How Olympian Shauna Coxsey built family and followers at the wall

shawna coxsey interview olympic climber
Social climbing with Olympian Shauna Coxsey Getty Images

Shauna Coxsey is worried about her daughter's first gymnastics class. Not, like most parents, worried that she’ll hurt herself or not enjoy roly-polying around, but that she might be bored. 'What are [the club] going to have that we don't already have? My daughter has two climbing walls in the house - one in the basement and one in her playroom, as well as bars to hang off and blocks to climb. It’s pretty fun,' says Coxsey.

It’s likely not a surprise that creating an adventure playground home was the goal for Coxsey, the most successful British climber ever, and her partner, Ned Feehally, a fellow climber. You might recognise her best as an Olympian, competing at Tokyo 2020 when climbing was first entered as an Olympic sport, but the sub-10 seconds you watched her fly up the wall or few moments you saw her shuffle over boulders at the biggest competition in the world were just a fraction of her love story with the sport. Like her daughter, she started young, asking her parents to take her climbing when she was just four after seeing it on TV - and having fun with her body has been the MO ever since.

'The wall was half an hour away but we’d drive at rush hour so it would sometimes take easily over an hour, but there was no way I wasn’t going. As soon as I started, I knew it was something I wanted to keep doing,' she says. 'Climbing is such a natural thing to want to do: if you look at any child, they just want to climb all over everything - it's in our DNA. But as an adult you [don’t act on] your desire to climb all over things and have fun with it which I think is sad. I think that most adults would still love to climb a tree.'

Social climbing

Indeed they might. The sport is having somewhat of a time in the spotlight: last year, climbing was the fastest-growing sport for women, according to data from fitness tracking app Strava, while memberships at walls are booming. And, for those who aren’t one of the many members, there are two main types of indoor climbing: bouldering, which is scaling low, angled rocks without a harness, and top climbing, in which you use ropes to climb high up the walls.

The boom is both responsible for and a consequence of its placement in the Olympics (competitive ‘sport climbing’ also includes speed climbing, the fastest sport in the whole competition, and scores from all three disciplines are combined), which became the most-Googled sport of the Games. 'When I started, nobody knew about climbing. I spent all of my time explaining what it was and what it meant to go climbing. Now it's so strange to have people come up to me and know what the sport is,' says Coxsey.

It’s about time though, she says: 'In all honesty, I spent the first 10 years of my life being so confused at why it was such a small sport - I didn't really understand because I knew that climbing had so much to offer.' In particular, she says, the social aspect. Community is a word you’ll frequently hear used in tandem with the sport - and for good reason. Most walls opening up now are multi-purpose spaces, with co-working spots and nighttime activities and socials; monthly queer disco nights take place at Yonder, a wall in Walthamstow, while London’s The hosts free, community competitions every month with DJs and free refreshments. 'The social element is huge,' says Coxsey.

But for her, community grows best on the wall. 'Especially with bouldering, you're in a space with not only your peers but people of different abilities, different backgrounds and different ages. There's no need for separation - everyone can be on the same wall and in the same space, you just use different routes. I absolutely love that.' She’s seen the inclusivity of the sport grow more in recent years, seeming to answer the demand for sports that can help with loneliness and isolation across all genders, abilities and ages.

'I think that the growth of climbing has also been a catalyst for change. It didn't always make people feel welcome because it was so niche, so as more people have found our sport it has become more inclusive. Don't get me wrong, I think there's a lot of work to be done as there is in every sport to break down barriers. But there's a step towards that happening now, and I think that that's because more people have been given a platform to step into our space. Ultimately, my biggest goal and my hope is that I can contribute to climbing being a space for everybody,' says Coxsey.

