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Shauna Coxsey’s Long And Winding Road To The Olympics

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When the postponement announcement came in, I was sitting at my kitchen table. It was March 23, and I had been avoiding the news all day, not wanting to interrupt my training. Then in the early evening I looked at my phone and saw a dozen messages.  

In just one day, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were put off for a year, the UK went into lockdown, and my wedding was canceled. I was ripped from the safety net of my training bubble and thrust into a new reality. Over my years as an athlete, I have become accustomed to adjusting and adapting. I have fought many challenges and done my best to face them with positivity and determination. But this—this all—was different.

I love having a goal to work toward. I tend to set a big goal, and then add lots of little goals to keep motivated and focused. The big one this year had been simple: Get to the Olympics fitter, stronger and faster than ever. It was a daunting prospect, but entirely achievable. I had my team, a team I trust and had spent years creating: coaches, physios, management, dietitian, and sport psychologist. We had a plan that took countless hours of thought, effort and persistence even to create, a plan detailing the best way for me to get to the Games in the best possible shape.

Training full time for the combined format, which is three totally individual sports, is brutal and unforgiving, but you can have a lot of fun along the way. When I was a kid, my dad would ask why I climbed, and I always answered, “Because it’s fun.” My dad has always been ready to remind me of that whenever my psych wanes. 

The abrupt change of pace shook me. No longer was every day meticulously planned, no longer was my focus on the daily pursuit of minute gains. For me physically and mentally, the shift in focus felt enormous.

It took longer than I expected to process and adjust to the new landscape, to begin to understand the global crisis we are all living. Initially I fought my sadness and frustrations because I felt they were insignificant. I knew I was fortunate to have my health, to be content in my home and still able to train. Yet I felt an overwhelming sense of loss.

Coxsey winning the IFSC Bouldering World Cup in Kazo, Japan, in 2016. Photo by Yuta Yoshida/Red Bull Content Pool

Though the Olympics had not happened, before the pandemic I had felt that the process, the journey, was almost over. Making the decision three years ago to pursue the Olympic dream wasn’t easy. I knew the campaign would require a lot from me and those around me. I wasn’t simply going to try. I would demand commitment from myself. I believed it was possible, but belief wouldn’t be enough.

Qualifying was the first hurdle, and it was the biggest. With only 20 spots available per gender and only three opportunities to achieve a spot, the fight was on.

Training for the combined format, when I had focused on bouldering for almost a decade, was both refreshing and infuriating. It was also very different than I expected. I found myself, surprisingly, fascinated by speed climbing, and appreciated the new elements that it brought to my training and climbing. I learned to embrace the pump, and relished battling my forearms. Yet I paid for it when my love for bouldering waned.

Staying motivated for bouldering was hard. I used to feel fortunate to do my passion as my job, but feared that amid the relentless training routine I would lose the joy. I felt I had been battling and wasn’t in the shape I wanted to be for the 2019 World Championships—the first Olympic qualification event, in August 2019 in Hachioji, Japan.

Arriving there, not only was I struggling with a few niggles, I also got hit by the flu. I couldn’t do my full warmup for the first events. I simply didn’t have the energy. When I qualified for Bouldering finals, I cried in surprise and relief. I then slept on our physio bed, tucked away near the vending machines in the arena, and somehow managed to give a performance worthy of the bronze medal. Luckily, I started to feel better toward the end of the 11-day combined event but still, to say that qualifying there for the Olympics was unexpected is an understatement. I felt honored and contented. 

The elation was quickly replaced with anticipation. I had achieved my first goal, but knew I could be stronger, fitter and faster, and found myself fascinated to see just how much. Even before we’d returned to the UK I wanted to know the plan, the next steps.

Throughout my career I’ve dealt with many injuries: finger, shoulder and now knee. Coming back from injury doesn’t scare me. So despite having knee surgery in December I felt really good throughout the months pre lockdown. The plan was in place; my team believed, I believed, and everything was moving. The end was in sight. I looked forward to being in the Olympics, to climbing in a way that reflected all of the preparation.

I also looked forward to it being over. I love the moments after a competition finishes, when you can finally stop, process, contemplate and just be. 

My path after the Olympics was and is unknown. As to plans for after the Games, for the first time in my life I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt great relief and joy at the prospect. My mind raced with all the possibilities. I longed for the freedom to pursue different climbing goals, visit new places, explore my potential on rock—and who knows, maybe I’d miss comp climbing and keep at it. I guess that’s the point. I really don’t know what I want to do.

I have been glad and privileged to make the choices that I have throughout my career. Despite longing for days outdoors in the wild when doing endless laps up a speed wall in a hot, sweaty climbing gym on a beautiful day, I am glad for my decision to pursue a place in the Olympics. Yet I am also excited to see where my journey goes from there. That excitement for the unknown now has to wait another year.

Feature image:Coxsey was among the first set of climbers to qualify for the Olympic Games—intended for August 2020. Then came the pandemic. Photo by Matthew Bird/Red Bull Content Pool

This feature appeared in the sixth issue of Gym Climber.

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