A Por­trait in Speed,

Rac­ing up the Walls with Ira­nian Speed Climber Far­naz Es­maeilzadeh

Climbing - - CONTENTS - By Alex Lubben

Rac­ing up the walls with Ira­nian speed climber Far­naz Es­maeilzadeh.

Ira­nian climber Far­naz Es­maeilzadeh ex­plodes up the walls. She’s a com­pe­ti­tion speed climber—the goal isn’t whether she can get to the top but how quickly. She leaps from blob to blob, reach­ing the top of the 15-me­ter wall in sub-10 sec­onds; it looks like she’s throw­ing the holds down to the ground. She floats rather than climbs, like she’s some­how less sus­cep­ti­ble to grav­ity than the rest of us.

Es­maeilzadeh’s com­pe­ti­tion best—9.02 sec­onds— set at the 2015 In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Sport Climb­ing (IFSC) Cham­pi­onships in Vic­to­ria, Canada, landed her in sev­enth place in the event and es­tab- lished her as the fastest fe­male climber in Iran.

Speed climb­ing, with its rig­or­ous rules and aura of di­rect com­pe­ti­tion, isn’t well known in the States, but it’s big in East­ern Europe and Asia. ( See “A His­tory of

Speed,” p.78.) The IFSC, which over­sees World Cup events in speed, sport climb­ing, and boul­der­ing, sets the rules. All com­pe­ti­tions take place on reg­u­la­tion 15-me­ter walls with stan­dard­ized grips—those red, amoeba-like blobs you may have seen at your gym. At a comp, two climbers sprint side-by-side up iden­ti­cal, stan­dard­ized 5.10a routes, gun­ning for the touch­pad “fin­ish line.” The event will be part of climb­ing’s de­but at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In 2013, at the height of her com­pet­i­tive abil­ity, Es­maeilzadeh took home gold at the Asian Cham-

pi­o­nship and was ranked sixth in the world by the IFSC. Then, in 2016, as part of the Ira­nian women’s speed-climb­ing team, she took home fourth at the Asian Cham­pi­onship in China, charg­ing up the wall in 9.97 sec­onds. Es­maeilzadeh has placed at sport and boul­der com­pe­ti­tions as well. In 2002, in her first climb­ing com­pe­ti­tion, she took home sil­ver in lead at the Ira­nian na­tional cham­pi­onship.

At the end of 2016, she was ranked thirty-eighth in speed climb­ing by the IFSC. While her re­sults may be slip­ping—at 28, she’s older than most of the top 10 speed climbers, women mostly in their early twen­ties—she’s faced chal­lenges her West­ern com­peti­tors haven’t. As an Ira­nian woman, she’s had trou­ble find­ing a coach, as well as se­cur­ing fund­ing and visas to travel in­ter­na­tion­ally. And she’s also com­peted with a “hand­i­cap”—the long-sleeved shirts and the hi­jab (head scarf ) she’s some­times worn in com­pe­ti­tion— that sets her apart from her West­ern com­peti­tors and kept her from be­ing spon­sored. Es­maeilzadeh has at times pushed the bound­aries of what’s ac­cept­able for Ira­nian women, wear­ing less con­ven­tional head­scarves that some­times leave tufts of her hair vis­i­ble. Some Ira­ni­ans have crit­i­cized her dress, she says, while oth­ers have ex­pressed en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port.

As far as she knows, Es­maeilzadeh was the only girl from her home­town of Boru­jerd, Iran, who climbed. A city of 250,000 peo­ple at the base of the Za­gros Moun­tains, it’s not much of a climb­ing cen­ter. How­ever, her moun­taineer par­ents, Javad and Parvin, and fam­ily friends ex­posed Far­naz and her brother, Far­shad, to the peaks at an early age. “There’s good climb­ing there,” her friend Bah­man Yari Saeed Khan­loo told me. “You’d ex­pect there to be more of a climb­ing com­mu­nity, but there isn’t.”

