Molly Thompson-Smith, Top U.K. Climber, On Coming Back From Injury, Role Models, and Body Positivity
The U.K. comp-climber Molly Thompson-Smith blooms on the rock.
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Molly Thompson-Smith started up only half-committed on Odysseus at the limestone swell of Gotterwandl, near Innsbruck. She’d been trying the 25-meter 8b/c Janus (5.14a/b) all that day last August and was tired, but still wanted to do something else. Odysseus was “short and punchy,” as she puts it. Only 10 meters. Why not?
The route is slightly overhung, with only decent holds. She nearly fell on the first crux, a deadpoint, and when she reached a good hold decided to fight—then onsighted her first 8b (5.13d).
“It was totally unexpected,” she says.
Thompson-Smith had spent the spring pandemic lockdown training in Germany with her partner, Jan Hojer (GER). Emerging to an empty comp calendar, she found more chance to climb outside than she’d ever had.
For this 23-year-old from West London, worlds are converging. A climber since visiting a gym at age 7 and a serious competitor since age 13, Molly has become a force on the adult world circuit, making one podium and, yet more impressive, eight World Cup finals.
Still, she struggled for years, taking “stick” as solely a plastic puller. She yearned to be at home on rock, but found herself fearful, with only rare trips to become more familiar. This year she finally feels like a “real climber.” The trick? “I was just able to do more rock climbing.”
Q&A with Molly Thompson-Smith
You still have one comp this year?
The European Championships, in Moscow. For the Olympics, there is one space available for men and women each … for the top-ranked athlete from a country that hasn’t filled the quota. It’s the last chance.
You had a bad finger injury. What happened?
It was during my off season in 2017, just casually climbing at the Depot in Leeds with Jan, on December 20. I was climbing in a groove and didn’t feel right and wanted to bail, but had to shift my weight to my hand to drop off. As soon as I shifted I heard three cracks right in a row. On my left ring finger, A2, A3 and A4 [pulleys] all snapped.
Surgery was three hours long. … I was on the sidelines watching every single [comp] because I wasn’t able to climb with two hands until May or June.
I didn’t know if I’d come back from it, really.
When did you return?
The World Championships in Innsbruck [September 2018]. I’d trained hard …[but] was a little afraid because it had been so long, and everyone else was already settled into the season. I ended up coming 11th, a plus away from finals …. I was really proud that I made it back.
I did one more World Cup, but kind of struggled. It was pretty much the end of my season after that. Then I went climbing outside and did my first 8c.
Goals and aspirations?
If not the 2020-21 Olympics, that’s O.K. It includes speed. I missed out on a year of speed. … I’m really motivated for Paris [2024 Olympics]. And I love the World Cup season. I want to be a successful World Cup climber. Those are my goals.
Who have been your role models?
I always looked up to Dame Kelly Holmes and Jess Ennis-Hill, both British [track champions] and mixed race. I loved reading their books, hearing about their journeys. They came from similar sorts of backgrounds as I did and just worked really hard.
I did struggle within climbing [to have] role models. I didn’t see a future. … I didn’t see anyone like myself—it wasn’t like, “I want to grow up and be like this person.”
My parents gave me the books. I was really into reading. I was about 10. [Later] I met Kelly Holmes at an event in Westminster, to promote climbing … I was 14. She was very nice. I was very shy.
You have used your platform for issues, including with a nude photo shoot for a body-awareness campaign.
Women’s Health magazine celebrated the bodies female athletes have and that they’re built to help us do our sports. I like to encourage girls and women to want to be strong and not fear being muscular.
Has this year been a turning point?
I grew up a lot. The gravity of being in a pandemic made me realize that climbing is climbing—it’s not the end of the world. People have been devastated, have lost loved ones. It has made me realize how lucky I am. With Moscow, what will happen will happen; life will go on.
— 3rd place IFSC Lead World Cup, Kranj, Slovenia, 2017.
— Onsighted Odysseus (8b), Tyrol, Austria, 2020. Flashed L’ami de Tout Le Mond (8b), Céüse, France, 2020.
— 3rd place European Youth Championships (juniors) in bouldering, 2016.
— 11th place IFSC World Championships, Innsbruck (Lead), 2018, nine months after reconstructive finger surgery.
— 6th place (finalist) IFSC Lead World Cup, Chamonix, 2019.
— Has done six 8c’s (5.14b’s) on rock: four in 2020 in the Frankenjura and two in 2018 in Santa Linya, Spain.
This interview with Molly Thompson-Smith appeared in Rock and Ice issue 267 (January 2021).