Show caption Shauna Coxsey will compete for Team GB as sport climbing makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 Team GB’s Shauna Coxsey: ‘If just one person sees climbing and tries it, that’s a win for me’ Sport climbing makes its Olympic bow in Tokyo and Britain is represented by a bouldering world champion who has never lost that childhood instinct to climb Natalie Berry Sun 18 Jul 2021 08.00 BST Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share via Email
Even as she ascends a replica of the Olympic bouldering wall while talking about going to the Games, between being kitted out and trained up one month before she heads to Tokyo, Shauna Coxsey still quite cannot believe she is competing in sport climbing’s debut Games. “I don’t think it’ll sink in until afterwards,” she says. “I never expected climbing to become an Olympic discipline during my career. I’ve trained, I’ve qualified and now it’s weeks away … it’s surreal!”
Coxsey’s sense of disbelief as a pioneer in a sport thrust into the Olympic spotlight would be understandable before any Games, let alone one coinciding with a pandemic. “The past year has taught everyone to be sceptical,” Coxsey says. “Even now I’m asking, is it going to happen?”
She wondered the same about her wedding, booked for 2020 post-Tokyo. She postponed her post-Games retirement. Another year of training; life on hold. An ongoing injury. But Coxsey’s attitude is one of pragmatic optimism. “My outlook on life is: ‘If you can’t do something about it, get over it’,” she laughs. “Our wedding got cancelled. We said: ‘Oh well, we’ll rebook, it’s fine.’”
With a ticket to Tokyo already punched, Coxsey was locked down in Sheffield with her partner Ned (now husband, the wedding happened), nephew Kieran and an enviable training set-up: two climbing boards in their cellar. “It’s a lifesaver – there’s no excuse not to keep training,” Coxsey admits. Kieran has kept his aunt on her toes. “It’s great to have family competitiveness,” she adds.
Family has been at the heart of Coxsey’s career ever since she told her dad: “I want to do that” while watching climbing on television aged four. Her father Mike made practice fun, hiding toys in climbing holds. “He inspired how Leah and I train,” Coxsey says. Leah Crane is her coach and close friend. The pair make training playful, dabbling in acroyoga, which combines yoga and acrobatics, and dance. “When things get tough, we’re smiling and we train better,” Coxsey says. “I perform best when I’m happy.”
In another pandemic twist, her family will not be travelling to Japan. “My sisters are always the loudest at competitions,” she laughs. “I’ll hear them from Tokyo!”
There were no British professional competition climbers before Coxsey’s decision to forge a competition career in 2012. “I realised that I had to become an athlete – just going climbing wasn’t enough,” she says. Coxsey attracted a crack team of sponsors and personnel, eventually becoming twice a World Cup champion in bouldering (unroped, gymnastic climbs) in 2016 and 2017.
But aiming for Tokyo was not obvious. The triathlon-like Olympic format of speed (a 15m roped race), boulder and lead (roped endurance climbs) demands different skills. Shortly before the 2017 Olympic announcement, Coxsey had won her second World Cup title. “My initial reaction was: ‘No way, I’m not doing this format’”, she remembers. “Only 20 women could qualify. It seemed unreachable, but the draw of the Olympics was huge.”
Shauna Coxsey: ‘I never expected climbing to become an Olympic discipline during my career. Now it’s weeks away … it’s surreal’ Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA
To qualify, Coxsey embraced speed climbing, the outlier compared with the two more compatible disciplines. As a bouldering specialist, combined came with a price. “People think you’ll maintain world No 1 form,” she explains. “But you go from training boulder daily to just twice a week.”
Finding the balance – an unappealing middle ground for a climber – proved challenging. So when Coxsey qualified at the first selection event in 2019 – while struggling with flu and a knee injury – as third seed, it was unexpected. “I was training for November’s event, so to qualify in August was crazy,” she says.
