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Nathan Payne: his path to Climbing, Pottery, and Being a Catalyst Champion (in more ways than one)

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Nathan’s story is incredible and packed with opportunities to learn and growth for each of us!! Nathan Payne works in their family pottery business, Earthborn, in Leeds, AL. His mom started it in their basement in the 1970s while raising him and his sister. Eventually it grew into a tiny outdoor studio, then into a 3000 sq ft rented studio. In 2006, his mom acquired a 24,000 sq ft empty watch factory and to this day 15 employees deliver highly sought-after pottery for clients all over the world! (This background will be important as you progress through this article.)

Nathan grew up playing soccer, kayaking, riding dirt bikes and doing recreational climbing. At 21 years of age, Nathan was involved in a motorcycle accident, and he faced a new journey with a “transtibial amputee left”. He climbed a few times after losing his foot, but he and his wife moved to Colorado away from his circle of climbing friends. In those days, there was not the incredible resource of internet groups, chat rooms, and climbing buddy connections. Nathan focused on his work as a mechanic with BMW-Ducati until he needed a new foot. An employee at the prosthetic company just happened to meet him at the motorcycle company and knew his ability to engineer parts. He asked Nathan if he wanted to begin making prosthetic devices and Nathan negotiated a new foot out of the deal. During our interview, Nathan said with a straight face, “I had a foot in the door.” Quickly followed with a warm laugh!

In 2005, Nathan’s mom had landed a few commercial clients and needed someone who could work with plaster and make molds. She successfully recruited him to come back and join the family pottery business. Nathan had worked in corporate positions and has thoroughly enjoyed working in a smaller “hands on” creative pottery environment. (Once again, this matters for the rest of the story.) Several years ago, his sons were poking around in the garage and discovered his old climbing gear. They expressed an interest and he and his wife took their four children on a climbing trip. All four children were hooked and continue to grow their climbing skills and abilities.

About 3 years ago, Nathan’s prosthetist (Josh McNeill) mentioned a climbing night at a local gym. Nathan had never participated in the gym climbing scene, but he is exceedingly grateful he heeded Josh’s suggestion. Side note, Josh is the chairperson of the Catalyst Sports board of directors. Now it was Nathan’s turn to be hooked! He started volunteering – showing up and belaying people, talking with others with disabilities and encouraging them to branch out and try some of these sports. As he described it, “Active sports which wouldn’t “ordinarily” be seen as a good fit for someone like us.” Nathan jumped into Catalyst Sports and it became a catalyst (pun intended) for pursuits he had not imagined in the past. He joined the Catalyst Sports Climbing Team, attended two national competitions and two international competitions, as well as two World Cup Para-climbing competitions. Nathan emphatically stated that, “Catalyst Sports was the key to me being able to do these things. Without the level of support, I would not have been able to participate in that event or be a part of that community.” Nathan gave examples of Eric Gray’s support including renting a house for everyone to be able to stay together, stocking the fridge and renting a van for transportation to/from both the airport and the competition.

In Nathan’s sincere authentic way, he shared that the first year he did it all for the community. He went on to say, “the people that participate in these events are ‘salt of the earth’ – an incredible group of people.” Climbing had been a way of maintaining physical fitness, engaging with his family, and building community with like-minded individuals within the para-climbing community. There was a bond of dealing with and overcoming the adversity of having a particular physical limitation. He loved and still loves how they encourage, push and motivate each other to continue to do better. He took it to heart. By the second year, he began wondering if he could get closer to the podium. He placed in the Top 10 in the Salt Lake City World Cup in May 2023! Nathan is planning to continue to work hard and improve. We hope to see him on that podium, sporting a Catalyst Sports shirt, of course.

As we were bringing our conversation to a close, I asked Nathan a couple of “why” questions. Why have you chosen to be a monthly donor for Catalyst Sports? With conviction he said,

“I want to see Catalyst grow. Eric’s long-term vision is incredible. Many people would be content with the impact that has already been made. Not Eric. He keeps looking down the road to how he can do more, increase opportunities, improve, contribute more to this group of individuals. There is a huge demand for the type of programming Catalyst Sports offers and yet a small percentage offering them.”

Why have you offered to provide these beautiful, unique, handmade mugs to Catalyst Sports for their monthly donors? Sincerely and once again humbly Nathan responded,

“As much as Eric was doing for me and folks like me, I felt compelled to pitch in as well. I don’t want to be viewed as just a consumer – I want to be a contributor as well. I volunteer once a month for a climbing day, am a monthly supporter at a small level to Catalyst Sports and the mugs are just a way I could help Eric and help move his vision forward.”

Wow! Incredible story. Incredible person. Incredible attitude. Incredible impact. Much gratitude to Nathan for taking the time to talk and allowing us to share his story. Please be sure to check out Earthborn Pottery and cheer on all the Catalyst athletes in their pursuits! Nathan and Earthborn have crafted special Catalyst Sports mugs for us to deliver to our monthly donors after six months of giving. We are hopeful that Nathan’s story, Catalyst Sports’ impact and vision and these one-of-a-kind mugs will inspire you to be a Catalyst Champion!!

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