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Meet Christopher Cosser, Olympic-Bound South African Climber

This South African climber and his teammate Erin Sterkenburg are the only Olympic climbers from the African continent

20-year-old Christopher Cosser, of Johannesburg, South Africa, is one of two climbers representing both the South African nation and the African continent in climbing at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Gym Climber caught up with Cosser to chat about his climbing history and his hopes for the Olympics.

 

Tell us a bit about your competitive history.

I did my first competition in 2014, and then each year from there I went to the youth events. But South Africa, we only competed at one international competition per year, the Youth World Championships. And then when I finished high school in 2019 I traveled on the competition circuit for a little bit. I attended most of the World Cups in Europe and then last year’s World Cup in Arco, Italy.

Since then I haven’t done another international competition except for the selection event in Cape Town. 

 

Why do you think it is that South Africa only went to the World Youth Championship, and no other IFSC events, in the past?

Well, we’re quite far away from the rest of the world. All our flights are 8-plus hours. But also it’s all self-funded and self-motivated by the athletes and parents. So I’m quite fortunate as my parents can support me, but we receive no support from our government, and our federation is all volunteer work. So there’s no financial assistance from them.

 

Is that going to change after the Olympics?

The Olympic team is receiving support from our federation. Long term, I think it will change, but it’s going to take quite a bit of time. I think there needs to be a market for climbing in South Africa … for sponsorships to pull through, and our climbing federation to start earning money off of the sport. I think when that happens, then it will progress quite quickly.

 

So tell us about your climbing history in general? How long have you climbed outside?

So I started climbing in 2012 on a small school wall. I climbed my first 7a (5.11c/d) in 2014 [at the age of age 14]. So I started quite late compared to some, and was pretty far behind the rest of the world.

From 2014 to 2019, I just focused on outdoor climbing, and all the training I did was to do well outdoors and have fun with mates. And even at that point, it was more just social. We didn’t really have anything in mind. It was just to go out and have a good time. 

 

You climb pretty hard outside now, no? What are your hardest ticks outside?

I went to Cape Town last month and I did seven boulders 8A (V11) and above, which I was quite happy with. The hardest boulder I’ve done at the moment is 8B (V13), and the hardest sport route is 8b+ (5.14a).

 

Would you say you’re more of a boulderer or sport climber outside?

I would say on paper it would be a boulderer, but I prefer sport climbing. We just have some limitations to outdoor sport. We don’t have that many hard routes. I was chatting with somebody about it recently and we’ve got maybe 11 routes in the country that are 8b+ (5.14a) and harder, and there are like sixty million people living here. So for how big the country is, it’s crazy that we only have 11 routes above a relatively easy grade. But the community around the sport is slowly growing. So with the guys around my age, when they start to get up and start pushing the scene, we will get harder routes. It’s just a matter of time.

Do you approach indoor and outdoor climbing differently? Is there one type you’re more passionate about?

So I would say I’m more psyched on the indoor scene at the moment. Yeah, I can’t only indoor climb, I have to go outside. I feel like I start burning up and just not being that psyched to come into the gym and train for hours on end without doing quite a large bit of climbing outside. So it’s a fine balance between the two. At the moment I’m more focused on my indoor climbing though.

 

Is that because of the Olympics or…?

I feel like there’s more of a professional market in the indoor scene, and I would like to make it as a professional climber, to start earning a living off the sport, and I don’t see that as an outdoor climber in South Africa yet. In the future, I would like to progress into the outdoor scene completely, but for now, while I’m young, while I’m staying strong, I’ll maybe just keep my focus indoors.

 

So what are you up to currently? Working? Training? At school?

Just training. I was doing some part-time coaching work last year, but then with the Africa Cup approaching, I decided to stop that and just focus on the training. Since then it’s just been training for the [Olympics]. I haven’t been working or studying. 

Cosser later added that after the Olympics, he hopes to attend university in the USA or Europe.

 

Things in Tokyo will obviously be different than normal due to COVID-19. Has that changed the way you’re training or the way you’re thinking about things?

Not necessarily the way I’m thinking about it, but it’s changed the way I can train a bit because my initial plan was to get the ticket and then almost immediately go to Europe and start training with a trainer there. With COVID and the lockdown, I’m not able to get there at the moment. So, my plan to go to the States soon to compete in the Salt Lake competitions and then hopefully after that Europe will be open again and I can travel there.

 

So, what does it mean for you as an Olympic climber to be representing not just South Africa, but the African continent?

It’s definitely going to be a big thing for development. That’s my goal for this one. We’re still so far behind that to make the performance gap close is unrealistic, but to have development and to hopefully get sponsorship into the sport in South Africa and Africa as a whole… that would be the perfect outcome for me. It’s surreal to have the option or the ability to go in front of me and I’m very excited to use it. But it’s purely about development right now.

That said, you don’t compete not to win. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still going to go in my best shape to perform at my highest. I’m not going to roll over, but I’m realistic about it too. To make so many gains so quickly, it’s not going to happen, but I’m going to go and do my absolute best.

 

Images by 2020 City Rock/IFSC