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Meet Erin Sterkenburg: Africa’s Only Female Olympic-Bound Climber

18-year-old Erin Sterkenburg will represent South Africa in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics alongside teammate Chris Cosser.

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Erin Sterkenburg graduates high school in December, just a few months after she competes in the first ever Olympic climbing event in Tokyo. She will be the the first (and only) African woman to compete in an Olympic climbing event. 

For the 18-year-old, who began climbing four years ago and has only competed in three IFSC events to date (one of which was the Olympic qualifier in Cape Town), it’s a huge leap. Gym Climber caught up with Sterkenburg to chat.

 

For starters, can you tell us a bit about your competitive history? In the IFSC and otherwise? 

So I started climbing in 2017, when I was in grade 8. I don’t know if you guys call it that (laughs), but it’s like the first year of high school here in South Africa. At my school we have a competitive club that does climbing. So I joined that at my school and then I did the school’s “league” for climbing. That first year I went to Lead Nationals. 

After that competition, I was like, ‘OK, I really like doing this,’ so I got a membership at the gym near my house and started climbing all the time. I went to Youth Worlds [Moscow] in 2018 for the first time. I was in grade 9 then. Then I went to the one in Arco the next year. So those are the only IFSC competitions besides the Africa Cup that I’ve done.

 

So you’ve been climbing about four years, yeah? And now you’re going to be an Olympian, that’s pretty awesome.

I know, I know! It’s so crazy.

 

Do you do any climbing outside, or is it mostly indoor stuff at the moment?

Oh no, definitely outside too! Not recently, because I’ve been training a lot, but as soon as I started climbing more seriously I got to know a bunch of people that would go outside every weekend. So I went outside all the time and I still try to go as often as possible. There’s a lot of climbing quite close to where I live, like half an hour or so away. We’re really lucky that we have some nice crags quite close by. I have climbed in a few places around the country. I haven’t gotten to do a long trip to Rocklands yet, but I’m hoping to after the Olympics! I mainly sport climb outside, but I would love to do a proper trip to Rocklands [to boulder].

 

And where are you based, these days?

I’m in Durban, but I do go to Joburg like once a month to train speed, because we don’t have a speed wall here.

 

You mentioned you’re more of a sport climber outside. In terms of Olympic categories, are you more focused on lead then? 

I would say lead is my top. Bouldering is a close second, and then speed is… well, definitely not what I’m good at (laughs), but I’m working on it!

 

With the Olympics coming up I assume you’re quite focused on training in the gym, but do you see yourself as an indoor competitive climber in the long run, or are you more interested in projecting routes outside?

I’m not entirely sure yet. [After high school] I want to study in America, actually, and climb there, but I think I want to focus on competitions for a while. But eventually in the long run, yeah I do want to climb outside and I really love climbing on rock. I think that would be in the far future. 

 

What do you want to study in America?

I don’t know yet, honestly. I’m thinking about architecture or engineering though. Somewhere along that route.

 

Aside from South Africa, competitive climbing is relatively unheard of in most African nations [Uganda was the only other African nation to field a team for the Africa Cup]. Are there any initiatives going on with your climbing club or with South African teams in general to spread climbing around the continent?

I don’t know too much, but I know there is something going on in Kenya at the moment where they have an initiative to start climbing. And in Uganda, I think the first gym was built there quite recently. So that’s becoming more of a thing there. The Ugandan competitors that came to the Africa Cup, they were excited to go back home and share their experience because it was their first competition ever. So that was really cool. 

Then within the country… As a school, we get all these new grade 8s every year and we try to spread it [to these new students], telling them to go share the sport.

 

Things in Tokyo are going to be different because of COVID-19, obviously. Has that situation changed the way you’re thinking about the Olympics at all?

Well, before I even qualified, we knew that for whoever was going to go it was going to be different from normal. So I think it’s going to be harder for athletes that have gone [to the Olympics] before. I didn’t really have any expectations, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. 

But it is kind of sad that it won’t be the huge opening ceremony and stuff that we are used to seeing on television. But besides that I think it’s going to be very effective, you get in and you get out. You’re just there for the comp. As far as school that’s going to be great for me, since I don’t have to miss too much! 

I just hope that all the regulations are followed, too, and it is a bit scary traveling with COVID. The actual competition though, I’m thinking of things pretty much the same. I’m just excited to be able to compete!

 

Yeah, climbing is climbing, right? You’ll still be on the wall like normal, no difference there.

Exactly!

 

At the Olympics, you’re not just going to be representing South Africa. You’re kind of representing the whole African continent, yeah? I mean, you and Chris [Cosser] are the only climbers coming from Africa. What does that mean for you to not just be representing your country, but this entire continent?

It’s still a bit surreal. Sometimes my friends are like, ‘You’re going to the Olympics!’ and I’m like, ‘I am…’ It’s kind of crazy. I’m so excited, and a little nervous, obviously, but also I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to go and then hopefully come back having learned so much and be able to share it with the country and others. Hopefully people will see it on TV and be like, ‘I want to do that!’ Hopefully it will spark a lot of interest in climbing.

 

Photo 2020 City Rock/IFSC