“I get sick and scared, but no regrets”

Words : Ruth Morgan  
Photography: Shamil Tanna

The Cheshire climber chose her sport aged three and hasn’t looked back: gold medals, first ascents, international glory. Next career peak? The world title 

At 22, Shauna Coxsey is already the most successful competition climber in British history. She finished last season ranked second in the world, after taking two World Cup Series gold medals in bouldering (short free climbs) and is one of only four women ever to have climbed a boulder problem graded 8B+: the third-most difficult rating of all.

On a short break from off-season training in Utah, Runcorn-born Coxsey kept her feet on the ground long enough to discuss obsession, progression and determination to make 2015 even better than last year.  

THE RED BULLETIN : How’s Utah? 

SHAUNA COXSEY: It’s great. I’m going to places I’ve never climbed before, camping out in a rented van that is painted with 6ft-high bluebirds. It’s better than the last one the company gave us, which had a painting of Jim Morrison’s head on one side and Jimi Hendrix’s on the other. I kept expecting the police to pull us over.

Do you come from a family of climbers? 

Absolutely not. I have five sisters and a brother and none of them do anything sporty, I’m definitely the black sheep. I remember sitting on my dad’s knee when I was three years old and watching a film about French freeclimber Catherine Destivelle climbing in Mali, Africa. I decided then it was what I wanted to do.  

Have you thanked her for inspiring you? 

I met her six years ago at the Birmingham NEC, as I’d won a climbing competition there and she was presenting the trophy. I’ve never been starstruck or nervous before, but I barely spoke. I ran away. 

It’s hard to imagine a three-year-old on a climbing wall: weren’t you too small? 

I first went to a climbing wall when I was four, and they said I wasn’t big enough. So I kept going back until they let me climb a few months later. I was the youngest at the kids club, which I went to for four weeks before I got bored. I asked my dad to learn to belay [rope climbing] so I could go with him instead. 

What keeps you in love with climbing? 

It’s impossible to get bored of it. There’s always something new to conquer, new ways to push yourself. I’ve never questioned the decision I made aged three. 

“To win, you have to be in control of your mind even more than your body”

Were you surprised to end last season ranked second in the world?

I don’t think it’s quite hit me. When I was younger, I always dreamed of being the world’s best. There weren’t any professional competition climbers in the UK, so there’s never been anyone I could ask questions or look up to. I had this dream, but I couldn’t really tell anyone about it, as it seemed silly. To get here, I’ve had to create my own pathway through the sport. At first the other climbers were shocked I was a Brit, but they’ve got used to me now.

The Facts 

Born
January 27, 1993

Scaling heights
World number two in bouldering. Has won every British Bouldering Championship she’s ever entered. 

Lucky break
Coxsey has only ever suffered one injury, a broken leg two years ago after a bad landing. She can’t remember which leg it was. 

What makes you so much better than the competition? 

Hard to say. Maybe not having real, serious competition open to me in the UK when I was younger means I’m more motivated now. And I’m super-competitive. At my first national competition, when I was seven, I didn’t do well and cried my eyes out. I still watch the video footage of that day and wonder how I went back for more, but I did. I’m determined. It’s definitely a love-hate thing. There are still moments when you feel sick and scared, but afterwards you don’t regret a second of it.

What’s the hardest part of your sport?

Climbing is way more mental than physical. In most sports, you’re training for exactly what you’re about to do, but our sport is unique in that you have to go out and solve several problems you’ve never seen before. If your first climb doesn’t go well, it’s easy to get into a downward spiral, so you need to be able to shut that off and go into your next climb feeling positive. You get frustrated at times, but to win you have to be in control of your mind even more than your body.

Have you ever earned naming rights from doing the first ascent of a route? 

I’ve done one, in Sweden. On the way these guys asked us where we were going, and then said, “Oh it’s not for girls, it’s muddy, you won’t like it. It requires a masculine style of climbing.” We went there anyway, and it was great. I completed the first ascent and decided to name it Yorkie, after the ‘Not for girls’ ad campaign. 

Will you win the 2015 World Cup series?

I’d love to, but climbing is unpredictable. Last year when I came second, I got that rush of “I could win next year”. It’s taken a long time to say out loud that my goal is to win World Cups and become world champion, because it seemed so unlikely. But now it’s what I want. I’m stubborn: I won’t be giving up yet.

Go BEYOND THE ORDINARY, be inspired every day, and dive deep into the world of The Red Bulletin:

The Red Bulletin AppRead brand new stories anytime and anywhere on your mobile devices

The Red Bulletin Magazine: Get the magazine delivered to your door every month by subscribing here 

Read more
04 2015 The Red Bulletin 

Next story