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Tokyo-bound climber Shauna Coxsey scales new heights to achieve Olympic dream

Shauna Coxsey has fulfilled a dream she never expected would come true. After qualifying for the women’s combined final of the World Climbing Championships on Monday, she secured a place in next summer’s Olympics. The 26-year-old professional climber from Runcorn in Cheshire is about to become something she never imagined she would or could be: an Olympian.

“It has been such a whirlwind and it is not over, we are still competing out here,” she said after finding out she had made it to Tokyo.

She knew she had booked her place even before Tuesday's final. The qualification format insisted that the top seven of the nine athletes in the final would be in Japan next summer. But since four of them are Japanese, and each nation is restricted to two representatives at the Games, it means the other finalists have made it before they even put chalk on their palms. 

And for Coxsey, the speed of her accession has put her well ahead of her personal target she set out when she spoke exclusively to The Daily Telegraph just before heading to the championships, which are being held in the Olympic venue in Tokyo.

“The top seven will qualify from this competition, then six more in November, the rest to make up the full 20-woman field next year. My aim is to have done it by November,” she said.

When rock climbing was introduced to the Games, it was decided that participants would compete in a new discipline, a sort of climbing triathlon which combined the three traditional individual pursuits of speed, bouldering and lead. Until last year, Coxsey, who is one of the Telegraph’s Tokyo Eight, a group of young athletes targeting success at the Games, had spent her entire competitive life concentrating solely on bouldering, twice winning the world title. Now she was obliged to perfect whole new areas of the sport.

“I’d been training at max capacity when I was just doing bouldering, suddenly I’m having to squeeze two other disciplines into my schedule,” she explained. “For my coach it has been a complete nightmare trying to write the training programme. But it’s the same for everyone. No one knows what is the best way of doing things. There has been a lot of discussion between us climbers about how to train on all three. Everyone’s guessing, working out where they need to be.”

It has, she added, been a particularly tough year of training. The hours she spends hanging by her fingertips from the door frame of her kitchen back home are but a minor part of the dedication required.

“I’m finding it a fascinating process,” she added. “I’ve made a massive improvement this year in speed climbing, though there is still a lot of room for getting better. Lead I’m not as happy with. I need to get my fitness levels up a bit for that I think.” 

Though clearly something is working. Coxsey qualified for Tuesday's combined final in first place, after placing 14th in speed, third in lead and first in her old specialisation, bouldering.

“I guess it doesn’t really matter what the discipline is, it is always you versus the wall,” she said. “And that’s what I love. I love taking on a wall and pushing myself to the limits to beat it.”

She might make it sound like a confrontation, but to watch Coxsey in action is to see someone in perfect harmony with her environment. She does not climb up a wall, she dances across it, sashaying along the vertical and gliding under any overhang with balletic ease. Her hips swinging, her legs reaching improbable angles, she is a flurry of graceful, smooth, rhythmic movement. This is a maestro at work. And a quick maestro too. Everything she does is designed to be accomplished against the tick of the countdown clock.

Now she has qualified, she believes she has a huge chance to proselytise the sport she first engaged with when her father took her to that renowned hotbed of rock climbing, Warrington, where there was an indoor wall.

“Our sport has been growing for a while now, with more and more people participating,” she revealed. “The hope is the Olympics is going to have a massive impact, snowball everything. I used to watch the athletics and swimming in the Games as a kid and I never dreamt I could one day be going too. I never thought I’d see my sport there in my professional career, I’m incredibly excited.” 

Because, she added, such participation will be good not just for future development, but for anyone tempted to give it a go. When it comes to participation, she said, this is a sport with an as yet huge untapped potential.

“Climbing is for everybody, it doesn’t matter background, how old, where you’re from. Listen, if you can walk upstairs, you can get up a climbing wall. You don’t need any kit, it’s very accessible, there’s definitely an indoor wall near you. The more people try it, the better. It’s something I get so much joy from and the more people who can find that feeling the better. It is such an amazing time for our sport.” 

And an amazing time, too, quite clearly, for Shauna Coxsey.

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