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Reflections and Growth

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I was quite nervous about going to the Oceania Continental Climbing Championships.  That it signified to me a very early step on my journey to the Olympics; that I was scared of being judged, and of being laughed at.  Not a qualifying competition this year, but likely a qualifying competition in 2019, the purpose of this trip was reconnaissance – learning about the competition, the structure, the people, my fellow athletes etc. in preparation for a fate-deciding competition in two years’ time.

As an Australian who has lived overseas for almost 12 years, it was a wonderful experience to connect with the next generation of competitive climbers representing our incredible country.  I spent my first full day in New Caledonia with Flora, a fellow Pinnacle Sports athlete, Finn, Angus, Kate, and Xanthea, and their parents.  I straddled the generations – still competing and with no children of my own, I related to the teenagers; twenty years older than the youth, with a career and years of life experience under my belt, I related to the parents.  Being able to relate to both worlds was wonderful – such a rich tapestry of conversation, subjects, and dynamics of character.  It was also lonely.


The crew at Île aux Canards. Photo by Kieran Froese

Later that day we headed to the ‘Structure Artificielle d’Escalade’ to check out the facility.  We were allowed to do practice runs on the speed wall and I managed to set a personal best time of 16:36.  A far cry from the sub-10 second times needed to be competitive internationally, I take heart that my focussed training for speed so far has consisted of a single weekend, that I am consistently sub-20 seconds in every run, and that my time comes down in each session I have.  With the Sport Climbing Australia qualifying time for women in international competition sitting at 14 seconds, I just need to shave 2 more seconds off to meet that minimum standard – definitely doable.


Structure Artificielle d’Escalade in Nouméa, New Caledonia.  Photo by Tiffany Melius

The next day my roommate for the trip, Lucy Stirling, arrived. Lucy is one of Australia’s top female competitors and has spent the summer competing on the World Cup circuit.  She is another fellow Pinnacle Sports athlete, and one of my strongest competitors for the Olympic spot.  Lucy and I had met for the first time at the 2016 Australian Bouldering Championships, and had gotten along well enough that we thought we could share a room for this comp.  We also wanted to use the opportunity to get to know each other better and learn from one another.  We both feel that we want friends and allies along this Olympic road, not enemies and adversaries.  We agree that by lifting each other up, this experience is going to be more enjoyable, and the end result more rewarding, no matter who that spot goes to.  We want the best woman to win – whoever that may be – through fair competition where everyone has the opportunity to climb to their potential. What a horrible feeling it would be knowing you won in a field where your competitors weren’t climbing at their best.  It just wouldn’t feel like you earned it.

Being on the same page about that really opened us up to each other.  We were able to share routines, and fears; ask for what we needed from one another; have each other’s backs when something went wrong; and be supportive of each other in a genuine and authentic way.  What an incredible environment for success!!!


A sunset walk on the beach.  Photo by Lucy Stirling

The official speed practice the next day was very quick – only two runs, back to back.  It felt weird to warm-up for ~40 minutes for less than 40 seconds of climbing time.  No personal best runs that day – I am still at the stage where I need to re-acquaint myself with my sequence before I can go fast.  The remainder of the day was spent on meal prep – making batches of food so that I was sure that I would get all the fuel and nutrients I needed over the following three days of competition.

My first round was the boulder qualifiers.  I had been a bit thrown by a change of format, announced to us in the technical meeting the night before.  Instead of the World Cup style ‘5 on 5 off’ format that I had been expecting and training for, we were required to do eight designated problems within a 90 minute window.  Only tops counted, and the points weighting for each problem depended on the number of people who completed it.  This new format requires much more strategy than the other.  You get to see all the problems before you start climbing, and so you need to decide what order to do the problems in.  You need to monitor other competitors to see which problems will yield the highest scores, and which problems you MUST do because everyone else is doing them.  In the end, I did seven out of eight problems, flashing six of them, which put me in tied third going into finals.  Lucy had done the same problems in one less attempt, and one competitor, Erica Gatland from New Zealand, had done one problem that noone else had.

Day two was going to be a packed day, with lead qualifiers in the morning, boulder finals in the afternoon, and three rounds of speed competition in the evening.  Although I had climbed solidly in the boulder qualifiers, I hadn’t climbed amazingly.  And the self-doubt crept in.  My coach, Andrew, had tried to temper my expectations in the lead up to this comp – “You are two months into a two year training plan, you are not meant to peak for this competition.  This comp is about things other than results – if you make top ten in each discipline we can be satisfied.”  And yet, the inner critic didn’t care about that.  “If you can’t do better than the others in your best discipline (bouldering), then how can you expect to do well today in your weaker disciplines?”, he said.  “You are going to embarrass yourself.”