Though Boru­jerd lacked climb­ing walls, there were trees. “The taller and the more slip­pery the tree,” she told me via email, “the more the adren­a­line rush and the bet­ter one’s learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment will be!” Boughs would break and Far­naz would fall— some­times far enough to hurt her­self, though never se­ri­ously—but she’d clamp back on and climb up again. She re­mem­bers push­ing her way into what­ever games—soc­cer, climb­ing, rough­hous­ing—Far­shad was play­ing when they were kids.

Far­shad is now a big-wall climber and, pro­fes­sion­ally, a trans­la­tor. But when Far­naz was 12, Far­shad’s am­a­teur car­pen­try helped her to de­velop her climb­ing. He built a 12-foot wood climb­ing wall in their back­yard, nail­ing on holds made of rock. The sib­lings would climb in old sneak­ers that, she says, made climb­ing more dif­fi­cult than sim­ply go­ing bare­foot. (“As a re­sult, I gained up­per-body strength,” she says.)

In her teens, Es­maeilzadeh’s fam­ily moved to Zan­jan, a big­ger city in north­west­ern Iran, where there were full-spec­trum climb­ing gyms. That’s where she scaled her first speed wall. The pac­ing and dy­namism of the ac­tiv­ity spoke to her, and she was hooked.

Since en­ter­ing her first speed comp—the 2007 Asian In­door Games in Ma­cao—Es­maeilzadeh has been train­ing with­out a for­mal coach. There are a few train­ing boot­camps in Iran, but, ac­cord­ing to Es­maeilzadeh, there aren’t any coaches train­ing women. She learned the ba­sics of climb­ing tech­nique by watch­ing YouTube videos.

Es­maeilzadeh em­pha­sized to me the role her mother, Parvin, has played in her train­ing. “She helps me eat health­fully,” she told me. “Men­tal sup­port, lo­gis­tics, cook­ing, and some­times be­lay­ing me when no one’s around.” And while her par­ents have both been

Es­maeilzadeh has been train­ing sans coach since 2007. She learned tech­nique watch­ing YouTube videos.

sup­port­ive, cheer­ing her on at com­pe­ti­tions, she can train only with her mom. “It’s not pos­si­ble for my dad to be­lay me, be­cause men and women have sep­a­rate hours at the gym in Zan­jan,” she says. The men also get more gym time: five to six hours to the women’s two to three. The dis­parate gym hours re­flect Ira­nian so­ci­ety, which re­mains highly gen­der-seg­re­gated even as it’s gov­erned by an in­creas­ingly wa­tered-down ver­sion of Sharia law. Women are re­quired to wear tra­di­tional cloth­ing in pub­lic, in­clud­ing the hi­jab. And, while the coun­try has grad­u­ally be­come more pro­gres­sive—ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for women have im­proved, and Ira­nian women are win­ning seats in par­lia­ment—women can be still stoned or lashed if con­victed of ex­tra­mar­i­tal sex.

In 2015, Es­maeilzadeh was in­vited to train at The Boul­ders climb­ing gym in Vic­to­ria City, Bri­tish Columbia, for a month lead­ing up to the World Cup at the gym. Freed from the lim­i­ta­tions placed on her train­ing in Iran, Es­maeilzadeh placed sev­enth. She broke her own record dur­ing that comp, set­ting the speed record for Ira­nian women. In train­ing, she hit 8.67 sec­onds, which in com­pe­ti­tion would have put her com­fort­ably in the top 10 at Paris’s World Cup last year—an event she missed due to visa trou­ble.

Es­maeilzadeh wants to make more trips like the one to Canada but lacks spon­sors with deep pock­ets. She mostly pays her own way, teach­ing Zumba classes and us­ing her comp win­nings to fund her travel. In to­day’s charged po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, with Is­lam­o­pho­bia on the rise in the West, Es­maeilzadeh says that Amer­i­can gear com­pa­nies have been re­luc­tant to spon­sor her, see­ing an en­dorse­ment of her as an en­dorse­ment of her re­li­gion (Is­lam) or the state of Iran. She can hide nei­ther her re­li­gion nor her na­tion­al­ity.

