Such great heights

The UK’s leading competition climber and world champion Shauna Coxsey tells how she overcame multiple injuries and a global pandemic to defy expectations and make her Olympic dreams a reality

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Shauna Coxsey wasn’t even five before she’d figured out what she wanted to do with her life, a task that usually takes people decades. It was a chance encounter with the adventure sports channel – something her trails bike-loving father always watched – that opened her eyes to the world of competitive sport. Her goal was set: she would become a professional climber. There was just one small problem  – she was too embarrassed to tell anyone.

“Going from being a one discipline athlete to a two or three discipline athlete was insane.”

Looking back aged 28 with 11 climbing World Cup gold medals, an MBE for service to sport and a reputation as the UK’s most successful competition climber under her belt, it’s easy to laugh. However, back when she was a child in Runcorn, having aspirations as big as mountains wasn’t always encouraged. In fact, more often than not, they were mocked.

“It just felt so unrealistic and impossible, which is why I was kind of embarrassed,” she admits with a shy smile. “I think it’s a British thing. We don’t say we want to be the best – that’s just not something we do. It’s almost met with an air of you’re arrogant for thinking that’s possible.”

Luckily for Coxsey, she was surrounded by people who supported her passion. It turned out to be lucky for the world of competitive climbing too, as she soon found herself excelling in the sport – rising through the ranks in the North West bouldering scene to compete internationally in places like Slovenia, Austria and America.

Battling through a shoulder injury, she went on to emerge as the overall winner of two bouldering World Cup titles in 2016 and 2017 before setting a speed climbing record at the Bouldering World Championships in 2019 and taking home two more gold medals. As 2020 approached, she was busy preparing to represent Great Britain as the first climber selected to compete in the first ever Olympic climbing event at the Tokyo Olympics, juggling a gruelling training regime with a tricky knee injury that required surgery to overcome. Then things ground to a halt.

As the pandemic took hold, everything – including Coxsey’s Olympic dreams – was thrown into chaos. What followed was a challenging journey that’s chronicled in The Wall: Climb for Gold, a powerful new documentary that tracks Coxsey and three other professional climbers – Slovenian Janja Garnbret, American Brooke Raboutou and Japanese Miho Nonaka – as they prepare for the biggest event of their sporting careers during one of the most unpredictable years on record.

“For most people of my generation, climbing wasn’t very popular when I started,” recalls Coxsey, her blonde hair tied up in a tight, practical ponytail as she speaks from the other end of a Zoom call. “Most people come from climbing backgrounds or climbing families, so for me to not have had anyone in my family climbing when I started is quite unique,” she suggests. “Adventure sport was always on the telly and when climbing came on I was just obsessed and like: ‘I want to do that.’”

Coxsey started competing at a young age, relying on the support of her father to regularly taxi her from competition to competition across the North.

“I started climbing at the North West Face, which was our local climbing wall. They had a local competition and that’s how I got into competitions,” she says. “We’d spend so much time travelling in the car to the bouldering leagues in Cumbria because that was one of the few competitions that let young people compete. We’d get up super early, I’d get in my sleeping bag in the car and [my dad would] drag me all around the country to do these comps.”

As Coxsey grew, so did her skills and space on her awards shelf quickly ran out. But when the prospect of competing in the 2020 Olympics appeared, she doubled her efforts. In director Nick Hardie’s new film, we witness four athletes in their prime, each trying to hone the three different skills needed for this combined Olympic world first; bouldering, lead and speed climbing. But while it shows sports stars excelling in their field, it doesn’t shy away from showing the physical punishment and emotional toll competing professionally takes on participants.

“Going from being a one discipline athlete to a two or three discipline athlete was insane. I was training full time to be the best boulderer I could be, then I had to add in two more disciplines. No one knew how to coach it. Everybody was guessing because no one had done this before,” she tells Big Issue North. “I had injuries that were hard to come back from, too. It wasn’t pretty. When you’re training for something that’s so hard and demanding, to add injury on top of that, and then to add a global pandemic on top of that – it was pretty brutal.”

From a mental health perspective, having to train during seemingly never-ending lockdowns, without even knowing if the Olympics would even go ahead, was equally tough. “I don’t think you’ll speak to many athletes, or people, who went through the pandemic without needing to check in with their mental health. Being a professional athlete and constantly pushing your body to the limit, you have to look after your mind,” says Coxsey. “I work closely with a sports psychologist. I’m very good at checking in with my emotions and how I’m feeling but it was hard.”

Determined, she didn’t let these hurdles distract her – instead they spurred her on. “Any adversity challenges you, and if you push through, you’re going to be stronger on the other side. In my career I’ve had multiple surgeries and injuries and I’ve not been threatened by them. I’ve always seen them as opportunities. It’s a battle, but I think you learn so much about yourself, your body and also your mind when you’re pushed through hardships. We just had to keep training until someone said ‘this is not happening’, which is exactly what we did during the first lockdown. Motivation isn’t really something I struggle with but of course lockdown did put a strain on that.”

Coxsey was living with other climbers at the time – one of whom, Ned Feehally, she’s since married. They helped her immensely and when that all-important Olympic moment arrived, she was as prepared as she could be. Despite battling through various injuries, the athlete put her all into the games, declaring that the experience would be her final competition as a professional climber. While the documentary reveals what happened next (no spoilers here), Coxsey remains more than happy with her performance and the way she handled the immense pressure that accompanied the experience.

“I’ve won multiple gold medals and overall titles and then to go into this Olympic journey and walk away from the first qualification round with a medal, there was obviously a lot of expectation. During the two years between qualification and the actual games, a lot happened. I had two knee surgeries, wrist surgery, my back was damaged. For me, success was getting off the ground and walking away from the event smiling,” she says. “Just a few days before the Olympics, I tore my meniscus in my knee and genuinely didn’t know if I’d be able to climb, so the fact that I did get to I was so happy with.”

Having come through the process, Coxsey finds herself in a place where she can one day share her unique insight with others about to take their first steps in the sport. Currently five months pregnant, it’s likely that this knowledge handover may very well start at home too – with her husband having already built a mini-rock climbing wall in the pair’s attic. For now though, Coxsey is still digesting the lessons the past few years have taught her. With any luck, her advice will not only help new climbers practically but remind them that there’s nothing embarrassing about dreaming big.

“We all have different goals and versions of success and while it’s exciting to think about who’s going to be the next big star, it’s more important to think about what success looks like to you as an individual,” she says, pondering the advice she might offer the next generation of competitive climbers. “It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about this documentary coming out. So many more people will get to see the sport.”

The Wall: Climb for Gold is out now on Apple TV, Google Play and Amazon 

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