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Reflections and Growth

(Written July 18, 2020) 8min read

When COVID-19 caused travel to be suspended, Continentals and the Olympics to be postponed, and the world to be upended, things shifted for me.

I was tired.

I had been pushing just to finish things off, make it to the finish line, tie the bow on the end of the journey. My Olympic qualifier was meant to be in March. It didn’t look likely that I would get the Olympic spot and so it would all have been over at that point.

When lockdown hit, I didn’t ‘stop’ right away. Despite going back to work fulltime to lead my organization’s COVID-19 response, I continued with hard training.  While the sessions were shorter, at home, with no climbing wall, I actually think this made training feel even harder because my first love is for climbing, not training.

And then I crashed.

I do enjoy training, but I enjoy it as part of the process. The structure and purpose of my sessions makes me feel productive, but that needs to be balanced with enjoyment too.  What I learned while only training at home, is how much mental respite climbing gives me from my everyday life worries.  When I climb, everything else fades away. I am fully present. It’s moving meditation. My focus is entirely on the wall in front of me, the people around me, and my body as it translates my movement problem-solving into action.

Weights and hang-boarding at home only amplified the ‘lack’ of all that.  Although I focus on form during this kind of training, focus is not creativity. It’s not fun (for me), per say. It’s a means to an end.  I enjoy how I feel afterwards. I enjoy making progress towards a goal. I enjoy seeing progress and feeling strong while busting out sets and reps. But I don’t enjoy being alone. I don’t enjoy that it requires no creativity or mental engagement (e.g. problem-solving). I took to watching Netflix while hanging just so my mind didn’t get bored and dwell on how bored it was.

So after a few weeks, I lost all motivation to do anything. I had no respite in the way that I can ‘forget it all’ while climbing, and so ‘everything’ became overwhelming. I took a break. Eventually I got back into training at home, albeit at a slower pace, and after a few more weeks the climbing gyms opened again.

During this period I did a lot of soul-searching. Noone would blame me if I stopped here. The world was topsy turvy and I have a big life outside of competition climbing. I could start on my next journey of starting a family – something I have known I wanted since I was a kid.  But would I regret it? Would I be able to look back on this time and be OK with knowing that I stopped six months before it was actually over (especially after having worked two and a half years already towards this goal)?

My two process goals for this Olympic adventure were 1) to see how far I could go with competition climbing, and 2) to share my growth and learning along the way.

I feel like both of those were/have been accomplished. And since the outcome goal of making it to the Olympics seems unlikely, what more was there to gain just to ‘finish what I started’?

I don’t know if I ever actually wanted to compete in the Olympics. When talking privately to my close friends, I had said that the Olympic competition seemed too big for me. What I really wanted was just to walk in the opening ceremony.  To have earned my place for that – not for the competition itself.  I had big fears around embarrassing myself and my country in the competition. I felt tired contemplating the competition itself.  I don’t know at what point this started – I started training for this particular goal in September 2017 – but I got worn down over time. It sounds like a cop-out now to say “oh, I never really wanted it anyway”, when it looks like it won’t happen, but there was a big difference for me between how I felt leading into winning the 2016 Australian Bouldering Nationals (confident and an embodied champion), and how I have felt in the lead up to the 2020 Olympic qualifiers (insecure and tired).

In 2016 I had seen and felt myself standing atop the podium before I got there. I had 12 years of history to put to rest. I WANTED it, and felt myself as a champion throughout the process.  In the past 2.5 years I have not been able to see (or feel) myself as an Olympian. Not once. All the visualizations and self-affirmations have just not gotten me any closer to believing that that is me. Maybe it’s imposter syndrome. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to embarrass myself, my country, my supporters. Maybe it’s believing that I’ve had my chance and it’s time to turn the sport over to the next generation.  Maybe it’s believing that I don’t deserve it – that there are others who are better, stronger, work harder for it, want it more. Maybe I really am just too old and the slowed ability to gain strength, to heal, to recover just doesn’t allow me to compete at the level that I have been striving towards.  Regardless, I am hella proud of myself and what I have been able to do.

