How to build an Olympic climber

Posted by Niall Grimes on 05/08/2021
Shauna Coxsey competing for Team GB in climbing's Olympic debut. Photo: IFSC / Dimitris Tosidis

This year in Tokyo, climbing has finally reached the heights of becoming an Olympic sport. Looking ahead to Paris 2024, and beyond, what will it take for GB Climbing to qualify and walk away with medals? Niall Grimes caught up with GB Climbing’s head coach Tom Greenall to discover more.

With climbing in the Olympics, how will this change focus of GB Climbing’s attention?

We have the ambition to be the world’s leading climbing nation by 2032. But that’s all about the system. We have to have a really good youth programme. You have to have great coaches. You have to have world-class route setting. And it’s not just about medals, it’s about the environment you bring people into, and how you allow them to do their best. Irrespective of the Olympics that is, and will remain, the ambition of GB Climbing.

In the 2024 Paris Olympics, speed climbing will be a sport of its own, separated from lead and speed. Does GB Climbing have a strategy for this discipline?

In terms of speed climbing, there are three possibilities. Obviously there will be current climbers who find they have the skills for speed and we develop that. Another is to look for already-capable speed climbers abroad who have a British passport and get them onto the team. But also we are looking wider than climbing, looking around and ID-ing somebody who is in another sport but who has the prerequisite physical ability to come into speed climbing. That’s something that’s been done very successfully in other sports.

How do you put together an Olympian?

The short answer is you put together a World Champion. It’s like Shauna Coxsey qualifying at Hachioji. She was the third ranked athlete to qualify and she was a two-time overall World Cup winner. That’s the caliber of athlete we’re talking about.

Are Olympic goals and team goals the same?

Looking specifically at the Olympics, in terms of planning around that four-year rotation, we would look at designing the programme around that, and around the combined lead and bouldering format. For example, in the run up to the Olympic cycle, in the two seasons before, someone who is good at lead and boulder would be prioritised over someone who is mainly a really good boulderer only, so that they can have the experience and exposure and learn to win at that level.

Does the team have a specific strategy for success in Paris 2024?

Looking ahead to Paris 2024, we have performance ambitions. Mainly this is to qualify a man and a woman for that. The nuts and bolts, the exact format the competition will take, we don’t know that yet. We know that there will be two events: a speed comp and a lead/boulder combined. We also know that in order to do well we have to be in a position where we are winning medals at World Cups and World Championships. It’ll be a real level up for the team to have multiple athletes capable of medals at world level.

The reality is that we do have a performance gap between where we are now and where we want to be in order to make and Olympic qualification for Paris a reality. We have to see the resources we have and how to supercharge our programme to do that. In order to do that we have to have experience. That will mean going abroad to experience other lead walls, getting routesetters over here to set the standard and getting competition experience.

What standard to you think Team GB need to get to to qualify in 2024?

When we look at the best athletes in the world, winning is not that difficult for them. They can deliver a medal-winning performance at 80% of their capacity. So that is where we have to be looking at taking the standard of our athletes, upping the level. To be in with a chance of winning, for a woman, that means consistently on-sighting 8b, 8b+ comp routes and for a man, 8c, 8c+. For boulderer, you have to be climbing three or four out of five problems at World Cup final level.

If anyone is reading this and thinking this might be for them, can you paint a picture of what you think it would take?

When it comes to making an Olympian, or any champion, there are two real attributes. Intent is the first: heading into training sessions with a purpose, knowing where you are going, knowing what you are looking to achieve, knowing what the end goal looks like. The other is consistency. One-off training sessions do nothing. You have to apply that content over a long period of time, with discipline. It needs a great mindset to embark on a relentless journey to be your best. In top of that, obviously, you need enormous physical and technical potential. The journey is not for the faint-hearted.

I’m really excited about it all, and the thing I’m most excited about is that preparation side. Comps themselves are great but they form such a small percentage of the overall experience. The real excitement is going on a journey with a bunch of athletes as they put in the hard work and develop. It’s a real buzz.

READ: Meet Molly Thompson-Smith - the powerful pundit

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GB Climbing is supported by the BMC, Mountaineering Scotland and Secur-it. The GB Ice Climbing Team is supported by Montane. Many UK walls also support the GB Climbing through free or subsidised entry.


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Anonymous User
03/09/2021
I have always struggled to see why people associate speed-climbing with the sport of climbing - apart from the word "climbing" and you go up a bit. To quote Tom Greenall as he speaks about recruiting world-class speed-climbers....

"But also we are looking wider than climbing, looking around and ID-ing somebody who is in another sport but who has the prerequisite physical ability to come into speed climbing"

This confirms it. You don't have to be a climber to do speed-climbing. Therefore its not climbing.
Stop pretending that speed-climbing and lead/trad/bouldering are in any way related as sports.
Cheers Simon H.

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