With climbing set to make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games in Japan, one Yorkshire teenager is dreaming of scaling the podium, writes Sophie McCandlish.
For the first time in 2020, climbing will become an Olympic sport and one 19-year-old from Hebden Bridge is hoping to win a place on the British team. Luke Murphy caught the climbing bug when he was seven and tagged along one day with his father, Phil, a keen amateur climber. “I was messing about and discovered how much fun climbing is,” Luke says. “I have loved the sport since I started. There is a level for everyone and every level is just as challenging.”
Hooked, the youngster soon decided to test his skills against other climbers and around a year later started taking part in competitions. It was then that he set his heart on being a member of the British team.
“When I began to compete I saw the British team training and wanted to be a part of it,” Luke says.
At the time Team GB had a junior lead climbing team but not a bouldering team, which is Luke’s stronger discipline. However, at the age of 14 he found himself a member of the first GB junior bouldering team.
“I was competing in a selection event in Liverpool and qualified in first place for the final,” he adds.
“I saw someone writing my name down and then when the list was published my name was on it. It was really exciting.
“My first competition was the European Youth Cup in France. When you go abroad you can’t compete unless you are with the team so wearing the kit, being away, travelling and staying in the house with the team was very exciting.
“It is really special competing together and winning together. You become very close and as a team you are motivated to support each other and you find yourself going crazy shouting for your team-mates.”
Luke also says he relished the chance to pit himself against some serious competition. “It was very special competing at the World Youth Championships, being able to test yourself against the best climbers in the world.”
He has been a regular on the team since his first appearance, climbing all over the world.
There are three different disciplines in climbing – speed climbing, which involves scaling a height as quickly as possible; lead climbing, which uses a harness and rope; and bouldering, which is more gymnastic, using no harness or ropes but handholds which on walls get further apart and more minimal.
Having recently competed for the last time with the junior British team in Innsbruck, Luke is setting his sights on a senior place and potentially the Olympic squad. “It would be great to go but it will be the first Olympics and there will only be around 20 places. That is less than one per country,” he says.
“At the moment I usually compete in bouldering, although I do some lead and race climbing. At the Olympics, climbers will have to compete over all three disciplines and only a handful can do well at all three.
“We also have a very strong British team, with very strong climbers so I am also realistic about my chances.”
Climbing was one of five sports voted into the 2020 Tokyo Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in August last year. Surfing, softball, karate and skateboarding were the other four and unlike some of the other events, it is the first time in Olympic history that climbing has been recognised.
Luke says he found it surprising that climbing didn’t become an Olympic sport many years earlier. “It is the only fundamental human movement that is not included in the Olympics. We have running, swimming and gymnastics but not climbing,” he says.
Sport climbing is seen by the IOC as the “most innovative” of the new sports. Its progression to the Olympics received a boost in 2015 when the IOC chose sport climbing as a demonstration sport during the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
But while climbing enjoys good coverage in countries such as Austria, Germany and France, in the UK it receives little TV exposure.
“Becoming an Olympic sport is really good for climbing as a whole and the more people who watch it and see what a great sport it is to be involved in, the more it will raise its profile and hopefully in time it will become three different competitions, with a medal for each discipline,” adds Luke.
Luke trains close to home at Rokt climbing gym in Brighouse, where he has been honing his skills for the past six years, joining the day it opened.
According to the International Federation of Sport Climbing, there are 35 million climbers around the world, with more than 140 countries providing climbing walls. And Rokt, a former flour mill next to the River Calder, provides walls for every age and ability. It has been transformed by joint owners Euan Noble and Leigh Topping, with indoor climbing walls and the UK’s largest man-made outdoor climbing wall.
“I learned my trade at Rokt. The team have been brilliant from the moment I first walked through the door all those years ago,” says Luke.
Having fitted his climbing career in and around school, Luke is now a key member of the climbing gym team. He has been instrumental in creating the holds on the outdoor wall, which is not for the faint-hearted, and is now converting a new section of the mill for elite climbers.
“The new bouldering area is in a part of the building which has never been used and I have done the designs myself. It is really exciting to have a blank canvas,” he says.
Above the new climbing area will be a training gym which will have gymnastic rings, training boards and a yoga studio.
“Yoga is an important part of training. It helps with balance and suppleness, holding positions in a similar way to the way we hold them on the wall and it helps with your mental state,” adds Luke.
“For me, focus and my head game has been one of my biggest challenges. Physically I have been strong and flexible but my mental state has held me back in competitions. I have really had to work on it with my coaches and try to stay relaxed.”
As well as climbing indoors, which helps prepare for competition, Luke says one of his greatest pleasures is climbing outdoors.
Recently back from a month climbing in South Africa, he says the motivation for outdoor climbing is the freedom that it offers.
“I don’t know any other sport where you can go out and just do it. A big part is being in nature and interacting with it without leaving a mark.
“I love going out with my dog George and enjoying the peace of being outdoors. It lets you think and appreciate things.
“It is also the place you can push yourself a little bit further. Difficulty doesn’t always come with danger but you do need to move out of your comfort zone to improve.”
His parents Phil and Amanda have been very supportive and his two younger brothers, Ben and Sam, also enjoy climbing from time to time.
As well as setting his sights on a senior place Luke is looking to the future, having finished college last year. Besides competing, coaching and designing walls, he has a keen interest in film and has even made his own short film.
“Hopefully I will be selected for the senior team and I would like to study film as well as do more coaching in the future. I have plenty to look forward to.”