Attempting to compete while traveling requires significant fortitude and self-awareness.
By Jordan Romig
Euroshevanigans Round Two . . . just kidding. Although the latest 3-month Europe trip was not a series of rowdy and ridiculous ad-van-tures, it was an incredible learning experience with plenty of fun along the way.
The primary objective of this trip was to improve my Spanish and French language skills through immersion in Barcelona and Bordeaux, respectively. A secondary goal was to learn more about IFSC world cups through firsthand experience competing in Italy and Scotland.
I flew into Barcelona and not 24 hours after arriving, was back at the airport headed to Mallorca for a few days of cliff jumping and R&R in the Balearic Sea. I spent another week in Barcelona before heading to Innsbruck to prepare for my first competition.
The US qualification procedure for participation in IFSC events is rather unique. USA Climbing organizes one national competition per year for boulders and one for sport and speed; the top six placements determine the national team and these athletes can attend any world cup in their respective discipline(s). This aspect of our system is not terribly different from that of other nations; the weird part is that all participants from the national events are able to apply to compete at IFSC world cups. If national team members do not all attend every event, the vacant spots can be filled by an applicant based on his or her national results.
Often, our team members are not able to do the entire circuit because it is extremely expensive.
USAC only pays the athlete’s registration and IFSC licenses, so all transportation, lodging, and food costs are covered by the athlete. Most other federations cover these expenses, which allows their qualifying national team members to compete at all of the events and mitigates the need for filling out their rosters with applicants. It is unfortunate that America’s best climbers do not have the support they need to take their well-deserved spots on the world cup circuit and I hope that can change as the sport grows and develops.
On the other hand, our system affords an exceptional learning opportunity for athletes interested in competing at that next level—experience is an essential component of competition. I am not yet at a level where I would be competitive at an international event, but I strive to one day be there.
Because I was already going to be in Europe for linguistic immersion, I decided to apply to compete for speed in Arco, Italy, and for both sport and speed in Edinburgh, Scotland, to explore the true caliber of competition and difficulty at a world cup.
I have always struggled with competition performance and managing related anxieties. I grew up competing in the USAC youth circuit and despite getting stronger every year, I felt like I would blow it at every big competition and underperform. Although it would be amazing to never feel anxious while competing and always feel I performed my best with results to validate, I have learned so much more about myself through my worst days. It has helped me grow as a climber, a person, and a coach.
My competition experience lets me understand so deeply the pressure to perform; the sick, sinking feeling of missing finals by one hold; or the ecstasy of flawless execution on your best days. These are emotions the athletes I coach deal with in their own climbing careers. I was hesitant to participate in the world cups because I knew I was not yet ready, but this was an opportunity to learn what it will take to pursue competition climbing and gain knowledge I can apply to coaching.
Arco was amazing.
I went into the competition in high spirits, feeling confident from spending a few days running laps on the speed wall in Innsbruck and Bolzano. It was my first adult world cup and also a first for the Mesa Rim resident youth speed star, Luke Rodley (pictured).
Shifting from coach to fellow competitor was a cool experience, and a humbling one since I knew Luke was faster than me. This helped my nerves, though; being able to joke around and banter with friends and competitors is the only way I have found to stay level-headed. It makes the competition seem like another day training at the gym.
My practice runs went well; the second was faster than the first and my first qualifying run was faster yet at 8.21. My time was not anything spectacular, but considering the limited training I had put in beforehand and my mental game during the runs, I was psyched.
Following Arco, I spent a few days in Innsbruck training with my friends Sean and Siobhan. The Kletterzentrum climbing center in Innsbruck is unreal. The gargantuan training facility has two two-lane, fifteen-meter speed walls, massive indoor and outdoor lead walls with dozens of routes 7c+(5.13a) and harder, an entire bouldering room of spray walls, and more. We stuck around to watch the beginning of the IFSC Youth World Championships, which were the largest youth worlds to date, and the first IFSC event with an all-around component.
This comp was Luke’s second YWC and my friend Claire Buhrfeind’s last youth worlds.
