.
  • Cusack competed at the Climbing Masters Cup in Austria and the IFSC World Cup in Switzerland in July 2022. We are so excited for her!

Ivy Fan, who specialized in Video and Broadcast, graduated from Medill in Summer 2022. You can follow her on Instagram at @lumiere_ivyfan.

Gelsey Plaza, who specialized in Magazine, graduated from Medill in Summer 2022. You can follow her on Twitter at @gelsey_plaza.

Lauren Turner, who specialized in Magazine, graduated from Medill in Summer 2022. You can follow her on Twitter at @Lauren_N_Turner.