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Meet Tom O’Halloran: Olympic Qualified Athlete From Down Under

The Australian climber returned from a nine-year IFSC hiatus to compete in the Olympics, one of his lifelong goals.

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Tom O’Halloran, who began climbing in 2004 at the age of 12, lives in the Blue Mountains of Australia with his partner of ten years, Amanda Watts (herself a nationally ranked competition climber), and his seven-year-old daughter. O’Halloran is a rope access technician. For years he worked on a variety of industrial sites such as coal farms, wind farms, and iron ore processing facilities, and now works at a tourist park in the Blue Mountains called Scenic World. The 28-year-old is one of Australia’s two Olympic climbing competitors, along with Oceana Mackenzie.

 

You competed in IFSC events in the early 2000s, but until recently you were out of the competitive scene for quite a while, right? What made you return?

Yeah, I finished [high] school in 2009 and I stopped competing the next year. I just moved to the Blue Mountains and got really taken away by outdoor climbing. But it’s always been a dream of mine to be an Olympian. I was one of those people that was initially against it due to the format, but man, you can’t give up on that dream. 

So in 2017 I decided to get back into competition climbing, and did a few local national comps, but still wasn’t all in. In 2019 though, I just decided I didn’t want to half-ass an Olympic shot. I knew I could do well, but I didn’t want to show up half-cocked and not have put in the effort. So I went to the World Cups in Briançon and Chamonix, and then did the Hachioji World Champs for Lead that year.

 

So, you’ll be 29 when you compete in Tokyo. Obviously that’s not old, but you’ve got a decade on a lot of your competitors that are fresh out of high school, and you’ve been on hiatus. How does it feel to be competing against what is largely a younger crowd?

I think it plays to my advantage, to be honest, because I’ve just got more life experience to know how to deal with these situations. Especially with how the Olympics is running this time around, I think there’s a lot of people that it’s going to be out of their comfort zone, because they’re going to be there without their whole support entourage of the three coaches and their partner and all that kind of thing. Just watching what was going on at the World Cups the other year, people have just got like this full team there nowadays. But you’re going to be on your own at this Olympics. 

I think maybe just doing that “away” work I do, like I’m flying four thousand kilometers away to a mining camp and just like dealing with the food that’s there, and it might be a bit crap and it might be a bad bed. All these disruptions… I’m quite used to dealing with that kind of stuff. 

 

You’ve been strictly an outdoor climber for most of the past ten years. Would you say you still consider yourself an outdoor climber or have you found a new love for comp climbing over these last couple of years prepping for the Olympics?

Definitely will go back to outdoor climbing once the Olympics are over. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve found difficult through this whole time, is just finding that balance to make it happen and feeling like I’m missing out on going outdoors and hanging out with my mates.

 

Can you run us through a couple of your proudest sends?

I mostly climb lead. I love bouldering but it’s just not the best up here in the Blue Mountains. So I’ve done few 9a’s (5.14d), onsighted a couple of 8b’s (5.13d), bouldered up to V13, but yeah I haven’t done too much bouldering really. That’s about it. … I’ve bolted a bunch of routes and I’ve got a few of them that are lying about. 

I fell off the last move of one of them, unfortunately, like two seasons ago and haven’t been able to get back to it last year. Just as the conditions got good, I injured my finger and my knee and just missed out on the whole season having fallen off the last move. That route is probably around 9a+/9b (5.15a/b).

 

You mentioned a finger injury… is that something that’s still bothering you?

No it’s all good now. 19th of March [2020] I lost my job with the coronavirus stuff going on, and then three days later our Oceania qualifiers got postponed. So I was like, “Well, I’ve got no work, and no comp, and I feel stronger and fitter than I ever have in my life, so I’m just gonna go outdoor climbing all the time.”

I was trying hard and bouldering on this crimpy, hard stuff for three to four days a week for a month or more. I’m usually good at resting, at least in a broader sense, not within a session, I just get too psyched [laughs]. In terms of saying, “I’ve had a good run, I’m going to stop for a week or two and just let my body recover.” I can usually do that.

But yeah, I didn’t really do that this time, and my body just started breaking down because I was abusing it too much, basically. I popped my knee and tore the hamstring a little bit off the bone. It wasn’t like a pop in my finger, but it was just kind of like this overuse type thing. Woke up the next morning after a heavy outdoors session and then I fingerboarded because I was just feeling awesome. And I was like, “Oh wow, my finger really hurts.” I tried to climb through it a bit and it just got worse and worse. So I just stopped and it was actually probably pretty good to just stop, because at that point I hadn’t really realized how mentally fatigued I was with all the training going into the Olympic qualifiers. So it was good to just chill.

