You cannot talk of women’s climbing in recent years; be it competition climbing in general, the World Cup series of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) or women in bouldering, without mentioning the name of Anna Stoehr. The Austrian climber, veteran of several wins at top climbing championships (she is a double world champion, double European champion and winner overall of the world cup in bouldering, four times), was away in South Africa, when this blog approached her with a request for interview in June 2017. That trip done, she responded:
Can you tell us something about the recent climbs you did in South Africa?
We mostly climbed in areas that have been developed over the past years. My last visit was four years ago and a lot of development has happened since. We also brushed some boulders and did a couple of first ascents. Other than that I also climbed some classics which I had not done before, in already established areas.
You are one of the most experienced athletes on the competitive climbing circuit, including the IFSC World Cup and World Championship. What has kept you going in that circuit for so long? What do you like about it?
I always enjoyed competing- the excitement, thrill and nervousness are very special. I like the mental challenge of competitions as well as traveling the world with the Austrian climbing team and fellow competitors from all around the world.
Within the three main disciplines of climbing (lead, speed and bouldering), why did bouldering become your favorite? What attracted you to bouldering?
As a teenager I used to boulder, mostly outside. I was immediately quite successful in this discipline. But I also climbed at lead competitions and even did a few speed competitions when I was younger. In my opinion bouldering is much more creative than lead climbing. It is so complex and unique that you never find the same move again and you have to adapt very fast to different circumstances.
Games and team sports are more popular in India than individual pursuits like athletics or track and field. How popular is climbing in Austria? What brought you to climbing and did you have all required infrastructure to grow in the sport, available locally?
Climbing was not at all popular when I started. Nobody in my high-school class knew what it was. But that is exactly why I liked it so much from the beginning: It is not a mainstream sport and I always liked being outside. Climbing has become a way of life for me. Innsbruck has just opened a huge gym- so nowadays the infrastructure is perfect. Back in the days we may not have had the best infrastructure but we had the best team spirit and that is why we (Kilian, David, Jakob*, myself) were so successful.
The perception in India is that without good climbing infrastructure here, we cannot hope to excel in the sport. For example: every year new types of holds and features are introduced overseas, which Indian climbers get to see for the first time only when they are at an international competition. How do you address challenges like lack of familiarity with the latest trends in climbing infrastructure? If as you said, lack of world class infrastructure couldn’t keep you down, can you explain how you and your team mates used to work around that problem?
I think it is definitely an advantage if you have good infrastructure. But it is not the only factor that matters. We worked around the lack of infrastructure by buying holds overseas. When we were at competitions in Japan or the USA, we always bought holds and brought them back to our gym. Even if big volumes were not possible due to the size of the wall, we brought holds and tried to adapt. We also made up for any inadequacy in infrastructure by having a big and very motivated climbing community, who pushed each other a lot.
If you were to be a talent scout looking for promising climbers who can be groomed for international competitions, what qualities would you look for in a prospective candidate?
I think you can see a promising climber by the way he / she moves. There are differences in technique that can be seen from the outside, but of course there is a long way to go.
You have been winner of international climbing competitions and championships several times. Can you give us an idea of the level of commitment and dedication to the sport it took to reach you to the level of excellence you possess in climbing? When did you shift to being a full time climber, how many hours of training did you put in on a daily basis?
I have always been very dedicated. But I did not limit myself too much doing so because in order to be successful I need to be happy as well. I am not happy if I cannot see my friends because I am training too much or if I do not eat chocolate (for example). I became a full-time climber only one year ago, when I finally finished my university degree. I train five times a week, three hours per session if I climb inside. If I climb outside I climb all day.
You have had a fairly long and distinguished career in the sport, including in competition climbing. How did you sustain your enthusiasm for the format; how did you tackle injuries? When you did not perform well, what did you do?
For the past few years I have had problems with my fingers. That is why I am not doing the whole bouldering World Cup circuit anymore. It is too risky and I would not have enough time to climb outside. Nevertheless I am still competing because I actually like it a lot and I think it is fun! When I did not perform well I was upset at first, but then remembered why I was there in the first place. Competing is about joy – trying to solve a problem and being able to succeed eventually. You won’t be able to try and climb on world cup style boulders set by professionals every day. So it is better to enjoy the process.
Given you have spent so many years in the competition climbing circuit, would you care to name some of the strongest climbers you have been up against? Are there any names in particular that you choose to remember because you learnt something from them?
I think we can learn from so many people. They do not have to be the best. I really enjoy learning from people who climb well; people having great technique, coordination and a dynamic style of climbing. I have been able to compete with so many talented women, who inspire me; be it Akiyo Noguchi’s never-ending motivation, Miho Nonaka’s great style, Olga Bibik’s dedication, Jule Wurm’s pure joy, Melissa LeNevé’s ability to not let go or Shauna Coxsey’s flawless performance.
As climber on stage how do you handle the competition around you? From what do you draw the energy to perform and compete?
I think as a climber you compete against the wall. You have to climb well in order to place well and not look at other athletes’ performances.
Which has been your finest moment on the competition climbing circuit so far? Which was your real low point?
Finest moment was winning the European Championship title in 2013 alongside my partner Kilian Fischhuber. My real low was getting injured before the World Championship in Munich in 2014 and not being able to compete.
Which has been the toughest title you won and why?
My toughest title is yet to be won.
Are you happy with the format of climbing chosen for the Olympics, wherein the best athletes across all three disciplines of the sport get medals? What is the format you personally prefer?
No not at all. I don’t think the combined format is a good idea. I personally prefer to have three gold medals, one for each discipline.
Given you still participate in climbing competitions do you look forward to being part of an Austrian Olympic squad in the year climbing makes its debut at the Olympics? Do you plan to try and qualify for the Austrian Olympic team when the time arrives?
I will definitely not compete at the Olympics.
In your eyes is it important that sport climbing be included in the Olympics? Or, is the sport doing well the way it is?
I think for some federations and athletes it is very important. Public funding sometimes depends on being an Olympic sport. I think I was very fortunate that I was able to compete in the Austrian team, because our federation is doing well and was always able to support their athletes.
Would you like to channelize your experience in competition climbing to be a coach for youngsters aspiring to compete?
Yes I would definitely like to work with youth at some point. I find it very inspiring to see the younger generation.
Away from competitions, you have done tough climbs on natural rock. Going ahead how do you plan to grow this side of your life?
I always enjoyed climbing outside, be it bouldering or sport climbing. One day I will stop competing but I will always climb on rock!
Do you have any plans to visit India for climbing?
*Jakob Schubert was part of the Austrian team, which participated in the 2017 IFSC World Cup in Bouldering held in Navi Mumbai, India.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: in the caption of photos showing climbing, the name in quotes is the name given to the boulder by climbers and the alphabet and number following it immediately signifies the grade of climb / difficulty.)