Road To The Olympic Games

Sport climbing rising in popularity as Olympic debut nears

This weekend, more than 270 climbers are in Saanich, B.C., to take part in the 2018 Canadian Lead and Speed National Championships. It’s an event that’s existed for years but is now really taking off as sport climbing's 2020 Olympic debut approaces.

National championship draws largest number of athletes ever

Sport climbing will be added to the Olympic program in 2020 in Tokyo. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Canadians have had a similar brush with rock climbing — they did it once in gym class or attended a birthday party that involved going to the local wall to give it a try. It didn't go much further than that. 

For some, though, that first experience led to more serious climbing endeavours. In places that have undulated terrain, diehards of the sport headed out to the hills or mountains to get their adrenaline rush. Others continued attending their local climbing wall to build strength, hone strategy and push the limits of flexibility.

Canada's climbing community is a tight-knit group of people who love their sport. Many of those who compete have become friends, united by their passion for climbing up things. Now, their passion is ratcheted up just a little bit more with the addition of sport climbing to the 2020 Olympic program. 

This weekend, more than 270 of those climbers are descending on Saanich, B.C., to take part in the 2018 Canadian Lead and Speed National Championships. It's an event that's existed for years but is now really taking off as climbing's Olympic debut nears.

"It's the biggest number we've ever had for nationals," says Stacey Weldon. "When I first started competing, in one category there might be me and five other people and maybe 40 or 50 people total. It's grown a lot."

Weldon was recently appointed Climbing Canada's athlete representative. She's been climbing for more than 20 years after getting her start at 11 years old in Calgary. Part of her initial interest in the sport was due to her family's strong connection to climbing.

"I think for kids especially, climbing is just fun. My parents always said we were climbing on furniture and climbing trees. It's just fun. And the community is awesome," she says.

Scouting Canada's next top climbing talent

Weldon will be in Saanich this weekend meeting as many of the climbers as possible, watching them closely and trying to determine who might have the best chance to compete for Canada in Tokyo. There's a youth category and an open category — within those two categories are different age groupings. 

"This is to choose our top Canadian athletes we want to send to these competitions and grow and foster," she said.

VIDEO | Watch top Canadian climber Sean McColl do his thing:

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

Weldon says now that climbing is an Olympic sport, people are taking it much more seriously. There are wall climbing facilities popping up all across Canada. She says some of the top athletes are now getting government funding, something she says never existed before.

"One of the really exciting things coming out of the growth is some funding," she said. "For my entire climbing career everything was self-funded. Two years ago I did the entire World Cup circuit and it was maybe $10,000 out of my own pocket to go and compete."

Triple threat

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.

But Weldon says there's an interesting shift happening in climbing training in Canada. While many athletes only compete in one or two of the disciplines currently, the Olympic format is going to include all three disciplines. That means climbers are going to have to be well-rounded if they want to compete with the best.

"It's really difficult to be good at all three," Weldon said. "Usually athletes specialize in one event, are pretty good in another and the third they just do their best. It's pretty tricky to be great at all three."

Competition at the nationals begins Saturday morning with lead climbing qualifiers and goes into Monday with the speed finals. 

As for where Canada ranks in the competitive climbing world, Weldon says it's still too early to know, especially with the new requirement to compete in all three disciplines.

"We definitely have a few athletes that are making waves on the international scene but we have work to do," she says. "I'm excited about what our future of climbing looks like."

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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