 

Tokyo will be stacked with strong climbers. What are your goals for the comp? How do you feel about your prospects? 

I don’t know, it’s such an interesting one, the combined format. Anything can happen. At Oceana [qualifiers] I did a 7.02 on Speed without really training Speed so much. I’m now training Speed, so I think that could go a bit quicker. I would be psyched to get that under 6.50. If I can do that I think I’m in good contention to get a really good placing in Speed.

Then bouldering, it’s almost as erratic as the Speed results depending on how the set goes. Adam Ondra can win it or not even make finals in a Bouldering World Cup. It’s crazy. You throw a bit of that in and it could be crazy to see what happens. Lead climbing is more predictable in a way, because either you’ve got the ability to hang on for six minutes or you don’t.

I’d be pretty stoked to make finals. I feel like that would take a lot of effort for me but wouldn’t be unreasonable if stuff goes my way. Once you’re in finals… who knows what happens from there? It’ll be interesting watching how people deal with the heat as well. It’s outdoors so it’ll be really hot and humid. Dealing with that will be interesting.

Photo Nathan McNeil/IFSC

You mentioned early on this dream of being an Olympian, that it’s something you’ve had for a long time. Can you tell us about that?

I was 8 years old when the Sydney Olympics were held in 2000. I didn’t know what the Olympics were and where we were living at the time, we didn’t have a TV. So we went around to a friend’s house to watch the opening ceremony. I just remember sitting on the floor watching the opening ceremony and just being like, “What is this?!” There’s all these people waving flags and wearing tracksuits and just looking super happy.

And Mum and Dad explained it to me; I was just like “Whoa, I want to be a part of that.” For us Australians, Cathy Freeman was in her 400-meter race, or maybe 800 meters or whatever it was, but everyone went around to someone’s house to watch it. I didn’t know any of the athletes or anything but just watching how the Olympics brought everyone together was incredible.

From then it was just like, “I want to be an Olympain.” I wasn’t sure what I’d do, but I was just drawn to it. I had an aptitude for sport as a kid. I was a good swimmer, I was a good runner, played cricket, played soccer, played football and was good-ish, but never an Olympic level. Then I found climbing, and was quite good relative to Australia. On my first day we went in and the previous day had been the State Titles. Having never climbed I would’ve come second at that comp. It just felt fun. I was always climbing laps around the house, we had a mango tree in the backyard that I was climbing in. 

Then with it not being an Olympic sport, you’re like, “Oh well that’s kind of cool. It is what it is. Maybe it’s cool that climbing doesn’t have to be a part of that scene, in a way.” But then, you know, when it gets announced you’re like, “Ah shit. I’m potentially good enough to try and do it, but it’s going to take an effort.” So it was this interesting conflict between wanting to be an Olympian and follow through with that dream and also the sacrifices to get there in my own relative terms.

 

You mentioned early on that you were initially against the combined format. Has that changed?

I’m 100% in favor of it now. I think it’s a stroke of genius actually. I just didn’t I didn’t want to do Speed, and had the opinion of everyone else that, “Aww, speed doesn’t really count.”

But I think it’s an awesome leveler. For me, the answer to that question, “Who is the best rock climber in the world?” is the climber who can do the best across the most disciplines, not the one who is the most niche. This format gives you the ability to answer that question. It brings more people back into the mix. I think that’s just fucking awesome. 

If it’s just Lead, for example, your podium is Adam [Ondra], Alex [Megos] and Jakob [Schubert], or something in that kind of field. But you bring in Speed and Bouldering all mashed together and suddenly Rishat Khaibullin, who no one’s ever heard of, is on a podium at an international event. It’s crazy. Jan Hojer is back in the mix for a really good placement, too.

The way that one mistake can compound through the whole thing is interesting. At European Champs, watching the Men’s event, how it ended up with Sascha Lehmann losing his spot. It was wild how one person who’s not in contention of winning or even making podium does well on the Lead route and it just fucks up the rankings. It’s super exciting to watch.

Indoor climbing and competition climbing is also unashamedly it’s own discipline now. Back in the day with Yuji Hirayama and Arnaud Petit and those guys, it was the top outdoor climbers that were also the World Cup winners. Whereas now it’s just like it’s an entirely different thing and it’s unashamedly an entirely different thing. The people that are whining about it not being “real climbing” are just the fuddy duddy beard strokers that no one gives a shit about anymore anyway.