"Sport climbing is like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles"
As double world champion Shauna Coxsey explains, elite sport climbers are heading into the unknown as they gear up for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. In a radical move, the sport’s three disciplines of lead, speed and bouldering are being combined to create one all-singing, all-dancing event.
“It’s a great representation of what our sport is,” said Shauna Coxsey, the 2016 and 2017 International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Bouldering World Cup champion. “So I 100 per cent understand the decision.”
Given that the vast majority of elite climbers specialise in one discipline only, the sport’s Olympic Games debut is sure to be a captivating, exciting, and completely unpredictable spectacle.
The new format ensures the athletes’ skills and adaptability will be tested like never before.
“It’s a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles,” laughed Coxsey. “No one has really transitioned before. No boulderer has transitioned to speed and lead, and no speed climber has done it to bouldering and lead.”
The 24-year-old Briton will decide after the 2017 IFSC Bouldering World Cup season concludes in August (she secured the crown with victory in the Mumbai leg in June) whether to commit to chasing gold in Tokyo. She should be well-placed to challenge for a medal if she does decide to go for it.
It’s a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles Shauna Coxsey - Shauna Coxsey
“People are saying boulderers are in the best position to transition,” Coxsey said. “A lot of boulderers in my generation grew up lead climbing because there weren’t international competitions for bouldering in the juniors when I was younger. Transitioning to speed should be easier for the boulderers because we are more power-based, but at the same time, nobody actually has any evidence to prove this – it hasn’t been done before.”
Taking on the seemingly impossible is something Coxsey and her fellow competitors are used to. In qualification rounds and semi-finals, athletes are given five minutes per boulder in which to work out a route and complete the climb. None of them will have seen the boulder before.
“It’s different every time; sometimes I know immediately what to do, sometimes I don’t have a clue and I pull on and start the climb without knowing what is going to happen and where I am going to go,” the British champion said.
“It’s not a case of seeing a climb and thinking ‘that looks impossible’; it’s a case of going, ‘oh this looks impossible but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it’. I often look at things afterwards and go, ‘how on earth is it possible that I just climbed that?’.”
“I try a lot of climbs and moves in training to see where the realms of possibility lie for me,” Coxsey said. “At the Climbing Hangar, where I train in Liverpool, they give me space to put my own holds on the wall and set the most ridiculous, stupid things I or my training partner Leah Crane can come up with. And then we make it into games, have fun with it and push ourselves to see what we can do. Often we surprise ourselves.”
Working out the best route is not a solitary task in competition either. In a move that highlights the very essence of sport climbing, and perhaps helps explain its remarkable recent rise in participation and popularity, climbers in the finals of events get two minutes in which to study the boulders together.
It’s different every time; sometimes I know immediately what to do, sometimes I don’t have a clue and I pull on and start the climb without knowing what is going to happen and where I am going to go Shauna Coxsey - Shauna Coxsey
“We generally chat away and figure it out between us,” Coxsey said. “Although we are competing against each other, it doesn’t feel hostile; it’s quite a friendly environment.”
This sense of comradeship survives even the intense nature of World Cup-deciding competitions.
“When we are out there on the mats reading the boulders together, I never feel uncomfortable with the other girls,” Coxsey added. “We all want to climb our best and for the best person to come out on top.”
Bouldering’s world number one ranked climber has spent two decades hanging out at climbing walls.
“There is such a craze for leading a fit, healthy lifestyle but I think a lot of people struggle with the monotony of most sports – I know I did as a youngster,” Coxsey said.
“With climbing there is always something new, always a new challenge. Even now I get so excited when there are new climbs at the climbing wall – just as excited as I did when I was four years old.”