Recent winner of Bloco Masters in Poland Michaela Tracy opens up about the wild Polish climbing scene as well as her very varied climbing achievements, why women are killing it in Sheffield at the moment, and why she avoids the limelight.
Originally from London, Michaela is currently studying for a PHD in Sheffield. Part of the GB Bouldering Team, her best competition achievements so far have been placing 6th in the World Championships in 2014 and achieving an overall ranking of 12th in the 2016 World Cup, despite missing two of the rounds. She has also sport-climbed 8b, bouldered 8A/V11 and onsighted a number of trad E5s.
MT: I was definitely the most experienced competitor at Bloco in Poland, which was a particular challenge for me. Historically, if you look at all my best results, they've generally been when I had no expectations or pressures – internal or external – and completely surprised myself.
It’s easy to fight when you don’t have anything to lose. it’s different to go into a competition as the favourite to win. At some point though, if you want to be successful that’s something you have to learn to deal with. At some point you’re going to stop being the underdog.
I had actually been 50-50 about whether I would go to this competition or not. I'd made a few friends from Poland while on the World Cup circuit, and they were really keen to get a few more internationals over. In the end I decided it would be good competition practise, a chance to go to a country I’d never been to before and probably a lot of fun, so I just went for it.
I found Warsaw strangely hipster. In the city centre everyone was really well dressed and all the cafes sold flat whites. It's an odd city because it was completely destroyed in the war, so it’s all totally new – even the old city, which they rebuilt according to old plans and photographs, exactly as it was.
Michaela concentrating hard at Bloco. Photo: Stefan Madej
The climbing scene in Warsaw is really big. There are loads of really strong people. I think it’s changed a lot in the last ten years. I heard it used to be pretty lawless – parties after the qualification round and before the semi-final, the Polish championship having to be postponed because all the finalists missed the deadline for isolation, that kind of thing.
The scene there has a wild element, which I really enjoyed. Sometimes I think the attitude over here is getting a little too serious.
I really enjoyed the format of the qualification round, as you just had four hours to complete as many of the 40 problems as you could, with no limit on attempts. Instead of it being this really stressful environment, you felt more like you were just having a session with the other competitors. It also meant I ended the day feeling totally trashed!
The style of the problems was very powerful and dynamic, which gave me a chance to practice jumps, co-ordination jumps and run and jumps. It can be quite hard to practice that style down the wall here, as they don’t tend to set problems like that.
The final was really cool, too – the setters had made some brilliant problems (more co-ordination jumps) and the atmosphere was crazy. So many people came to watch. I guess the only thing I would say is maybe the problems were a little too hard. I feel like they overestimated us, and it would have been nice if there were a few more tops!
WATCH: our great little clip of Michaela psyching up for a competition:
We took the opportunity to quiz Michaela a bit more about her climbing:
Up until the age of nine I wasn't a particularly sporty kid. I was pretty quiet and mostly liked reading and playing chess. Then my dad took me and my three sisters to a climbing wall in London. There was someting about it that really grabbed me. To this day I still remember that first time, and from then on all I really wanted to do was climb.
I like the fact that climbing is such a complete thing. You have the community, the connection to nature and the outdoors, all the amazing places that climbing can take you and the experiences you have along the way.
If you push yourself to the limit of your abilities physically and mentally then you realise the boundaries lie a lot further away than you might think. I really enjoy that. For competitions, the best advice I can give is to climb like you have nothing to lose.
It’s not unusual for the board at the Climbing Works to be dominated by women. At the moment it feels like there are loads of women training and climbing hard here in Sheffield. There are so many people here who are psyched for climbing, both training and getting out on the grit or limestone when the weather cooperates.
Making the final at the World Championships in Munich. Photo: Sytse van Slooten
What’s really cool about Sheffield is that the climbing scene is small enough that you get a real sense of community. Even if you don’t really feel like climbing you can just go to the crag, hang out and have a great time.
It makes a big difference to have world-class training facilities like the Works, the School Room and the Foundry Wave on your doorstep. I can also get to the crag from my house in around 20 minutes.
I’m now into all styles of climbing, but I started out primarily indoors, and doing lead competitions. I then moved into sport climbing outdoors, followed by bouldering and finally two years ago got into trad climbing.
Michaela on Glass Hour at Stanage Plantation. Photo: Steve Franklin
My best sport climbing achievement so far is a route called Love Amongst the Butterflies (8b) at the Cheedale Cornice, which I climbed in 2015 with Maddy Cope. It’s really technical, thin and footwork dependent, which at the time was really my anti-style.
And in bouldering, The Dark Room (8A/V11), which is in a massive cave near Castleton. It's really atmospheric and funky climbing – I think you do two full 360s on the problem!
I also had this one really great day up at Crafnant doing this Big Four challenge of Cruella, Wonderwall, Special K and Grasswind. None of the problems individually are that hard but they were all sort of near my limit, especially the last two, so it was a real challenge to do all four in one day.
Trad climbing wise, I've on-sighted a number of E5s. The ones I remember most are Hunger at Gogarth, Out of my Mind at Pembroke and King Wad in Llanberis Pass.
At the moment I’m pretty excited about gritstone bouldering, which is something I used to hate. And I’m really excited that I might have a bit more time over the summer to go trad-climbing, as this had to take a back seat last year.
Michaela's favourite climbing destinations:
Sport – Rodellar
Trad – Gogarth
Bouldering – Cresciano/Chironico
Why don't I chase media attention? That's a really interesting question for me to answer. It partly stems from when I made the finals of the World Championships back in 2014. At that time media attention maybe meant a bit more to me. I thought that was an integral part of the whole climbing thing, so I was involved in it a bit more. It’s nice in a way to feel like you get some kind of recognition for your achievements.
However, it also felt like my experiences were being in some sense taken away from me. When you value something because of the response it receives rather than because of the intrinsic worth of the act itself – that’s a dangerous trap to fall into.
Then I got pretty injured, and started trad-climbing, primarily on sea-cliffs. It was about as far as you can get from the world of competition bouldering, an experience that takes place almost entirely in your own head. That year really affected my approach to climbing.
At the top of Carn Barra. Photo: Rob Greenwood
It's really important to me that I see climbing as something to be played for its own sake, and not for recognition or achievement or personal gain. Approached in this way, the act of competing, or training, or trying a hard route, becomes an incredible experience in its own right, regardless of the outcome. Maybe I'm not explaining it very well. I'd recommend the book Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse to anyone who’s interested.
I feel like I’ve got a good relationship now with the sponsors I have. I really value their support and I appreciate that they allow me to interact with the media in a way which I am comfortable with, which I believe is both responsible and mutually beneficial.
In the coming year I’m going to be focussing on doing a full World Cup season. There are a lot of other things I want to achieve but as I started competing a little later than a lot of competitors, this one feels a bit more time-limited.
I would also like to actually climb Mecca this year. I tried it a bit last year and a lot the year before, but I never really approached it correctly so it didn’t quite come together which was a bit frustrating. Oh, and the full blue circuit at the Climbing Works.
More on Michaela's blog.
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