Twelve months before the original Tokyo start date, Coxsey underwent knee surgery. An epidural led to back issues, which she is still managing. “It’s frustrating,” she says, “but it’s part of the process and my team has found ways to keep me climbing.”
Coxsey recently announced her retirement from competitions post-Tokyo. In June, she placed 36th in a bouldering World Cup – her lowest-ever rank. “It was a relief in one sense, because being there made me realise that I’ve made the right decision in retiring,” she explains. She will continue rock climbing, an outdoor arena where she has already achieved world-class ascents. “I can remain a professional athlete and pursue my career down different avenues,” Coxsey says, sharing honeymoon climbing trip plans. “Competitions are a hard place to be if you’re not in the right place. I can now focus entirely on Tokyo.”
Quick Guide New Olympic sports at Tokyo 2020 Baseball and Softball
Returning for the first time since Beijing 2008 and both sports will find a willing audience in Japan where they are extremely popular. Men compete in baseball, in which the pitch is overhand and reaches over 100mph from a distance of 60ft. Women compete in softball in which the pitch is underhand and reaches around 60mph from just 40 feet. No British interest.
Born in Japan and will be held in the Nippon Budokan, considered the spiritual home of martial arts. Kata, the solo division, will see athletes demonstrate their techniques alone. In the Kumite, they will be judged on flights lasting three minutes across three different weight classes.. No British interest.
Held at the Ariake Urban Sports Park, skateboarding is split into two divisions. Park will be held in a smooth course, while street include obstacles such as benches, stairs, rails and slopes. British interest Sky Brown and Bombette Martin, aged 13 and 14 years old, will compete in the park competition.
Split into three divisions: bouldering, speed and lead. Bouldering sees athletes complete a number of routes in as few attempts as they can, while in speed two athletes go head-to-head with the simple goal of reaching the top first. In the lead division, the climbers ascend for six minutes and the winner is the person who finishes highest. British interest: Shauna Coxsey
Surfing will be held 40 miles from Tokyo on Tsurigasaki Beach and take the form of 30 minute heats, with the early rounds being held as heats of four to five competitors before the later rounds become one-on-one contests. The surfers will be assessed by judges, who give a score out of 10 based on speed, power, and flow.
A more structured version of pickup basketball played recreationally around the world, teams composed of three players and one substitute will compete on a half court with one basket. They will play up to 21 points, with the leading team winning if the game is not decided in 10 minutes. No British interest. Show Hide
At 28, Coxsey is among the older athletes; a potential advantage on the Olympic stage. “Experience is the one thing you cannot train,” she says. “I feel incredibly at home performing.”
Her results reflect this: Coxsey has two world titles, 11 World Cup golds and an Olympic spot to her name. But her happiness is not measured in medals. “I still love climbing as much as I did as a kid,” she says. “I’ve struggled – turning a hobby into a career isn’t easy. To still be in love with it, almost 30 years on, is my proudest achievement and that’s worth more than any medal.”
Meanwhile, climbing has transitioned from niche pastime to Olympic discipline. “It’s fascinating to be a professional climber while our sport is changing and growing,” she says. “But I don’t think climbing has changed me, I think it’s shaped me.”
Coxsey has also shaped climbing. She received an MBE for services to the sport in 2016, as a champion for participation. “I always wanted to be an ambassador,” she says. “To bring people in and showcase climbing.”
Throughout July, Coxsey has been training on a replica Tokyo bouldering wall in Sheffield. She cannot predict the climbs, but can familiarise herself with its angles. “It’s a privilege to train on it beforehand and share it with others,” she says. Coxsey hopes that Olympic climbing will resonate with first-time viewers: “If just one person sees climbing and tries it, that’s a win for me.”
Given the timing of her back injury, Coxsey has adjusted her expectations. “I’m not in the shape I want to be in, so just getting to Tokyo and getting off the ground feels like a huge achievement,” she says. “I want to walk away with a smile – that’s what success looks like to me. It’s definitely not goodbye, but it’s the start of a new chapter.”