“They think re­li­gion should be sep­a­rate from sport,” she says. “I got an email from [an Amer­i­can] com­pany that told me, ‘Be­cause of your clothes, we can’t sup­port you as a spon­sor.’” Over the past five years, Es­maeilzadeh has sent emails to hun­dreds of com­pa­nies. She’s only re­cently got­ten a few small spon­sor­ships, deals that get her some free gear. Mean­while, her West­ern com­peti­tors have been able to se­cure spon­sor­ships that have paid for train­ing, travel, and pub­lic­ity. And the men on the Ira­nian team have been able to get full spon­sor­ships, too. As far as Es­maeilzadeh knows, there aren’t any fully spon­sored fe­male Ira­nian climbers.

Travel to the events has also been fraught with has­sle. Es­maeilzadeh has faced cul­tural bar­ri­ers— she says it’s un­com­mon in Iran for women to travel alone—and has had to con­tend with in­ter­na­tional bu­reau­cracy. Com­ing from a semi-re­stricted coun­try, ob­tain­ing a visa is of­ten dif­fi­cult. She missed an IFSC com­pe­ti­tion in Cha­monix last year, and wasn’t able to com­pete in Chongqing, China, in April 2017. Her

visa ap­pli­ca­tions are con­sis­tently ei­ther re­jected or not pro­cessed in time. Her team­mate Reza Ali pour­shenazan­di­far, the 2015 IF SC World Cup gold meda list, had a visa re­jected in 2016 as well. The in­ter­na­tional climb­ing com­mu­nity, how­ever, has al­ways been wel­com­ing: Es­maeilzadeh says she’s never ex­pe­ri­enced dis­crim­i­na­tion on the com­pe­ti­tion cir­cuit.

De­spite ad­vents like Nike’s “Pro Hi­jab” (on sale spring 2018)—a de­vel­op­ment per­haps less mo­ti­vated by cor­po­rate good­will than es­ti­mates that the Is­lamic mar­ket will be worth over $5 tril­lion by 2020—Es­maeilzadeh is not the only woman in sports to be sub­jected to such headaches. Kubra Dagli, the 20-yearold Turk­ish Tae Kwon Do cham­pion who com­petes in a hi­jab, has been crit­i­cized by some (for sim­ply be­ing a woman who does mar­tial arts) and lauded by oth­ers (for show­ing that the hi­jab doesn’t hold her back), all while she tries to di­rect the press’s at­ten­tion to her suc­cess as an ath­lete. “They don’t speak of my suc­cess, but of my head­scarf. I don’t want this. Our suc­cess should be dis­cussed. We made so much ef­fort,” she said in an in­ter­view at hur­riyet.com.tr.

When Es­maeilzadeh and I first spoke over Skype in Au­gust 2016, she had been train­ing hard be­tween com­pe­ti­tions. Her Skype sta­tus was “[flex­ing arm emoji”] never give up.” She apol­o­gized for her English, which by any mea­sure is very good. She’s poised and ar­tic­u­late, and comes across as preter­nat­u­rally driven and com­pet­i­tive. She told me she’d just wrapped up her morn­ing strength train­ing and would head to the gym that af­ter­noon to climb.

At the IFSC World Cup in Italy, she had just placed nine­teenth. “I couldn’t quite get the re­sults I wanted,” she told me. She’d re­turned to Iran be­cause she’d been un­able to con­nect with a be­layer or a train­ing part­ner. Es­maeilzadeh says she usu­ally trains with

one be­layer who runs away from the wall to keep up with her, but speed climbers gen­er­ally need two be­lay­ers: one to pull down on the rope, and an­other to pull the slack through the Gri­gri. That is, un­less you have a $2,000 high-per­for­mance IFSC reg­u­la­tion speed-climb­ing au­to­belay—which Es­maeilzadeh doesn’t. Her home gym doesn’t have one, and when she de­cided to skip a com­pe­ti­tion to buy one, she dis­cov­ered that, due to cus­toms rules be­tween the US and Iran, she couldn’t have it shipped to Iran.

