Canadian climber Sean McColl shoots for Olympic podium in Tokyo. (Canadian Press photo)

Canadian climber Sean McColl shoots for Olympic podium in Tokyo. (Canadian Press photo)

Canadian climber McColl aiming high at Olympics

Sean McColl shoots for podium in Tokyo where climbing makes Summer Games debut

Sean McColl’s versatility has helped make him one of the best all-around climbers in the world.

He’ll rocket up a wall in speed climbing like a squirrel being chased up a tree. His bouldering technique brings out his inner Spider-Man. And his lead skills are top shelf as well.

Put it all together and it’s not surprising the Canadian all-around World Cup champion is one of the country’s brightest medal hopes for the Summer Games in 2020, when the sport will make its Olympic debut.

“For me it’s always going into unknowns,” McColl said. “I always want to do something that I’ve never done before. So with the 2020 Olympics, it’s making the Olympic team, going to Tokyo and winning a medal.

“And hopefully that medal is gold.”

The climbing disciplines – speed, lead and bouldering – will be used in a combined format at the Games. While most top climbers choose to specialize, McColl competes in all three events.

The speed competition is like the climbing version of a sprint. Two climbers go head-to-head in a race to climb the wall and touch the timing pad first.

In lead, athletes also wear a harness while climbing a fixed course on a wall within a specified time frame.

Bouldering is done on a shorter wall with a mat below. Climbers rely on their explosiveness and use jumps and swinging techniques to their advantage.

Plenty of hand chalk is used and climbers wear special shoes as they contort their bodies on the wall’s various grips and holds.

“We use our heels, we pull, we push, and we’re working in an environment that’s in 3-D now,” McColl recently said from northern Japan during a break in training.

The Olympic qualification plan has yet to be finalized, but 20 athletes per gender will compete at the Games. World championship results, world rankings and a qualifier competition will likely determine the participants.

McColl, a 29-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., was 10 when he first tried climbing at a friend’s birthday party.

It didn’t take long before he was hooked.

“I remember going and just being fascinated with the idea of climbing up and just letting go and being lowered back down to the ground,” he said.

Climbing is a relatively small sport and not particularly lucrative. McColl didn’t seriously consider turning pro until his early 20s.

More sponsors eventually came on board and he was able to travel more.

“When I realized that I could actually make it into a career, I was in heaven,” he said.

McColl said he has to lay out over $50,000 every season to compete on the circuit. Sponsors and purses have helped him stay out of the red in recent years.

He’s able to rent cars now at events instead of taking buses, or he might fly direct instead of dealing with stopovers.

McColl got a big financial boost recently when he was added to the HBC athlete bursary program that will see him receive a personal grant of $10,000 annually in funding through the 2020 Games.

“I’m really excited because it’s the first Olympic funding that I get,” he said.

His profile will get also get a lift when he appears on the “American Ninja Warrior” again next month. He made his debut on the competition show in 2014.

“It’s basically a fun park for adults,” he said of the show’s unique obstacle course.

McColl plans to return to Las Vegas this summer to film his fourth season.

“The whole experience for me was something that was really cool, a really fun experience,” he said. “Now I get to go back every year.”

McColl is not lacking for confidence. The main caption on his website says: “World Champion Climber. Future Olympian. Canadian.”

When it comes to Tokyo, he has a three-year plan.

He’ll test things out this season in training and competitions. Next year will be about fine-tuning his skills and in 2019, he plans to “do exactly what I know I can do” and qualify for the Games.

Nathan Smith, a Toronto-based national-level climber, calls McColl a “very dynamic” climber who uses his experience to his advantage.

“He goes big or goes home,” Smith said. “It pays off or sometimes he risks it and he falls off earlier than he could have. But often it pays off and he does better.”


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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press