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The Dream – Olympic Tactics with Sean McColl

Team Canada's Sean McColl is one of the world's most experienced competitors. How does McColl plan for the Olympic Games?

Even Olympians feel the pressure. Some need it. Every attempt counts.

Athletes – Photo by Eddie Fowke

Where the last two years have complicated the upcoming Olympic Games, tactical questions persisted since its inception. In August 2016, Sport Climbing confirmed its Olympic debut.

The three-discipline event would take 20 athletes per gender, all of whom would compete in the two-round competition. If those stakes did not make qualification difficult enough, all three disciplines would take place on the same day. The Olympic Motto, “Faster, higher, stronger” would find itself perfectly reflected by Speed, Lead, and Bouldering.

The event itself will run Speed first, followed by Bouldering and Lead. Unlike the recent IFSC World Cups, eight climbers will qualify for the finals in Tokyo: two more than the recent six. Furthermore, Speed Finals differs from Speed Qualifiers. Where the qualifying round takes the best time from the round, Speed Finals runs in a series of head-to-head races.

Along with the inclusion of speed, climbers might expect slight changes to the nature of the bouldering. Olympic Head Setter Percy Bishton will likely tailor the event both toward an audience unfamiliar with climbing and Speed Specialists. The IFSC will likely afford Speed climbers the opportunity to progress on the boulder problems.

Sean McColl hangs from volumes – Photo by Eddie Fowke

All of these details compound to make a difficult-to-predict Olympic debut for competitive climbing. What does this mean for the athletes?

Team Canada’s Sean McColl is one of the most experienced climbers heading to Tokyo. The 33-year-old has competed in hundreds of events, completed many of Canada’s hardest 5.14s, and qualified for the Games in the first round. He understands tactics.

Although the last year has provided an interruption to the training McColl would have liked to perform, he has worked over these last years to become the best athlete he can be. The World Cups in Salt Lake City persisted as a testing phase, where he would learn that he can still climb World Cup Boulders. Still, will bouldering be enough?

In terms of general speculation, many have taken Speed Climbing as the possible determinant in this upcoming Games. Their reason comes from the fact the boulderers and lead climbers will have an advantage on the speed climbers. This is due to the fact that strength in Boulder and Lead is similar. Speed is the outlier. If the boulderers and the Lead climbers each do well in their disciplines, some suppose a decent performance in Speed will carry athletes through to the podium.

Sean McColl holds the swing – photo by Eddie Fowke

While this position does offer an amount of probability, McColl believes that playing toward your strengths will offer the greatest advantage to any Olympian. This belief comes from the fact that the athlete’s final score is the product of all three results. As such, getting first or second in any of the disciplines will be a huge advantage for anyone hoping to move forward to Finals. Reasonably, athletes will have to do extremely well in one, if not two, of the three disciplines.

“My methodology is you need to play your strengths in the Combined Olympic Format. It’s only if your strengths play out well that you need to be good enough in one of your weaknesses in order to advance.”

To prepare, McColl has spent much of the last five years with a focus on bouldering-specific training. By running the World Cup Circuit, he has also maintained a proclivity for Sport Climbing alongside his bouldering. Although playing strengths will likely outpace proficiency in weaknesses, at least through the qualifying round, McColl’s aspirations seek, at their peak, the pinnacle of the podium. As his quote would suggest, his weakness will become an important strength should he hope to win Finals.

By 2018, McColl realized he had not progressed as far as he would have liked in speed. Hiring Libor Hroza, a retired speed specialist and the new head coach of Canada’s High-Performance Program, they made a plan to get McColl’s time down to 6.6 seconds. The pandemic made this difficult. As such, McColl will instead try to get his time anywhere to or below his personal best.

Sean McColl balances above the bolt – photo by Eddie Fowke

At 6.9 seconds, McColl recognizes that he will not set any records; however, Speed Finals do not require such things. Instead, the aforementioned head-to-head format will benefit the speedy as well as the strong-minded. For McColl, his experience in competition will be an advantage. This detail, compounded with his proficiency in Boulder and Lead, makes McColl a strong contender for Finals.

“If I climb well, I can make Finals. If in Finals, I climb well, I can be on the podium. If I climb well and other people make small errors, I could win. On paper, am I the best? No. Does that matter? No. This is a game. This is a competition.

“When I tried to make my first World Cup Final, I knew I wasn’t in the top eight. But I knew that if I climbed perfectly and one of those top eight messed up, I could squeeze in. It’s exactly what happened. One person fell and I made Finals.

“It’s not that climbers are waiting for that to happen, it’s more that it can happen. Climb as good as you can and don’t worry about it.”

After five one-year training cycles, McColl has almost come out the other side of the Games. The life-long competitor has given everything to the pursuit of competitive climbing since he heard of the Olympic confirmation in 2016. He has also seen how other teams have prepared for this unprecedented event.

Sean McColl on route – Photo by Eddie Fowke

While interprovincial competition has existed in Canada for a while, McColl hopes to see it become friendlier and more Canada focused. In some ways, this continent-spanning unity has physical barriers. Getting all Team Canada together in a single place not only makes team-building expensive, it also makes it time-consuming. Still, solving this problem will provide great strides for Team Canada’s international potential.

McColl reflected on this. “The CEC has made good steps in the last couple of years. I think that National Team training camps are the most important to accelerate our climbers. That is the model they have built in Germany, France, Slovenia, and Austria. They bring their best climbers together. It doesn’t matter that Jakob from Austria is better than everyone else on the lead route, he is bringing them all up and, at the same time, they’re pushing him just a tiny bit higher.”

McColl continued saying that Canada will eventually need a training a centre. “It would be nice to have. We just need to choose a city and place it there. If the athletes choose not to live there, it doesn’t matter. They can still come once or twice a year for training camps. Training camps excel everyone.”

After all the attention the USA Training Center has received in these last weeks, such a step would surely push Team Canada to a better position. McColl noted the extreme costs of such a facility, but it will become Canada’s weakness if it does not become one of its strengths.

Still, the CEC’s release of the High-Performance Program, headed by a former Speed World Record holder, bodes well for the future of Canadian climbing. For the moment, the country awaits to support McColl and his teammate Alannah Yip in Tokyo.