Competing on the international stage since the age of 13, Shauna Coxsey will finally get the chance to go for Olympic gold as climbing makes its debut at Tokyo 2020
As the UK’s most successful climber and first ever bouldering world champion, Shauna Coxsey is used to reaching the heights. But the Olympic Games is one sporting peak she never imagined she’d conquer. “I wanted to climb, but my sport wasn’t part of the Olympics,” she says. “So I thought it was never going to be, especially not during my professional career.”
But climbing has become incredibly fashionable in recent years. Participation has skyrocketed, with the climbing gym industry growing year on year. The sport is huge on social media (there are 3.7 million posts under #bouldering on Instagram), big with celebrities (actor Brie Larson is a fan) and a hit on the big screen (climbing was the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo).
And the obsession has led to climbing into one of five new sports at Tokyo 2020. Which means that Cheshire-born Coxsey, who won first place at the IFSC Climbing World Cup in bouldering in both 2016 and 2017, has a new summit to aim for come July.
But she talks of her hopes to be the first British climbing winner at the Olympics, she remains grounded. “The Olympics still feels so surreal, there is a lot of pressure,” she says. “But as long as you know that you are doing it for yourself first, then it’s easy to deal with all of that.” Here, Coxsey talks us through her journey to the world stage.
I first saw climbing on TV when I was three years old
I was sat on my father’s knee and instantly said, “Dad, I want to do that!” A year later, we found a local climbing wall and I asked my dad to learn to belay, which means to hold the other end of the rope. That’s how it all started.
My dad is my biggest mentor
He started climbing a few years after me and he’s still very much involved in the sport. We chat about climbing a lot, but he’s the person I call whenever there’s anything going on in my life.
I was naive about obstacles female climbers face
Women can experience lots of barriers in the sport, from the challenges of climbing on their period to getting stronger than their boyfriend or not fitting into dresses because their muscles are so big. I was naive about this. I grew up climbing around guys, so I never thought of myself as a female climber. But when I coached a women’s climbing class, they were all talking about these barriers. I started the Women’s Climbing Symposium 10 years ago to create a platform where we could talk about our issues and overcome them. It’s since grown into a huge celebration of the sport. Our first event had 60 attendees; our biggest has had 500.
There are a lot of weight issues within the sport
Climbing is a power-to-weight sport [where your strength to body weight ratio helps determine optimal body composition]. I’m quite heavy for a professional athlete and feel really healthy. When I was younger, I looked up to the elite women in our sport and wanted to be thinner, and it’s taken me time to learn who I am and what I want to be. Plus, I have older sisters who don’t let me get away with anything.
I don’t have any superstitions around climbing
I think if you are superstitious, you set yourself up for things going wrong. I do always put my left shoe on first though – but that’s just because it feels more comfortable.
If you feel good in what you’re wearing, it impacts how you go about your day
Most mornings, I put on my sports bra and leggings and that’s pretty much what I wear for the day, every single day. I feel comfortable and I feel strong. It makes a difference to my attitude towards the session.
Getting dressed up to go out does’t happen very often
But when I do it, I absolutely love it. Most times when I get dressed up, Leah Crane – my coach, best friend, stylist and all-encompassing life person – usually figures out what I should wear. I’m really bad at choosing what to wear.
I’m not big into celebrating
If I’ve done a World Cup and I’ve got another competition in two weeks, then it’s straight back to the gym the next day.
My favourite place to escape is Rocklands in South Africa
I’m happiest out in the middle of the desert, climbing rocks. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains and Västervik, just off the coast of Sweden. Both are so beautiful. We also have the Peak District on our doorstep and I feel so fortunate to have such a beautiful, peaceful place 10 minutes away.
Photographer: Chris Floyd
Fashion and interview: Helen Atkin
Words: Colin Crummy
Art director: Claire Cheung
Hair and make-up: Nandi Kai at S Management using Kevin Murphy and Nars
Photography assistant: Berit von Enoch
Location: The Climbing Works, Sheffield; climbingworks.com
For more information on climbing, visit the Women’s Climbing Symposium.