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Young climber striving to be faster, higher, stronger

As climbing becomes a new Olympic sport, 18-year-old Sarah Tetzlaff is reaching heights no Kiwi climber has reached before. Suzanne McFadden reports.

The day following her final school exam, Sarah Tetzlaff packed her belongings and headed off to her new career as a full-time climber.

A bright young woman, she’d thought about pursuing a career in astronomy, science or linguistics.  

But instead, she chose to spend 40 hours a week scaling mock rock-walls, literally hanging from her fingertips, and sometimes falling from a great height. Only to turn around and do it all over again.

A year ago, Tetzlaff may have agreed this was an odd professional choice. Back then she was, by her own description, an average-level climber – who’d been in the sport for five years, but was always, frustratingly, finishing fourth in her age-group competitions.

But then something changed - after the 17-year-old, in her last year at Wellington Girls’ College, spent a month in Germany on a cultural scholarship.

“A whole month off climbing drove me crazy. I came home and realised that I really wanted to do this; I’d finally found my passion for the sport,” she says. “Suddenly I was staying at the gym late, going to bed and crashing, then doing it all over again the next day.”

She left her coach, and started to train herself, researching what she needed to do.

When she went to the Oceania sport climbing championships in New Caledonia last October, she decided on a whim to also enter the qualifier for the Youth Olympics – the first Olympic programme to officially include climbing. She didn’t rate her chances.

But then Tetzlaff surprised herself. Without the weight of expectation, she lifted herself to new heights.

She beat the best young Australian climbers, set a New Zealand women’s record on the speed wall, and won herself a ticket to the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires this October. As the first New Zealander to climb at an Olympic event, her future route seems much clearer. 

In exactly two years’ time, sport climbing will make its debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo – as one of four new sports alongside surfing, skateboarding and karate.

Climbing fits perfectly with the Olympic motto - faster, higher, stronger - and the International Olympic Committee’s new agenda to “take sport to the youth”.

"With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us - we have to go to them," IOC President Thomas Bach said when unveiling the new Olympic codes.

Climbing had to undergo some tweaking for Olympic consumption. The three climbing disciplines – speed, lead and bouldering – will be combined into one event, with medals won by those with the lowest total scores.

Internationally, climbing is a burgeoning sport, which will no doubt boom with worldwide television coverage from Tokyo 2020. More than 140 countries in the world now have climbing walls; the International Federation of Sport Climbing estimates there are 35 million climbers worldwide.

In New Zealand, we’re still on the lower climbing holds. The sport has roughly 200 competitive climbers, across eight affiliated clubs. The national lead championships in Auckland at the weekend drew 100 competitors.

“It’s still a very small sport,” says Climbing NZ president David Sanders. “But it’s growing rapidly.”

Yesterday, Tetzlaff was one of 11 young Kiwi climbers who flew to Bangkok for a week’s training before competing at the world youth climbing championships in Moscow.

Tetzlaff, now 18, sees Russia as good preparation for Buenos Aires, where she will compete against 19 of the world’s best young climbers. 

“The world championships will be great, but the spectators at the Youth Olympics will be ten times greater,” she says, admitting she still gets the jitters, whether she’s in front of three people or 30,000.

And yet, she’s always been drawn to performing before an audience. She was a gymnast when she was younger, but quit the sport because she didn’t like the “negative environment … I’d get pushed to keep training when I was injured,” Tetlaff says.

A few months later, she followed her elder brother Will into climbing – a sport she’d only really tried at other kids’ birthday parties.  

“It was a bit of a shock to get into a sport where people were so enthusiastic and encouraging. It felt like a really safe place to be.”

She also started circus classes, where she loved the trapeze and tumbling, and did street shows in Wellington. “My strength in climbing fed into that too,” she says. After four years she chose climbing over circus, but would like to return to the trapeze one day.

When Tetzlaff found her passion for climbing after her cultural trip to Germany, she found herself wanting to focus more on rock walls than schoolwork. “My school attendance was pretty appalling,” she says. “But learning at home was really good for me.” She finished her final year with an excellent endorsement.

That day after her last exam, she moved from Wellington to Mount Maunganui, the home of climbing’s high performance centre, also known as Rocktopia.

It meant she could work on her climbing full-time - “train, eat, sleep, repeat” – in a group of five promising teenagers, under the guidance of Climbing NZ’s head coach, Rob Moore.

Moore is a bit of a legend with the young climbers he works with. He’s represented New Zealand in three sports – climbing, inline skating and downhill mountain-biking – and he’s still as fit as a buck rat. He scales the walls with them, and on Saturday mornings, joins them running up and around Mauao, the mountain.

“His crazy energy and positivity is infectious,” Tetzlaff says of Moore, who also works full-time in his local acupuncture clinic – training with the high performance climbers at either end of the day.

The athletes also have access to the University of Waikato’s Adams Centre for High Performance at the Mount, home to our world champion rugby sevens sides.

Tetzlaff does her strength and power work there. “It’s quite specific to our sport, so we do some interesting exercises – hopping, leg swinging, hanging from one arm,” she says.

She’ll do hangboard training to strengthen her grip – dangling off the first pad of her fingertips for seven seconds on, three seconds off, six times over.

She loves the intensity of the training, and the independence her new lifestyle has given her. She lives downstairs in a friend's house, and for the first time in her life, cooks for herself. “I’m pretty proud of where I’ve come,” she says, her signature dish graduating from scrambled eggs, to curried quinoa with steamed kale and roasted cauliflower.

When she’s not training, Tetzlaff works at the climbing gym to help pay her food and board.

Most young adult climbers in New Zealand give the sport away for university studies or their OE, Tetzlaff says. But with her decision, she’s seeing the world by climbing.

Earlier this year she was in China for two World Cup events. At one, she bettered her national speed climbing record by 0.4s, scaling a 15m high wall in 15.31s. The world record for women is 7.32s.

Speed climbing is the most explosive and electrifying of the three climbing disciplines, as two opponents are pitted against each other, racing to hit the electronic pad at the top first. The route to the top is the same the world over.

In lead climbing, athletes use safety ropes on another 15m high wall, and the roof overhang, and again race the clock. The winner is the fastest to reach the highest point before falling.

Bouldering is on smaller walls, without ropes, trying to complete four or five climbing challenges with creative moves within a certain time. “It’s probably my favourite,” Tetzlaff says. “It’s very dynamic – you can do really big jumps or catch something with one hand and your feet fly out.”

She’s also come to love the speed event, but it’s difficult to refine her technique when there are no speed climbing walls in New Zealand.  

Hopefully, she says, there will be one built at Rocktopia – in the carpark against stacked shipping containers – before she leaves for the Youth Olympics.

Of course, Tetzlaff has the Tokyo Olympics on her radar, where one athlete from Oceania will qualify, but she admits it’s not something she’s striving for. “I’d much rather go to the Olympics knowing that I’m at my full potential, and I’m really confident in my abilities,” she says.

“I could be ready in two years, but my sights are set on the 2024 Paris Olympics. I’ll still be around by then.”

It will be the physical and mental challenge of climbing that keeps her in the sport. “Whenever you feel you’re on top of it, got your head game sorted, and feeling strong, there’s always something more that throws itself at you,” she says.

“You have to be incredibly resilient, and really exercise those tools you’ve developed over time to deal with failure. It’s the best feeling when you’re laughing in the face of it.”

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