“I love to com­pete, be­cause if I didn’t, I couldn’t see the re­sult of my hard work,” she says. “I couldn’t see the re­sult of train­ing ev­ery­day. You can’t have great progress if you’re alone.”

Speed climb­ing, in her view, takes many of the same types of train­ing needed to be com­pet­i­tive in other styles, with es­pe­cial em­pha­sis on strength, power, and agility. “I train do­ing 100-me­ter sprints,” she said. “Lead climbers don’t do that.” She trains six days a week, mostly at her lo­cal gym, with one day of “ac­tive

rest”—swim­ming, an easy hike, stretch­ing—in be­tween. Her morn­ing power work­out rou­tines in­volve springs, leg presses, weighted pullups, bench presses, weightlift­ing, and hang­board­ing. Next, she does agility train­ing: sprint­ing up lad­ders and stairs, and hur­dle jumps. “For speed climb­ing,” she told me, “I’m try­ing to hone my tech­nique, then work on my car­dio and core.” Her diet, she says, is re­stric­tive: no oils, no fats, no added salt. “I com­pro­mise on taste,” she says. Her mom, Parvin, cooks and helps her eat right to stay fit for com­pet­ing.

Just as boul­der­ing in the off-sea­son is good train­ing for red­point fit­ness, so it is for speed climb­ing. The power helps. When Es­maeilzadeh can’t find a be­layer, you’ll find her above the crash­pads, pro­ject­ing hard prob­lems. She’s also hop­ing to take a trip to Italy, where she’s scoped out climbs in Sar­dinia and Fi­nale Lig­ure—hard multi-pitch projects that pro­vide a con­trast to the 15-me­ter sprints she’s ac­cus­tomed to. For moral sup­port, Es­maeilzadeh of­ten turns to so­cial me­dia. She has al­most 11,000 fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram. As she puts it, “Some­times it’s re­ally good be­cause when you’re hope­less of be­ing lonely, and hope­less of hav­ing progress, when you’re mad about ev­ery­thing and you get to your so­cial me­dia and you see lots of peo­ple around the world re­ally love you, are proud of you, it gives you en­ergy.”

Es­maeilzadeh hopes to write a howto book on climb­ing to pro­mote the sport in Iran. “I want to write ev­ery­thing [about climb­ing],” she says, “so that the younger climbers can use it.” She sees her­self as a role model for Ira­nian girls, and has started coach­ing. The girls un­der her tute­lage have started to see suc­cess. Saba Noorsina, an 18-year-old speed climber from Tehran, took home bronze at the IFSC youth cham­pi­onship in Iran last Septem­ber.

The gym scene is ex­pand­ing in Iran, much like in the States, and young climbers’ abil­i­ties are ex­pand­ing along with it. She thinks the younger gen­er­a­tion will grow up to out­climb their pre­de­ces­sors. “The fu­ture is very bright,” she says. (Ac­cord­ing to the New

York Post, there are now 200 fe­male climbers com­pet­ing on Iran’s na­tional cir­cuit.)

“I’m a role model,” Es­maeilzadeh con­tin­ues. “I don’t want the girls in my coun­try to think that they can’t com­pete in­ter­na­tion­ally just be­cause they don’t have a spon­sor­ship. I want to in­tro­duce my­self as a strong girl, and show that it’s not im­por­tant in which coun­try you were born. Your choices can make your life dif­fer­ent.”

Alex Lubben

is a jour­nal­ist liv­ing in New York. His work has ap­peared in VICE News, The Awl, The Na­tion, and else­where.

Es­maeilzadeh sees her­self as a role model for Ira­nian girls and has started coach­ing. She also wants to write a how-to book on climb­ing.





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