Shauna Coxsey not hanging around in bid to scale heights of Olympic ambition

Sheffield has a rich history of producing Olympians, whether they be champions of track and field like Seb Coe or Jessica Ennis, or the ‘Fridge Kids’ who learned how to snowboard on the now defunct dry ski slopes.

Shauna Coxsey of Great Britain competes in the lead during Combined Women's Final on day ten of the IFSC Climbing World Championships at the Esforta Arena Hachioji on August 20, 2019 in Hachioji, Tokyo. (Picture: Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

For years, Don Valley Stadium was a magnet for athletes, and even now the regeneration of Attercliffe has an Olympic feel to it; with the English Institute of Sport home to the best of British in boxing, table tennis and wheelchair basketball to name just a few sports that have made the Steel City the hub for their high performance squads.

The road to the Olympics often takes an athlete through Sheffield, a statement that rings true even for the more obscure sports, like climbing, which makes its debut in the Olympic programme in Tokyo this summer.

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Great Britain will have just one representative when sport climbing makes its bow in Japan, Shauna Coxsey, who, you guessed it, lives and trains in Sheffield.

Shauna Coxsey during the Team GB Tokyo 2020 climbing team announcement at The Climbing Works, Sheffield. (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

“I actually came to Sheffield for a boy,” jokes the 27-year-old, who was born in Runcorn but who moved to South Yorkshire six years ago.

“My other half is part of the climbing scene in Sheffield. It’s really cliche for climbers to come to Sheffield and I swore I would never move here, but my other half is mainly an outdoor climber in the Peak District.

“He dragged me over here but I love it – it’s such an incredible place to train and you’ve got the Peaks on your doorstep.”

Not that Coxsey is climbing rockfaces in Castleton every day. Climbing, for her, is an indoor pursuit.

Olympic bound - Shauna Coxsey at The Climbing Works, Sheffield (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

She is into bouldering, which is a discipline that makes up one-third of the competition to decide the first male and female Olympic champions in Tokyo.

Bouldering tests athletes on agility, flexibility, strength, co-ordination and problem-solving up a four-metre wall. In Olympic competition, the 20 athletes who set out to qualify for the eight-person final have a few seconds to absord the placing of the handles in front of them before attempting to get to the top in as few attempts as possible.

Lead climbing challenges athletes to climb as high up the wall as possible, using a rope and by clipping in to the wall.

The speed climbing element is the fastest person up the wall.

Shauna Coxsey of Great Britain competes in the Bouldering during Combined Women's Qualification on day eight of the IFSC Climbing World Championships at the Esforta Arena Hachioji on August 18, 2019 in Hachioji, Tokyo (Picture: Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

Climbing’s inclusion in the Tokyo programme took a lot of people by surprise, not least from within the sport, given the three elements do not traditionally go together.

Take Coxsey for instance. She has been a boulderer all her life, but has had to quickly learn lead and speed climbing to secure her Olympic qualification.

She explains: “When the announcement came there was upset within the community but when we as athletes learned from the IOC why they had done it this way, it was evident that it was the right decision. It’s going to showcase the best of our sport across the disciplines. Lead climbing is whoever gets the highest wins, and that’s really cool to watch. You take the rope with you as you go and push yourself to the limit – and speed climbing is so cool.

“The three elements combined mean our sport meets the Olympic motto of faster, higher, stronger.”

Shauna Coxsey competes in the Lead during in Japan last year. (Picture: Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

Bouldering is Coxsey’s passion. She got into climbing at the age of four, mainly as a hobby, never thinking that one day it would be an Olympic sport.

“I saw someone on TV called Catherine Destivelle. She was a French climber who would climb cliffs in Africa without a rope and I was amazed by her,” recalls Coxsey.

“From there, we found a local climbing centre and I asked my dad to teach me. My dad climbs with me now. He started after me but he coaches now.

“I would watch the Olympics as a kid and be so inspired but I felt quite disconnected because I always thought climbing would never be included.

“Even right now, it just feels so surreal that my sport is part of the Olympics and that I’m training for that.”

Training for Coxsey can take her anywhere, just as the sport has taken her all around the world competing.

All she needs is a bouldering wall, which she can find in most cities, or even in her cellar, where she has had one built. Even sat on the settee watching telly, there are exercises she can do to strengthen her fingers.

But it is the Climbing Works in Sheffield, where we meet on a snowy February morning, that is her most popular haunt.

“A lot of people see climbing as an individual sport, and yes it is you against the rest of the field, but bouldering is a social sport,” she says, as recreational climbers of all abilities go about their passion, oblivious to the gathered media who have descended on their space for the first time.

“You’re on the mat with all different abilities and there’s this really great connection in the sport between people.”

The Climbing Works was opened by three bouldering enthusiasts 13 years ago and has expanded from one factory unit on Centenary Works just south of the city centre to a second facility catering for children.

Just this weekend, dozens of spectators packed into the main venue to watch the British University and Colleges Championship unfold and every March the Climbing Works hosts an annual international event.

“It’s great for us to see how well Shauna’s done and how her career has unfolded,” says Sam Whittaker, one-third of the group of entrepreneurs who made Sheffield one of the first cities to have a bouldering-only wall more than a decade ago.

“Shauna’s participation in the Olympics will open up the sport to a lot more people, people who might have just thought of climbing as getting up a mountain or snowy peaks in the Himalayas.

“Climbing for us here is a lot more social, it’s more athletic, it’s more problem-solving. It’s a really fun lifestyle, not just a hobby, it can capture you and keep you in it for a lifetime.

“We see all generations climbing together.”

The general consensus is that sport climbing at the Olympics will be a huge success for spectators, whether cheering on from the stands or sat at home watching it on the television.

“It’s so different to a lot of other sports that I think it could really engage the general public,” says Whittaker.

“The sheer agility and movements, hanging on to the wall, will blow people away.

“The athletes have got great personalities and that will come out on film.”

None more so than Coxsey, who appreciates her status as an Olympian now comes with a duty to promote her sport as well as try to be the very best at it.

“I think it’s going to be incredible. When you’re at a climbing event, the buzz you get from the crowd is mental,” she beams. “As a spectator, it’s going to be insane to watch. It’s very relatable; as kids we all climbed up trees to see how high we could get. This opportunity the sport has will, hopefully, showcase the best of climbing to everyone.”

With Coxsey at the very heart of it, no doubt hanging upside down off a wall, but having the time of her life.