Grasroots to Glory - Shauna Coxsey
"My sport really deserves to be on that stage so I just can’t wait for people to see it.”
In an alternate universe, Shauna Coxsey might have worked for the Royal Mail or found her vocation as a train conductor. Thankfully, the Olympian had rather unconventional taste in television for a three-year-old, so she was not watching Postman Pat or Thomas the Tank Engine on the day her life changed forever.
The flaxen-haired Runcorn girl sat on her dad Mike’s knee as he flicked through what was on, eventually settling on an offering about free climber Catherine Destivelle. Adventure shows were a father-daughter favourite. Something about the Frenchwoman, swinging with purpose off the side of the Mali cliff like the pendulum in a grandfather clock, transfixed the toddler. She turned to her father and asked, “Daddy, can I do that?”.
Mike could not think of any convincing objections, so he said yes.
“I just was obsessed with [climbing] from day one,” recalled Coxsey, now 28, the sporty “black sheep” in a family of seven siblings.
“It was quite a long time ago now. I started going to a kids’ open group and then I asked my dad if he could take me on our own, so we could learn to belay, to hold the other end of the rope. I’m not sure if I was any good when I started out! Maybe a few people said I was, but I think they were just being kind.”
Coxsey started competing at the age of seven and was, she said, “initially really overwhelmed by that. I got super nervous, and then as time went on, I just got more obsessed with the sport, more and more fascinated.”
The ribbons attached to Shauna Coxsey’s first medals were so long they dwarfed her tiny torso, looping so low that the prize hung closer to the ground than her neck. Record-breaking British boulderer Hazel Findlay used to train with Coxsey at the Northwest Face in Warrington when she was 10 and Coxsey was seven.
“As the older and therefore better climber (at the time) I’d often set problems for us,” she told the British Mountaineering Council.
“We were dedicated and psyched, but we were still kids, and what we loved best was to race each other up the walls, the winner being the one who dynoed to the top first. But even back then I could see that Shauna was a not only a super-talented climber but loved it in the same way I did.”
One of Coxsey’s favourite pictures was taken right after an early competition. Her arms are stretched wide in the photo as she holds onto two nearby grips, almost as if she is giving the wall a reverse hug.
“I remember saying to my dad, ‘I want to be world number one, and I want to be the best in the world at climbing,” said Coxsey, who is now one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding allowing her to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
“My dad was like, ‘Perfect. Cool. I have no idea how we’ll do that but we’ll figure it out.’
“And I was like,” she paused, her voice shifting to imitate the chipper nonchalance of her school-age self, “‘Ok!’.”
So, Mike began to drive Coxsey to competition after competition and climb after climb.
Findlay, who had lost touch with Coxsey in her early teens, started to hear more and more about her childhood friend’s accomplishments—scaling the expert-level Raindogs at Malham, aged 16, and Pilgrim at Parisella’s Cave in North Wales. Coxsey ascended Switzerland’s New Base Line in 2014, becoming just the third woman in the world to complete a V14 climb—an elite grade challenge among the most difficult in the world. She placed second at the Bouldering World Cup that same year.
“I think my fascination is mainly with the movement side of the sport,” said Coxsey. “So, what is possible, and what your body is capable of on the wall. There’s just endless potential to explore within our sport. Climbing is a term for so many different facets that exist, whether it is bouldering, lead climbing or speed climbing. But then we have all the different disciplines outdoors, and many ways to explore it indoors. We also have so many different categories of para-climbing as well, which we hope to be in the Paralympics in the future.”
Coxsey has stood on 30 World Cup podiums and won 11 gold medals, sweeping back-to-back overall World Cup titles in 2016 and 2017. She sits on the executive board for the International Federation of Sport Climbing and founded the Women’s Climbing Symposium in 2010—Destivelle was the keynote speaker in 2015. Thanks to National Lottery players, the fortunes of Team GB have transformed over the past two decades, helping Britain become one of the best sporting nations in the world. Becoming an Olympian was not something even on Coxsey’s radar until 2016, when sport climbing was announced as one of four sports making an Olympic debut in Tokyo.
“It’s indescribable,” said Coxsey, the sport’s lone British entrant. “It’s such a huge honour to be part of Team GB. “To be sat here right now, wearing the Team GB kit, knowing the Games is [so close], it’s still so incredibly surreal. I thought it would feel a little bit more real but it just doesn’t. I never expected to be part of Team GB because my sport wasn’t part of the Games when I was younger. So now it is in there, and young people could look at this be inspired to be part of the Games, be inspired to be a climber, it’s incredibly magical. My sport really deserves to be on that stage so I just can’t wait for people to see it.”
Tokyo will be both the first and last chance for aspiring climbers to see Coxsey compete for Team GB. In June, she took to Instagram and announced to her 422,000 followers she would retire after the Games. The Olympics will be her swan song. The post had sat in Coxsey’s Instagram outbox for weeks—and the decision in her heart for months. She wanted to hit send when she was ready to talk. Coxsey failed to qualify for the semi-finals at the Salt Lake City World Cup in May, another stumble in a challenging year that has also included three surgeries—two on her knee and one on her wrist. Her back still ached from the epidural given to her during the most recent operation. She had a good cry after her poor outing in Utah, but she also had an epiphany.
“I realised I didn’t want to do World Cups anymore. I had already made the decision to retire at that point and it just made me really content with that. It actually allowed me to step away from those feelings of resistance and just focus everything on the Games, which isn’t even something I realised I needed to do.”
Coxsey announced her retirement the same week she wed fellow climber Ned Feehally, with whom she famously shares a climbing wall scaling the height of their home. If things go to plan, there will be more climbs, for fun, in the Peak District for the pair, and perhaps some redecorating too.
“The wall will remain in the house,” Coxsey insisted, who admitted that National Lottery support of GB’s athletes has been vital throughout her career. “and I’m sure if we’re ever lucky enough to have a family, there will be little people walls around the house in places, so I think climbing is going to be a big part of our lives forever. It’s a lifetime sport.”
Sometimes Coxsey goes back to that picture of herself as a little person in front of the decidedly adult wall, wearing her silver medal on the disproportionately long ribbon like a piece of hand-me-down clothing—when everyone knew she would someday grow into gold. “I look back at photos and I’ve always got a smile on my face,” she said.“That is something that I have worked, and had to work hard on, to keep throughout my career. It’s just kind of checking in with that little girl and being like, ‘Hey, we did it! Just so you know.’”
There is just one final wall to climb. Parents of toddlers: time to set a TV timer for Tokyo.