I have spent the last year and a half working on my relationship with my inner critic – his name is Rukh and he is a character from an animated movie I used to watch as a kid.  The complex workings of that relationship are a whole other blog, but suffice to say, I needed to muster all the tools I had been practising to hold him at bay.  I kept finding myself getting caught up in thinking about the huge day ahead, and I had to keep bringing myself back to the piece of it just in front of me.  “OK, now it’s time to focus on eating breakfast.”, “Now pack your bag.”, “Now, warm-up.”, “Now, watch the forerunning video and watch for the key moves, clips etc.”, “Now tie in.”, “Now put your shoes on.”, “Now drink some water.”, “Now move one.”, “Now move two.” as so on throughout the morning. Periodically I would feel overwhelmed again, and just as in meditation when you bring your focus back to your breath, I had to keep bringing my focus back to what my immediate need was in each moment.

I was aware that I was not as strong as the other Open Women in the lead discipline, and they were confident that the first route was designed for the lower end of the field and so should be fairly cruisey.  I was aiming to top it, although I was not confident in my ability to do so.  I pushed through my pump about ⅔ of the way up and was thankful that there were no particularly difficult moves on the top vertical section.  I topped.  I was not as confident in the second route, but was happy with where I got to.  I was placed 4th going into finals. Again, a solid performance, though not outstanding.  I had had nothing more to give on either of the routes.

Focus now switched to re-fuelling, recovery, and then warm-up again.  Boulder finals was next.  They were using the World Cup final format of 4 minutes (though only three problems) and the whole field running through each problem before moving on to the next.  This format plays to my strengths as I don’t have to watch others climb, or know how they do, if I don’t want to or feel I can’t handle it at that moment.  I also get a good amount of recovery time so I have maximum physical performance on each boulder and the role of stamina and power endurance is reduced.  

There was no non-climbing warm-up area available at this time, and in my new regime created with my Fortius IST (Integrated Support Team), a good 30 minutes of my warm-up is floor-based before I even get on a climbing wall.  The officials let me go out in front of the lead wall, which was not being used at that time as it was in the sun, and warm-up there.  I noticed that the texture of the rubber matting was imprinting strongly in the heels of my hands, but I continued on, committed to doing my planned warm-up.  It was only halfway through the competition when I could still feel the texture that I realised that I had actually burned the skin on the rubber which had been heated up by the sun.  By that time I had missed the first problem and flashed the second, putting me in the lead ahead of Lucy who had done the second problem on her second attempt, and Erica who had done only the first problem but in more attempts.  

Final boulder 3 last move b

Topping Final Problem 3.  Photo from Team AUS Facebook page

I knew that I had a good chance of doing the last problem, and so was calmly excited that I might actually win.  I walked out to the wall, stepped up on the start volumes – and my foot slipped off, rubbing the heel of my left hand along the volume also.  Pain seared and when I looked down, a pinch of skin had bunched up like a rip waiting to happen.  I smoothed the skin down flat, the mobile top layer grating against the nerve endings underneath.  I tried again – same thing, and the area under the blister was now starting to redden.  And once again.  I knew that the blister could rip open at any moment and that I didn’t have enough time for medical attention.  I also knew that this was not a  serious injury.  Painful, yes; athlete-threatening, no. I changed the angle of my starting position and made it past the first move.  I moved quickly through the roof and when I got to the upper crux, reliant on full left hand contact, I committed through the pain.  I remember thinking that if I didn’t do it this time, I wouldn’t have the mental determination to will my body to climb through the pain again.  I completed the problem.  No other competitors did and so I won, with two tops to one.


Burn turned blood blister. Photo by Tiffany Melius

I immediately went to Australian Team Coach Will Hammersla and showed him my hand.  He sprang into action and eventually wrangled Dawn Lavender, nurse and parent, to help me out.  I decided that I wanted to lance the now blood-blister so that I could strap it flat for the speed competition later, but the first aid people onsite wouldn’t do anything other than clean and dress the skin’s surface.  Meanwhile, I had been approached by the organisation in charge of drug testing for the competition, and so had a chaperone with me as I was trying to source medical care.  In the end, Dawn went to the pharmacy to source supplies in my behalf while I went to do the drug test.

A drug test needs to have a concentration of at least 0.5 to be valid.  I drink so much water during competition that my first test (yes you have to pee with someone watching) came in at 0.2.  I needed to wait at the testing station until I could produce another 100mL of urine, but couldn’t drink more since I needed my concentration to be higher.  My original plan had been to go back to the hotel, eat a prepared meal, and nap before the speed competition.  Two hours after bouldering had finished, and ninety minutes before I needed to be back before speed, I still had not done any of these things.  Thankfully the chaperone was understanding, and Dawn drove the three of us back to the hotel.  I ate quickly, lanced and dressed the blister, and headed back for my second pee in a cup.  The concentration was 0.1.

It was clear that I was not going to pee again before the speed comp, so my chaperone followed me everywhere – through warm-up, the on deck chairs, and the competition zone.  I was trying to drink very little again, to ensure I could give a good sample, but this is difficult during competition.  Kim (Australian Team Assistant Coach) drove to a shop and got me a sports drink just so I wasn’t only drinking water.

