Road To The Olympic Games


You want Sean McColl on that wall

No, he's not a ninja. But the truth is Canada's Sean McColl is one of the best rock climbers in the world, and he's got a shot at winning his sport's first Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.

Rock climbing star could win Canada the first Olympic gold in his sport

Canada's Sean McColl is one of the best rock climbers in the world, and he's got a shot at winning his sport's first Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

A few seconds into scrolling rock climber Sean McColl's Instagram feed and you begin wondering if he may in fact be a ninja. 

In one video he zips up a training wall using just the tips of his fingers.

In another, he locks his arms behind his body while suspended on a chin-up bar, and does this:

But these feats are actually part of McColl's rigorous training as a competitive rock climber, a sport in which he is wildly successful.

The 29-year-old is a four-time combined world champion, has five World Cup victories, and is widely considered the best Canadian sport climber.

And now, over three years out, McColl has set the training plan for his next challenge — the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Four-time world climbing champion Sean McColl shows off some of his training regime. 0:45

What is sport climbing?

Sport climbing was voted in for Tokyo with a package of sports — including baseball, softball, karate, surfing and skateboarding — last August.

The sport has a robust World Cup tour, organized by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC). 

McColl, from North Vancouver, B.C., is a clear gold medal threat for 2020.

It counts that he has 32 World Cup podiums, but that's not the most persuasive reason. 

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

Bouldering provides short and technically challenging "problems," lead climbing involves a rope and longer routes that test endurance, and speed climbing is exactly what it sounds like — a pure race to the top.

McColl is one of the rare competitors who is strong at all three. It's expected the IFSC will settle on a single combined event for Tokyo, making McColl a frontrunner.

He won the combined world title in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2016.

"I've always been adamant since a very young age that I wanted to be a good climber, I never wanted to specialize," he says.

The great outdoors

It's more than likely the Olympic version of the sport will involve plastic holds, on walls similar to those found at your local climbing gym.  

Many people prefer outdoor climbing to the indoor version, and the reverse is also true. 

McColl loves both. His website lists the outdoor ascents he has completed underneath his competitive accolades. 

"For me, climbing is my passion," he says. "It's a lifestyle, it's now my career and I love all different aspects of it."

This past September, McColl and one of his childhood coaches, Mike Doyle, spent three weeks in France on an outdoor climbing trip.

They met when Sean was only 10 years old at The Edge Climbing Centre in North Vancouver, shortly after McColl began climbing. 

Doyle was 20 at the time, and coaching with Andrew Wilson, who would go on to become the head coach of Canada's national climbing team.

Doyle, now 39, is a good example of climbing's immersive allure. He is a software engineer who can work remotely, so he lives in Las Vegas where the weather allows him to climb outside almost every weekend.

According to Doyle, there are multiple reasons why McColl is so good. 

He points to Sean's helpful genetics — sculpted and compact, he stands just over 5-foot-6 and weighs around 130 pounds. McColl started climbing at a young age and "he's incredibly smart," says Doyle. McColl is also a Level 10 pianist from the Royal Conservatory of Music.

And "he's so competitive," says Doyle, "He doesn't like being second at anything." 

The Tokyo 2020 qualification format has yet to be finalized. McColl says this will happen at the IFSC General Assembly in March, and he's on the executive board as president of the athletes. 

"I've always dreamed of the Olympics, and I never thought my sport would actually make the Olympics," says McColl. "It's truly a dream come true for me."

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