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Jason Holowach embraces the uphill battle of sport climbing

Jason Holowach never could have known all those years ago that climbing things for a living would become such an integral part of his life. The 33-year-old from Saskatoon is still holding out hope for the Olympics in 2020, but is also focused on sport climbing's next generation.

Saskatoon climber working with next generation while still chasing Olympic dream

Jason Holowach is encouraged by the growth of sport climbing in Canada, especially with the sport's Olympic debut coming in two years. (Instagram/@jason.holowach)

Jason Holowach never could have known all those years ago that climbing things for a living would become such an integral part of his life.

Besides, he grew up in the flatlands of Saskatoon, where adventurous souls like to make mountains out of molehills to satiate their adrenaline cravings.

While finding undulated terrain was difficult in the prairie city, Holowach was fortunate enough to find challenging cliffs at his family cabin in northern Saskatchewan. He'll never forget the first time his father created a wall climbing scenario for him and his sister up near La Ronge, Sask.

"There was a cliff close enough to the cabin. We'd throw a rope around a tree and he'd lower us into the bottom of the cliff and then he'd tell us to climb back up," Holowach recalls.

There was a rush, a freedom and a sense of adventure Holowach felt when he started climbing — something he still feels to this day.

This weekend Holowach is competing at the Canadian Lead and Speed National Championships in Saanich, B.C. Upwards of 270 climbers of various skill levels and ages are also competing in the annual event.

Organizers say this year's competition has set a new record for participants, bolstered by the fact that sport climbing is now an Olympic sport that will make its debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Holowach has aspirations of competing at those Olympics, but is realistic about how difficult that actually is with the clock ticking down to the Games.

"Right now I'm doing the World Cup circuit to test the waters to see if I could have a chance," he said. "It's not looking too great but I'm learning a lot."

Olympic pursuit a game-changer

Holowach wishes competing at the Olympics in sport climbing would have been an option earlier in his career. The 33-year-old says even though it's only been a short time since it was added to the Olympic program, there is already a massive change happening within the sport.

"Even what I was doing two years ago has changed dramatically. I had an eight-year hiatus because of a shoulder injury primarily caused by improper training," he said.

"Now the amount of research that has been put into our training plan and generally into climbing is improving all aspects of the sport."

Holowach does have some issues with how the first-ever Olympic climbing competition is taking place.

Competitive rock climbing is split into three distinct disciplines — bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. Many elite climbers choose to specialize in one of these disciplines.

Bouldering provides short and technically challenging "problems." Climbers are unroped and there are padded mats below. Lead climbing involves a rope and longer routes that test endurance. The competitor who makes it the highest in the shortest time is declared the winner. Speed climbing is exactly what it sounds like — a pure race to the top.

Holowach says there are massive differences between the disciplines which will make it extremely difficult for any one athlete to excel in all three.

"Ideally I'd love to see there be four different Olympic competitions," he said. "Lead, bouldering, speed and then one that includes all three."

Inspiring the next generation

Holowach is somewhat reflective now when he looks back over his climbing career. He's won national youth titles to go along with an open national bouldering title.

In addition to those early cabin cliff experiences, he credits the local Saskatoon climbing gym where he spent countless hours learning the ropes with helping him reach this point in his career.

It was those experiences that propelled him to open his own climbing facility in Saskatoon about six years ago. Holowach says there has been "astronomical growth" in the sport's popularity — now more than ever.

"Our market is pretty small and the drive to climb in Saskatoon is much different from a place like Calgary where you're surrounded by mountains," he said.

"We're working to change that and expose people to climbing. We're focused on developing youth programs."

Not only is Holowach competing this weekend, he's brought three climbers from his facility to compete — coaching them every step of the way.

"It's such a part of my life," he said. "I feel so comfortable climbing and I love sharing it with others. I don't even know what I would do if I wasn't climbing."

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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