The speed competition was fun.  Held in the lovely moderate temperatures in the evening, with competitors enjoying the experience of a new exciting discipline for most of them, the atmosphere was laid back.  I did two solid qualifying runs, and my times put me in second place.  I won my head-to-head semi-final, and that kept me in second place. Knowing that I had already exceeded my hopes and expectations of myself in this discipline in this competition, I went into the final wanting to give it my all.  The leader, Loan Maillard of New Caledonia, had done a qualifying time that was just 0.03 of a second better than the personal best I’d run two days before.  I knew that it was possible for me to beat her if everything went perfectly and I pushed hard.  As it turned out, I slipped halfway up and although I managed to stay on the wall and complete my run, it was my worst time of the competition.  

speed start

About to start a speed run.  Photo from Structure d’escalade de Noumea Facebook page

But I was over the moon with second place, and buoyed that I’d completed my first full speed competition.  My hands had held up well with the taping, and after the comp, I managed to give a valid urine sample at 0.5 concentration. 🙂

The final day of competition held only lead finals for me – one route, one chance to change my placing, and only one chance to perform with no room for error.  The route looked doable but difficult towards the top.  When I came out to climb the moves were longer and more committing than I’d read.  Falling around ⅔ of the way up, again, I feel like I climbed solidly, but not extraordinarily.  I tied with Sarah Hay (NZ) for third, but she dropped one place on countback.  Roxy Perry moved one hold further than I did along the route to take out second.  Lucy topped the route, as she had the two qualifiers, to take a convincing win and retain her lead title from the previous Oceania competition.

lead final

Final Lead Route.  Photo from Structure d’escalade de Noumea Facebook page

Watching the youth lead finals was a lovely way to end the competition.  Seeing the youngsters, my Aussie teammates, that I was just starting to get to know, strut their stuff on a spectacularly lit comp wall in the balmy night air was awesome.  I nearly went hoarse from cheering so much, and I was filled with pride watching the quality of them as both climbers and athletes.  The highlight for me was Finn McCallum-Packham’s hard-fought and technically magnificent ascent of his final route.  Although he topped the route, unfortunately he had timed out on the second-to-last-hold.  Still an incredible feat to watch.


Cheering the youth lead finalists.  Photo by Rachel Vazey

I also have HUGE admiration for the Youth A climbers who competed in up to 12 rounds of competition over the four days, by competing in the combined, Youth A, and Open competitions in all three categories.  I found it challenging enough to do six rounds over three days, and I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for them.  And a special shout-out to Sam Lavender within this group, who had to stay until 11:30pm on the first night of competition after having been there since 6 in the morning, to complete a drug test.  He also was the recipient of a bad judging call and was required to complete an Open final boulder problem a second time – an unnerving experience to say the least – and ended up winning the Open boulder competition anyway.  He handled this incident with integrity and impressive calm.

Since I started competing in Canada, many people have asked if I would consider representing Canada if I ever got dual citizenship.  To answer this question, I always asked myself – if I was standing on the top of an international podium, what national anthem would I like to be played?  The answer has always been, Advance Australia Fair.  The song fills me with an inexplicable amount of pride. To hear the Australian national anthem played 13 times during the awards ceremony was incredible.  I hadn’t heard it played for a legitimate reason (a reason other than me playing it for someone who was interested in what the Australian national anthem sounded like), in a long time. Lucy and I sang it loud and proud in the marshalling area, and we got lots of weird looks from the youth competitors.  But it was worth it.  When I took my place on the top of the podium for my bouldering win, it was a surreal moment – the first time that the national anthem had ever being playing because of me! I saw my face on the big screen, with a ‘1’ and the Australian flag superimposed over the top of the scene.  I remember thinking, ‘this is the pinnacle of representing your country – that moment when you have been deemed the best, and done it in the name of Australia’.  

1st podium

On top of the podium.  Photo by Will Hammersla

Ramada room 109 – the room of Champions.  Lucy and I each won a gold, a silver, and a bronze medal.  Although unofficial, I believe that had there been an overall title I would have taken it as I placed highest in two out of three disciplines.  A very good start on this Olympic journey.  So far to go, and so much work to do, but lots of psych.  


The Australian Open Team Women – in a serious high kick moment.  Photo by Kim Kamo

And two years for other competitors to come into play.  Most notable is Oceana Mackenzie from Australia, currently a Youth B competitor. Oceana has been awarded an Olympic Scholarship from the IOC after having been nominated by SCA and the AOC.  Oceana convincingly won all three disciplines in her age group at Oceania, and has proven to be competitive in the Open field in previous ‘wild card’ entries into Australian Open competitions.  Also Sarah Tetzlaff from New Zealand, currently a Youth A competitor, and winner of the combined title that qualifies her entry into the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.  I look forward to a hard fought and mutually uplifting competition at the Oceania Continental Climbing Championships in 2019.

Oceania 2017 Insta-post

My triumphant post on social media, post-comp.  Photo by Lucy Stirling