Janja Garnbret achieves Olympic dream in sport climbing's debut: 'This was the hardest competition in my life'

Slovenia's Janja Garnbret had expectations lumped on her to win gold in her sport's Olympic debut. She did so with brilliant climbing. Hear from her exclusively on how it all unfolded. 

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

In the years building to sport climbing's Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, one female name popped up more than any other as expectations grew towards the Games.

Slovenia's Janja Garnbret.

The 22-year-old climbing champion, with World Cup and World Championships titles to her name, aptly added Olympic gold to her name - the first in the history of her sport along with Spain's Alberto Gines Lopez.

Garnbret, long the favourite, let out tears of joy with fellow medallists Nonaka Miho and Noguchi Akiyo as she accomplished her Olympic dream.

She won one of three golds in Tokyo for Slovenia, a country of just two million, and she was the only Slovenian woman to do so.

"I have to admit, the pressure I felt, it was like nothing else," Garnbret said in an Instagram live with the Olympics and pro adventure climber Alex Honnold.

"If I ever thought that I was under pressure in the World Cup or World Championships, this is something completely different. ... It's just like I trained hard for two years just for this event." - Janja Garnbret

"And I said to myself that I didn't train for nothing just to throw it all away like this. I had to do what I had to do. Being super focused and being in my world having fun - and just trying to do my best."

Garnbret's best has been the best in the world for much of the past five years, as she's collected six World Championships golds and rose to her status as "the one to beat" ahead of Tokyo 2020.

But years of climbing behind her, nothing was a given in Tokyo, in particular because the combined format - with speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing - included the speed discipline, which is not a strong suit for a climber like Garnbret, who focusses on bouldering and lead. 

Instead of allowing her weakness to turn into a nemesis, she focused on doing her best there and then moving on. Something much easier said than done. 

"I don't really know how I handled the expectations from others for myself," she explained. "And I'm proud of myself for doing that because this was the hardest competition in my life. But I kind of kept telling myself that the pressure is just an illusion that I have to just enjoy, because if I enjoy it, then I also know that I will do my best."

Tokyo 2020: How Garnbret won gold

Having been 14th in the speed qualification, Garnbret leapt to action on the bouldering wall, not only being the only athlete to top all four boulder problems, but doing so by conquering them each on her first try - known as a 'flash' in sport climbing.

She finished fourth in the lead climbing to win the qualification round overall - a sure sign of confidence heading into the final.

After a "dream scenario" start in the speed placed her fifth to begin the final, Garnbret relaxed a bit: "I thought, 'This is my day,'" she said.

"Then I really enjoyed bouldering," she said, finding the top of two out of the three final problems.

"I knew that it was a hard [bouldering] round, which I really, really liked. It was very challenging. And then after bouldering again, I asked my coach, 'What do I have to do to win?' And he said, 'Just climb and enjoy.'" - Janja Garnbret

Garnbret did just that, and as the lead climbers after her went one by one, it was clear not only the podium was in her future - but that she had won an Olympic gold medal for Slovenia - in sport climbing's Olympic debut.

Garnbret embraced with Japan's Nonaka and Noguchi - three women who have competed against one another for years, now Olympic medallists.

"Out of the competitions, we are really good friends and I have a huge respect for them," Garnbret said. "[Akiyo has] been on top for so many years. ... I was looking up to her when I was a little kid; I wanted to climb boulders like her. So it's a huge, huge honour to compete with her. And she ended a career with a bronze medal. And Miho, we've been competing together for so long. She's been also on the top all the time. So I think nobody deserves it more than Miho and Akiyo to stand on the podium."

Garnbret's win was watched by climbing fans - both seasoned and new ones - from around the world. In Slovenia, an outdoor screen had been erected where she grew up, she said her mother told her. There, "everybody wanted me to win," she said.

"Everybody believed that I can do it," she said. "It was a motivation for me."

MORE: Read how Garnbret won women's combined gold | Gines Lopez stuns in men's

What next? Slovenian World Cup - and Paris 2024

What comes next after you win a historic gold medal at the Olympics?

Garnbret said she had never looked past the Olympic in her planning, clearly happy to soak in the win and have a little rest. But she is scheduled to compete at the next IFSC World Cup in early September, which is set to be held in her home country of Slovenia.

The World Championships are later in September, to be held in Moscow, Russia.

Garnbret is revelling in her Olympic experience - and, yes - thinking about Paris 2024, too, when climbing will be split into speed climbing medals and bouldering/lead climbing.

"I really enjoyed every single moment of" the Olympics, she said. "And I will never forget this, that I was part of the Olympics and that I'm the first Olympic gold medallist. Yeah - I have a plan to be in Paris... that's the plan after this Olympics: To be in Paris."

While she would also like to see some changes made to the climbing format, she also thinks having the sport included in the Olympic programme could do wonders for it - globally.

"I think this will be helpful for climbing," Garnbret said. "Like climbing will become more popular. And more people will get involved in climbing, more kids will get involved in climbing. And climbing is still young. And I think I can say, I think climbing will be the most popular sport in the in a few years.


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