I wonder if the lesson in all this for me has been to figure out what I really want.  None of the obstacles in my way have been insurmountable – at least not in the way that I am beat down by them.  Along the way the question has been either “what is best?”, or “what do I want?”. ‘What is best?’ is always in relation to, ‘what is it that best serves my goal?’. ‘What do I want?’ is altogether more intangible. It relies on a feeling. It relies on me listening to my gut over my brain; my heart over my ego. Sometimes those two things align; and sometimes they don’t.

The Olympic goal is about an outcome – it gives purpose and inspiration, a rallying point for supporters, and a platform big enough for people to get on board.  But it doesn’t get you through the day to day. It doesn’t get you through the decision fatigue of having to make a hundred choices a day. It’s the WANTING, that gets you through those choices.  When I choose to eat healthy over junk, train instead of ‘do whatever’ at the climbing gym, stay home to get to bed early instead of going out with friends – it’s because I WANT to see how far I can go. I WANT to see if I can get to the Olympics. And I know that making those choices now, will get me closer to where I want to go in the future. And if you don’t actually want it, making each of those decisions just becomes so much harder.

The World Championships in August 2019, and the Australian National Championships in November 2019, showed me how far (I believe) I can go.  I have never trained harder, or in a more single-minded, disciplined way, than I have in the past 2.5 years. But I have been climbing and training (though more or less depending on circumstances), since I started with the Rocksports Youth Team in 1997.  In the context of 23 years, four months (November Nationals to March Continentals), or even another six months (to the postponed Continentals, now proposed for December 2020), is not going to make a huge amount of difference.  And I am OK with that. As a 35 and 36 year old athlete, I attended multiple World Cups and two World Championships.  I represented Australia internationally. I didn’t embarrass myself with my performances.  I was often the oldest female, and sometimes the oldest athlete, at these events. I shared the podium at the 2017 Continental Championships, and at the 2019 National Championships, with athletes two decades younger than me. I think I’ve done alright.

So what now?

The decision I made with my coach a month or so ago was to change chapters.  To close the chapter about striving to see how far I could go – the pushing, the decision-fatigue, walking that thin line between stress adaptation and stress overload, self-care and over-training – and start a new six-month chapter of staying healthy through the training and putting my self-care ahead of my training program. I have been physically sick a lot during this journey and it has caused significant mental stress for me in how to handle it. And I am done. I just can’t do it anymore. So here is this opportunity to reset my perspective to doing what I need to, to keep me happy and healthy, rather than doing what I need to do to push my limits.  And who knows, maybe that perspective will give me performance gains I never thought possible. And if it doesn’t that’s OK too.  Because now it’s just about crossing the finish line.

And at this point, with COVID-19 creating unpredictability in the world, that finish line could well move again. Victoria (one of the Australian states) has now been shut off from the rest of Australia with a new outbreak. Since some of Australia’s favourites for the Olympic spot come out of Victoria, I can’t imagine that the competition will go ahead if some top athletes can’t attend. So as long as the virus continues to have impact within Australia and New Zealand, there is the possibility that the date will change again. There is also the possibility that I won’t be able to get back to Australia for the competition at all.  Many Australian citizens have been trying to for months to get home, with flight after flight being cancelled, quarantine restrictions forcing travel through strange itineraries with changing conditions while en-route, and simply not being able to book flights at all. And now there are restrictions on the number of people per day and per flight who can enter Australia. So even if Australia and New Zealand can go ahead and intermingle, I may not be able to participate. So with all this uncertainty, is it even worth pursuing?

And as I write this, I am on a vacation. A week – the first week in over three years – where I have had no training, no travel, no competitions. And I really don’t know if I want to go back to it all, even if the new, wholesome goal is to stay healthy. My body and mind feel so at peace with just ‘being’, that the idea of having to go back to the discipline of ‘doing’ makes me sigh. I know I can do it if I choose to, but should I choose to?

And when I ask myself what I really want, all I hear is “baby baby baby”…