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Olympics Deferred

By: Sean McColl, Olympic Rock Climber (CAN)

August 2019 – Seven months before shutdown

I had just flown home from the World Championships where I qualified for The 2020 Olympic Games. My friends threw me a surprise party and everything was going as planned. I was lucky enough to qualify in the first round of competition which meant the last few months of 2019 were free from other competitive responsibilities. I did keep training for a few more World Cups and had fun with them. My body was tired from the year but it was entirely worth all the effort. I finished 2019 having competed in all 18 IFSC World Cups (3 in each discipline), and finished 3rd in the Overall rankings of Lead. After a short off-season, I was ready for 2020 and everything it held for me as an Olympian.

February 2020 – One month before shutdown

Or so I thought. The first 2 months of 2020 were relatively normal, pre-season and getting back into training. I also took a week to coach team Canada at the Pan-American Olympic qualifying event in Los Angeles; where my teammate, Alannah Yip, also qualified for the Olympic Games by winning that event!

March 2020 – Shutdown

By mid-March I was in Eastern Canada at a Canadian training camp, for the top-5 competitors that could qualify in Bouldering. This camp included the Canadian youth team so we had 20-30 athletes there. I was going to use this training camp as a setup to a block of training in Europe. Europe as a whole has better training environments; they have better holds and invest more money into making sure their athletes have what they need for world-level competitions. Usually a block of training for me was 4-6 weeks in Europe, where I travel between a few different countries, training in as many gyms as possible. There are a handful of gyms that have a very high density of hard competition boulders so if I can go to each one for a few days, it’s a perfect training environment for me.

Within a span of a week after the camp, the world had changed dramatically due to the impacts of Covid-19. Every day, I’d wake up and read news of the virus spreading, countries closing, and air travel restricting. Although I was supposed to head to Paris, I took a flight from Ottawa, back to Vancouver, to re-assess my travel and training plans. By the time I was back in Vancouver, Canada had mandated that everyone socially isolate. I take public health very seriously so I implemented the safety protocols and kept my eyes and ears open to the unfolding global pandemic news.

The hardest part about all this rapid changing of our day-to-day was that I was supposed to compete at my first Olympic Games in just four months. How would I stay fit and at the top of my game during this period of time? The gyms were closed. There was so much we didn’t know. It was hard looking around the world and seeing people training in environments drastically different than in the high-performance facilities normally in use in an Olympic year. I wondered, “Should athletes be given special training spaces when that funding could be used to help fight Covid?” There were so many questions, with little answers, it was mentally exhausting to consider all of the global unknowns.

Canada Boycotts the Olympics

The next big shock was that I learned Canada would not be sending athletes if the Olympic Games were not postponed, or something with Covid drastically changed. Learning of this decision was hard for me to swallow, to say the least. I agreed with the principle and stood behind my country, but at the same time, I was sad. There was a chance the Olympics would go forth and I’d be part of the boycott. At this point in the pandemic, we already couldn’t train properly, and if the Olympics weren’t postponed, would I be willing to risk my health, and the health of everyone around me to train? Another hard part about this news was how quickly it came. I was notified a few hours before the announcement, and looking back it definitely helped to have that buffer. Upon hearing the news, I knew it was the right call, and yet still I was frightened about missing the Games I worked so hard to qualify for.

Ultimately the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the decision to postpone the Games until the summer of 2021. I firmly believe the IOC made the right decision to postpone the Games by one year. The biggest and most prominent reason for the postponement was that the world was facing a crisis, a pandemic, and that needed to be brought under control before international events continued. There were so many unknowns and the risk was just too high. This extra year turned into a huge relief for me because now I had been given an extra year to plan and train, making up for the lost time the pandemic had created.

Quarantine Builds Dreams

During this year’s quarantine time, besides trying to figure out what life was supposed to look like, a friend offered to help me build a home wall so I could stay fit and keep training. I knew that with the virus still looming and life not returning to normal any time soon, this was the perfect opportunity. We tackled it together most days of the week, and slowly over the course of a month, we had built my own personal climbing wall. It included a 30-degree overhang, a vertical back wall, and side panels to complete what resembles a spaceship (because I painted it a 2-tone grey). In total, it has 442 square feet of climbing and over 10 brands of holds! I also got my pad sponsor to make me a custom 8” thick pad with 2” near the kick wall at the front. I got to pick the designs, and fully customize my space. It has always been a dream of mine to have a home wall, and now that it’s done it’s really amazing to be able to go to my own personal space and dream up my own problems to set on the wall. These last few months have been difficult for many. I am grateful I have been able to stay healthy and fit through it all. My home wall has given me a project to look forward to and the physical space to focus on the positive in my life during the pandemic.

The Olympics are now only a few months away. I have my own wall, but Covid is still a major presence throughout the world. I have begun to carve out a training schedule for all three disciplines now that I have my home wall and the gyms are open. I wish we had a National Training Centre like in the States because setting my own boulders as fun as it is not ideal when training for the Olympics. However, I am now able to train for Bouldering at the gym, while wearing a face mask and booking a 2-hour time slot to do so. I wasn’t able to train for Lead as usually I go over to Europe for this discipline and finding world-class competition routes here is hard. I do have plans to fill my home wall with holds so I can do circuit training to help my Lead climbing. Speed climbing has been the hardest to train for as I haven’t touched the speed route in months and I need a full wall to work on my times. There is an official 15m Speed wall that opened in Richmond at the Olympic Oval and I’ve now been able to get laps in with the help of Speed Climbing champion and previous World Record holder, Libor Hroza. With this plan in place, I am looking forward to creating new training routines and seeing how this impacts my overall strength in 2021.

Adapting to Covid is an ongoing effort in all areas of my life, but I am happy that I have been able to train more, stay healthy, and feel that I’m getting stronger. I have always been able to adapt well to a changing environment. I think my competitive career has helped me to do this well. With all the lingering uncertainty I’m still looking forward to and excited for 2021, the Olympic Games, and everything that comes with it.