Aim­ing High

Cana­dian clim­ber Sean McColl sets his sights on podium fin­ish at the Tokyo Olympics

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - GRE­GORY STRONG

Sean McColl’s ver­sa­til­ity has helped make him one of the best all-around climbers in the world.

He’ll rocket up a wall in speed climb­ing like a squir­rel be­ing chased up a tree. His boul­der­ing tech­nique brings out his in­ner Spi­derMan. And his lead skills are top shelf as well.

Put it all to­gether and it’s not sur­pris­ing the Cana­dian all-around World Cup cham­pion is one of the coun­try’s bright­est medal hopes for the Sum­mer Games in 2020, when the sport will make its Olympic de­but.

“For me it’s al­ways go­ing into un­knowns,” McColl said. “I al­ways want to do some­thing that I’ve never done be­fore. So with the 2020 Olympics, it’s mak­ing the Olympic team, go­ing to Tokyo and win­ning a medal. “And hope­fully that medal is gold.” The climb­ing dis­ci­plines — speed, lead and boul­der­ing — will be used in a com­bined for­mat at the Games. While most top climbers choose to spe­cial­ize, McColl com­petes in all three events.

The speed com­pe­ti­tion is like the climb­ing ver­sion of a sprint. Two climbers go head-to­head in a race to climb the wall and touch the tim­ing pad first.

In lead, ath­letes also wear a har­ness while climb­ing a fixed course on a wall within a spec­i­fied time frame.

Boul­der­ing is done on a shorter wall with a mat be­low. Climbers rely on their ex­plo­sive­ness and use jumps and swing­ing tech­niques to their ad­van­tage.

Plenty of hand chalk is used and climbers wear spe­cial shoes as they con­tort their bod­ies on the wall’s var­i­ous grips and holds.

“We use our heels, we pull, we push, and we’re work­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment that’s in 3-D now,” McColl re­cently said from north­ern Ja­pan dur­ing a break in train­ing.

The Olympic qual­i­fi­ca­tion plan has yet to be fi­nal­ized, but 20 ath­letes per gen­der will com­pete at the Games. World cham­pi­onship re­sults, world rank­ings and a qual­i­fier com­pe­ti­tion will likely de­ter­mine the par­tic­i­pants.

McColl, a 29-year-old from North Van­cou­ver, B.C., was 10 when he first tried climb­ing at a friend’s birth­day party.

It didn’t take long be­fore he was hooked on the sports.

“I re­mem­ber go­ing and just be­ing fas­ci­nated with the idea of climb­ing up and just let­ting go and be­ing low­ered back down to the ground,” he said.

Climb­ing is a rel­a­tively small sport and not par­tic­u­larly lu­cra­tive. McColl didn’t se­ri­ously con­sider turn­ing pro un­til his early 20s.

More spon­sors even­tu­ally came on board and he was able to travel more.

“When I re­al­ized that I could ac­tu­ally make it into a ca­reer, I was in heaven,” he said.

McColl said he has to lay out over $50,000 ev­ery sea­son to com­pete on the cir­cuit. Spon­sors and purses have helped him stay out of the red in re­cent years.

He’s able to rent cars now at events in­stead of tak­ing buses, or he might fly di­rect in­stead of deal­ing with stopovers.

McColl got a big fi­nan­cial boost re­cently when he was added to the HBC ath­lete bur­sary pro­gram that will see him re­ceive a per­sonal grant of $10,000 an­nu­ally in fund­ing through the 2020 Games.

“I’m re­ally ex­cited be­cause it’s the first Olympic fund­ing that I get,” he said.

His pro­file will get also get a lift when he ap­pears on the “Amer­i­can Ninja War­rior” again next month. He made his de­but on the com­pe­ti­tion show in 2014.

“It’s ba­si­cally a fun park for adults,” he said of the show’s unique ob­sta­cle course.

McColl plans to re­turn to Las Ve­gas this sum­mer to film his fourth sea­son.

“The whole ex­pe­ri­ence for me was some­thing that was re­ally cool, a re­ally fun ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “Now I get to go back ev­ery year.”

McColl is not lack­ing for con­fi­dence. The main cap­tion on his web­site says: “World Cham­pion Clim­ber. Fu­ture Olympian. Cana­dian.”

When it comes to Tokyo, he has a three­year plan.

He’ll test things out this sea­son in train­ing and com­pe­ti­tions. Next year will be about fine-tun­ing his skills and in 2019, he plans to “do ex­actly what I know I can do” and qual­ify for the Games.

Nathan Smith, a Toronto-based na­tion­al­level clim­ber, calls McColl a “very dy­namic” clim­ber who uses his ex­pe­ri­ence to his ad­van­tage.

“He goes big or goes home,” Smith said. “It pays off or some­times he risks it and he falls off ear­lier than he could have. But of­ten it pays off and he does bet­ter.”


Cana­dian clim­ber Sean McColl’s ver­sa­til­ity has helped make him one of the best all-around climbers in the world.

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