Claire pulled off an impeccable final season for her youth career. At the youth Sport/Speed Nationals in Atlanta this July, she slipped low on her first qualifier and was in 33rd place, but turned it around by ranking first on her second qualifier the following day. She went on to top her final route two days later for the national title and carried this momentum all the way to Austria, winning gold medals in bouldering and lead and a fourth place finish in speed.
Unfortunately, Innsbruck was my last real chance to train before Edinburgh as I had to return to Barcelona for the three weeks in between the cups for language school. I picked up some gnarly European strain of bacterial pharyngitis and was sick for two weeks, unable to do much of anything besides sleep, read and pound ibuprofen in order to make it to classes.
Despite being incredibly ill, I managed to get some hangboarding in and was able to do circuits for a week once I was done with my antibiotics.
On a positive note, Barcelona is dope city and I was there at an interesting time right before the referendum. People protested in the streets, banged on pots and pans from their windows, and whistled and clapped in the night to show their solidarity for Catalan independence.
Edinburgh did not go nearly as well as Arco for me. At this point I had not run speed nor had I climbed on a rope in nearly a month. I had no confidence or awareness of how strong or weak I was, my proprioception was skewed from being sick, and I felt tired and uncoordinated before I even put my shoes on to warm-up. This was not how I envisioned my first time in a lead world cup.
Two months earlier I felt stronger than ever on a rope, but two months of traveling with limited training took its toll and I had lost a lot. I was aware of this hindrance from traveling with Sean last year; he said the biggest struggle is to maintain peak performance for months abroad. No home base, no income, sometimes no facilities or no climbing partner make that difficult. I fell low on both routes, ranking last on my first qualifier and second to last on my second.
It felt awful.
I knew I was not strong enough to make semi-finals, but I also knew I was capable of doing better than that. If the comp had been two months earlier when I was at my peak I would have done better, or if I had stayed in Innsbruck instead of going to Spain and getting sick. But it wasn’t, and I hadn’t. Every failure is an opportunity to learn and grow; I learned that if this is something I want to pursue it needs to come first. There’s no half-assing it if I want to be a world cup climber. I need to commit and start making decisions that will set me up for success rather than failure.
I had initially applied for the world cup in Kranj, Slovenia, in early November; it was to be the last leg of my journey after five weeks in Bordeaux, France. Given my performance in Scotland, I took some time to reflect during my first few weeks in France on whether or not I still wanted to compete. The only gyms near my Airbnb were bouldering-only so I didn’t feel good about my chances of gaining any more endurance before Slovenia.
I decided to enjoy climbing without any pressure for rest of my trip.
When I was still in planning on going to Slovenia, I emailed a gym in Bordeaux to ask about doing an internship in exchange for free climbing so I could train before the last stop on the world cup circuit. The directeur général, or general manager, responded and told me to come in for an interview. I was a little nervous about interviewing for a job in a different language, and at the same time excited about the opportunity. My french was rocky from speaking spanish exclusively for three weeks prior with a stint of english in Scotland, but I struggled through and got a gig as a setter and coach.
I made a quick trip to Céüse before I started my internship and got to meet Alex Megos who was working on a project in the Biographie sector.
My french improved drastically over the next five weeks and I transitioned into bouldering training with a couple competitions with a fellow setter, Clément DuPont. We did a local comp in Toulouse one weekend and traversed the country for the Coupe de France de Bloc in Valence the following weekend.
Alas, it was almost time to return home.
Munich was the final stop—a four-day trip to hang out with my friend Patrick and enjoy the Bavarian countryside before my trek back to San Diego.
This euro-adventure was more serious and considerably less reckless than when I lived in a van two years ago. I learned a lot and have realized it is time to make some decisions about what I want to do in the coming years. I will definitely continue to compete domestically and focus on improving my mental game, but pursuing IFSC level events will require more reflection. It would mean sacrifices in other facets of my life in order to dedicate the necessary time and energy to attain the ridiculously high level of skill and strength world cup athletes retain.