It is difficult. There is a presumption that esteem and skill within climbing come naturally to some and are hard won by others. This is not the case. It is possible to become complicit to the commentary that describes an athlete’s performance. We can forget that we’re watching from the sidelines. Only the competitors can know what it means to compete. Only an Olympian can know what it means to be an Olympian.
Nick Hardie’s The Wall: Climb for Gold hopes to describe the many manners of an elite-performance athlete. His feature length documentary became available on January 18, 2022 and follows the stories of four women in their journeys toward Olympic gold. While we will speak with many of these women over the coming weeks, today we start with one of the most foundational people in modern competitive climbing.
Great Britain’s Shauna Coxsey is multitudes. The British Olympian has influenced the sport off the wall and on it. In Britain, she is the most decorated climber in National history. Since 2012, Coxsey managed to secure 11 gold medals, 12 silver medals and 7 bronze for a total of 30 World Cup podiums. She won the Bouldering World Cup series twice and in 2019, she qualified for the Olympics at the Hachioji World Championships. She earned two bronze medals at this event.
Coxsey’s achievements extend outside of competition. In this past year, Coxsey became the president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) athlete commission where she served on the executive board to help determine the framework for events such as the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Shauna’s role on the Executive Board ensured athlete representation in topics ranging from the inclusion of Sport Climbing in the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games and the development of competition climbing.
Coxsey is also a Director of the Women’s Climbing Symposium and acts as a trustee for the charity Climbers Against Cancer. With interests and development in such a variety of spaces, Coxsey continues to represent something more than an athlete. Still, at her core Coxsey is a competitor.
Following the inspirational ascents of Catherine Destivelle, a four-year-old Coxsey pursued indoor climbing. At six, she visited Fontainebleau with her father. Before long, Coxsey took her first podium at a local youth competition. She earned third place and the podium finish propelled her to the National final.
The event in South Wales became her first time seeing competition climbing outside of her local gym. Never-before-seen footage of Coxsey competing at this event made it into The Wall alongside numerous details regarding Coxsey’s entrance to the sport.
As she developed, so did competition bouldering. Ever the dynamic climber, Coxsey adapted quickly citing her father’s support as crucial to her performance. Inspired, Coxey devoted herself to competition. “I knew that to comp climb, you need to do it when you have the motivation for it because it is unforgiving and relentless.”
Coxsey changed with the adapting style and began to train the progressively more coordinated approach to bouldering. She progressed and became the best in the world. Competition Style broadened to include a wide variety of movements. “Before you had to be good at everything,” Coxsey said, “and now everything has gotten a lot bigger. There’s a lot more you need to be good at now which makes a combined field even harder.”
Although the Olympic format did not appeal to the British Champion, the magnitude of the Games became difficult to ignore. She decided to go for it. After the World Cup in Villars, she decided to move forward with The Wall. Coxsey began to work with camera crews in and around her pre-Olympic practices. Over the next two years, Coxsey suffered injury, surgery, recovery, surgery, and another injury all before competing.
While she had come back from surgery before, she had help. The pandemic restricted her access to physiotherapy during the first lockdown, and she had to rehabilitate by herself. Eventually, easing regulations allowed Coxsey to get the treatment she required. Between delayed treatment and the depth of the surgery, Coxsey began to suffer in her training. Eventually, all climbing caused pain.
“My goal was genuinely to get off the ground in Tokyo,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to climb.”
Despite these surgeries, and a further meniscus tear just days before the onset of the event, Coxsey showed what it meant to be a champion. She battled her body and claimed tenth position in Sport Climbing’s Olympic debut.
Coxsey became one of two athletes that retired with the conclusion of the Olympic Games. She and Akiyo Noguchi each said goodbye and decided to pursue other goals instead. Within the first month following the Games, Coxsey married Ned Feehally and took an incredible step toward building a family.
The now-pregnant Champion expects to give birth in May. The excited parents have begun to reallocate their goals to fit their new lifestyle. Naturally, Coxsey will continue to climb. She will take time to build strength following her pregnancy. “There are so many athletes in other sports and our sport that have shown women can come back to elite performance. I don’t know what that journey will look like, we know pregnancy carries a lot of unknowns, but I am incredibly excited by it but there’s a lot of rocks waiting.”
In the meanwhile, “I have time to dedicate to all of the stuff I do outside of my own climbing, obviously the main focus is having a happy, healthy little baby that’s due in May,” but Coxsey continues to work toward those organizations that aim to increase inclusion and diversity in the sport.
“Our sport has grown and developed so much in recent years, but I think there is so much more work to be done for it to be a truly inclusive and diverse sport. And there is work that is being done, but it needs to continue. Climbing is accessible in the right places, but we need to make sure it is accessible to people of all backgrounds. We want everyone to walk into a climbing wall and feel like they belong there because it is a space and a sport for everybody.”
Watch the Wall here.
Featured image of Shauna Coxsey.