Olympic dreams

How did she square that in-it-together feeling with the fierce competition of the Olympics? 'The thing that’s different about climbing is you are never actually against the other person physically [as each person competes individually on the wall]. You also can't control what they do or how they perform. So for my entire competition career, I never went out to beat anybody. My intention was to give the best possible performance I could give. And that was great if that was gold medal worthy. But if it wasn't, then it reflected on me, not everybody else. I would also never want to beat someone else on my worst day - I want to beat them on my best days because we’re there to compete against each other at our best,' Coxsey explains.

And, was there snootiness or prestige among athletes from other sports towards the new kids on the block? 'Oh my gosh, everybody was so excited about climbing. We had our first Olympics during COVID which I think inevitably tainted the experience but it meant we were thrown in the same boat as everyone else. However, there was an expectation that there would be no crowd for us at all because there weren't allowed to be any friends, family or the public watching, but people from other sports were allowed to come and watch and we had a huge crowd, actually. People came from multiple countries that weren’t even competing in climbing - and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. I think there was a huge appetite for it. And there were some really magical moments - even though it’s a new sport that people maybe don’t understand, the moments that make sport great have no need for translation.'

Despite all this, Coxsey won’t be attending Paris 2024, having retired from competitive climbing in 2021. Maybe that’s a surprise, given her excitement for the sport, but it shouldn’t be: if there’s anything Coxsey excels at, it’s finding a new challenge. 'I went into my competitive career knowing that I would, at some point, shift my focus to outdoor rock climbing. I nearly did it pre-Olympics because it was really difficult to qualify and I had no idea if it was possible for me, so when I got bronze in the qualifications I just decided to head down the path. But with the COVID delay, it only kind of highlighted my desire to have a baby and focus on rock climbing,' she says.

Body talk

You may think that pregnancy halts the career of the elite, but the videos she shared on Instagram of her intricately manoeuvring over the wall with her ever-growing bump could be watched like art. Unfortunately, her body wasn’t always seen in such a positive light. 'If you have a social media presence, you have to deal with the criticism and judgement that comes from that space. What I would say is that there is nothing that gets critiqued like being a pregnant, female athlete. The extreme comments I got when I was pregnant and climbing were far beyond anything I've ever experienced previously, which was fascinating. The thing that frustrates me the most is that it could impact other women and that's why I kept sharing my journey.

shawna coxsey red bull dual ascent 2022 verzasca, switzerland
Shawna competing at Red Bull Dual Ascent 2022 in Verzasca, SwitzerlandTrue Color Films / Red Bull Content Pool

'A lot of people very kindly came to my defence to say, "She's an Olympian - back off. She knows what she's doing." And I was like, well, yes. I do know what I'm doing. And yes, maybe you perceive this climb as hard. But the fact that I'm a professional climber is irrelevant here. Anyone can go climbing when they're pregnant if they want to. It is not anyone else’s say at any point and there is no room for you to be judging what other people are doing with their bodies. My goal was to just share my journey and what I was doing to hopefully empower other pregnant people to make decisions that they're comfortable with,' she says.

Comments aside, she unsurprisingly found joy in her changing body. 'What I’ve experienced about my body’s capabilities on the wall has been really fun. It’s exciting to understand and navigate that world of performance. Then experiencing off the wall what our bodies go through with pregnancy and coming out the other side into motherhood is just mind-blowing. Like it doesn't even compare to what I've done on the wall,' she says.

Now, as an outdoor climber and Red Bull athlete, her goal is to climb harder than ever - and have more fun with it, too. 'That's definitely possible because of how I feel during training right now. I train most days of the week, even if that's just a little bit of mobility, and then I film a lot of content for YouTube. There are some dreams that I've had for the things I want to climb and want to do within my sport, both really specific to the sport and to me as an individual.

'And, to have had a successful competition career and gone on to have a child, to then be in a position where I want to pursue an amazing wild adventure at an elite performance and have the Red Bull family say yes is huge. To put my energy into these climbs is a really exciting time and we have a lot of fun stuff lined up.'

And the fun won’t stop when she returns home, thanks to her built-in walls and fearless family.

To find out more about Shauna Coxsey, head to her Red Bull athlete page

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