Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Shauna Coxsey Interview | We Talk To The World Champion About Royal Recognition and Olympic Climbing

“Climbing in the Olympics is something I never thought I would see in my professional career”

It’s got to be a little surreal watching the Olympics unfold knowing that in four years time it could be you with a medal slung round your neck and your name trending as a hashtag.

I suggest as much to Shauna Coxsey, the Runcorn-born climbing queen who not only became the first Brit to win the IFSC Bouldering World Cup earlier this year, but also received an MBE for ‘Services to Climbing’.

“It’s been an amazing year,” she tells me. “When I started working with my coach four years we put out a five year plan, and our goal was to win the overall World Cup. To do that this year was absolutely amazing. And the MBE was a total surprise.

Preparing for a climb in Kazo, Japan Photo: Yuta Yoshida

“My boyfriend sent me a message saying ‘you’ve got a letter that looks really important’. We were worried it might have been jury duty or something like that. He opened it up and it said that I’d been nominated for an MBE.”

So, surely Shauna should be relishing the announcement that sport climbing will now feature in the 2020 Olympics Games?

At just 23 years old, Coxsey will be 27 and in the prime of her career when the Games in Tokyo come around. As the best on the planet right now, she could well be in contention for a medal spot. Shauna not only became the first British world champion this year; she did it convincingly, with a round of the seven-event World Cup series to spare.

Shauna celebrates in Innsbruck, Austria after a win in the World Cup Photo: Elias Holzknecht

But there’s just one thing: while Coxsey is ecstatic to see the sport included in the programme for Tokyo 2020, she’s still not sure if she’s actually going to compete.

See, things aren’t quite as clear cut as they might seem for the athlete. The climbing event featured in the Olympics will require athletes to contest in not only Shauna’s own discipline of bouldering, but also lead-climbing, a more endurance-based sport using ropes, and speed climbing, a timed race up the wall.

Shauna Coxsey climbs during the final of the IFSC Climbing World Cup in Kazo, Japan Photo: Heiko Wilhelm

In effect, Coxsey would have to learn how to compete in two addition sports at the highest level in the world.

“Climbing getting into the Olympics is something that I never thought I would see in my professional career,” she tells us. “I just never even considered that I could be at the Olympics. It was actually quite a big shock.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity, but it’s not my discipline that’s been selected; it’s multiple disciplines, so it would be a big transformation [for me]. It’s a big decision and it’s something that I’ll need to go through with my coach and make a plan for.

The Olympic crowd would be even more daunting than this… Photo: Elias Holzknecht

“It’s not just a case of deciding whether to compete, it’s the decision of whether to take up two new sports and train full-time on top of what I’m already doing. So we’ll see. It’s going to be an intense few years!”

Her closing comments on the matter suggest Shauna is leaning more towards going for gold in Tokyo than not, but she’s not lying about that workload.

Shauna already trains 40 hours and six days a week to maintain her current standing as the world’s best in bouldering, splitting her time between Liverpool and Manchester, and it’d be a big ask to add two new disciplines to her training on top of that.

She continued: “If I do decide to compete in the Olympics then it’ll be challenging, but I like challenges.

Shauna Coxsey portrait Photo: Olaf Pignatara

“Speed climbing is totally alien to me but I used to compete in lead climbing, so that transfer won’t necessarily be as hard as it would be for someone who’s never been a part of that before.

“It’d be case of becoming more organised and more professional and more structured with my training. But luckily that’s all up to my coach! They’ve got the hard job.”

If Coxsey’s appearance in Tokyo remains in doubt though, her feelings towards the inclusion of the sport in the Olympic programme do not.

The Olympic medal would require not only bouldering but also speed climbing and lead climbing Photo: Yuta Yoshida

There have been whispers of discontent from various corners of the surfing, skateboarding and climbing world since the sports where announced for 2020, with some fearing the commercialisation and pollution of previously core sports as they are poured into the mainstream.

Shauna has always been an advocate of getting bouldering in front of as many eyeballs as possible and has been an ambassador for the sport for several years. It’s no surprise that she’s celebrating the opportunity to grow the sport further rather than fearing for its decline.

“The sport has been growing at such a rapid rate and there are so many types of people coming into the sport now and using it for different reasons,” she says.

“I think in the past climbers used to be a small community so people knew each other very well and the lifestyle came with the sport. Now you see people coming to the climbing wall to do half an hour workout before they go to work. People are using it instead of using the gym and coming on their own and there are so many reasons why people are climbing now.

“I think the people who have been in the sport for a long time now have seen that change and there’s always going to be people who react negatively to change but for me it’s definitely a good thing that the sport is growing and if there are people in the sport putting in the time to make that development positive then I don’t see it as a bad thing at all.

Shauna climbs at the Clmbing Hangar in Liverpool Photo: Lukasz Warzecha

“For me, I watched climbing on the TV when I was very young and that was what inspired me to start. So if I can inspire even one person to take up climbing then everything was worth it in my opinion. It’s a wonderful opportunity to inspire people and get them into the sport and try something new. I’m very honoured to be able to do one.”

And the potential increase in funding that the Games could bring must be another highlight?

“I really hope so,” the climber admits. “There are so few people on the British team who are even able to get to the competitions at the moment.

Coxsey scans the wall at the Climbing Hangar in Liverpool Photo: Shamil Tanna

“I think that for the young generation coming through, the Olympics is going to help climbing reach a bigger audience and get more funding and hopefully people can compete and push themselves.

“Now if we have people representing Team GB in climbing and winning medals then hopefully that can inspire the next generation to go out there and achieve more than we have done in the past.

“I love climbing and I think it’s the best possible sport you can do. So the more people who can get into the sport and live a healthy and active lifestyle the better.”

It’s been a year of overwhelming achievement and fulfilment for Shauna so far. When the English athlete first fell in love with climbing aged just four years old it became an obsession, and Shauna let her dreams and her goals grow with the rapid ascent of the sport.

In action in Kazo, Japan Photo: Yuta Yoshida

She grew up in a scene where it wasn’t really possible to make a living as a professional climber, and where the thought of an Olympic medal seemed as foreign to her as it would do to you or me.

“I started competing at the age of seven,” she recalls. “I’ve never wavered or got bored. I’ve always been obsessed with trying to get stronger and fitter and better at climbing.

“When I was younger I dreamed of winning a World Cup and being a World Champion but it wasn’t really something that was possible at the time. Climbing was still a very small sport, there wasn’t much support in the UK and no one was really doing it.

Shauna prepares to tackle the problem on route to the World Cup overall win Photo: Elias Holzknecht

“It was more of a dream than a goal when I was younger because it never seemed realistic. I never imagined the sport would grow at this rate and that I would be at the top of it. It seems surreal.

“It was just a case of having a dream and then turning that into a goal and then working towards it; being super stubborn and never giving up.”

15 years ago Shauna Coxsey could only dream of the day she would become the World Champion, and now she’s the first Briton to ever achieve such a feat.

More recently, the climber wouldn’t have even dared dream of being an Olympic champion. But now there’s a new dream to be had, if Shauna wants it – and a lot of work ahead if it’s going to be realised.

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