Well, my world championships are now over. I failed to make the semifinal cut yesterday and finished a disappointing 43rd place. I feel like I climbed poorly. I was nervous, over gripped every hold, and approached the dreaded “terminal pump” far too rapidly. I am bummed and a little frustrated, but I knew in the back of my mind that the reason I didn’t do well wasn’t “an off day” or a fluke. I am simply not prepared or trained well enough to compete at such a high level at this point. The caliber of talent here is deep and stacked, and nearly all the athletes here have dedicated months and even years to preparing for world cup competition. They rarely climb outdoors, and instead spend long hours in the gym, honing their skills and strength specifically for competitive climbing. All I’ve done recently is climb outside and spend one month training in the gym, not enough time to be ready, mentally or physically.

After the comp I spoke with my friend Caroline, an extremely accomplished world cup climber on the French team. She climbed well and qualified for semis in 5th. I told her congrats and wished her luck for the semifinal. “Thanks” she replied, “I just want to make the final. It is always so hard to make the final. I have to climb perfect. If I don’t climb perfect, I will not make it.” Her words were bleak and dispiriting to me, and yet I could tell that she obtained great satisfaction, and even joy, from the process. At the time I was hurt and insecure about my own performance, and questioning my desire to compete ever again. I have not competed internationally in a few years, and this experience reminded me of how incredibly difficult it is to be successful. I am not sure I’m up for it anymore.

Every world cup competition presents such an immense challenge for everyone, no matter who you are. No one, not even the very best of the best, is safe from the disappointment of failure. Even Adam Ondra, a climber arguably in a league of his own at the moment, was denied a spot in the finals at the last world cup in Chamonix, placing 17th. It causes me to question why I try to compete. The emotional ups and downs of failure and success, comparing myself to others, desiring to be better than my friends; it’s all so ruthless and discordant.  I try to remember the times when my hard work paid off, when I had the right amount of mental and physical strength and fitness (and luck) to stand on top of the podium, and I realize why. There is no better feeling than being on top and being the best, even if it is so brief.

The feeling of excellence in competition is addicting. Success is so rare and difficult to accomplish, and therefore I think competition is more extraordinary than other forms of athleticism. It is not only for fun or enjoyment; but to achieve that ephemeral sense of flawlessness. I think this feeling is possible to attain in other forms of sport, in outdoor climbing for example; but in competition it becomes more tangible because it is about being better than all the others – being the most perfect. That is the definition of being the very best at something. It is extremely rare and fleeting, but once you’ve felt it, it’s hard to think about trying to do anything else. Maybe this is how Caroline and all the others feel. They are obsessed with having another shot at being perfect.


5 responses to “IM-perfection

  1. This is a very honest and well written reflection, Emily. It’s a shame to read you’re so disheartened with the competition scene, however. Hopefully it hasn’t effected your motivation for rock climbing in general.

    • Thanks for the note Sam. It is meant to be an account of my raw and honest emotions about climbing competitions and how genuinely extraordinary and yet heartbreaking I think they can be for those who participate. I am not necessarily discouraged by it all, just reflecting on something that has defined my life for over 12 years now, and wondering what my next step will be. I have an enormous amount of respect for climbers who dedicate their lives to competing, and I will never forget the times where I triumphed on that stage. As for rockclimbing, I am more passionate than ever to pursue that aspect of climbing and focus on accomplishing my personal goals outside.

      Thanks again,

      • That is good to hear (well… read), Emily. Having been a rock climber for 10 years myself, I cannot imagine a competition having a sedentary effect on my motivation. I enjoy competing from time to time but it does not define what I do. Although I completely understand the motivations of others in this field. It is a shame the competition did not go better for you in Arco. Keep your chin up, as we Brits say.

  2. Emily: I was at Red Rocks two years ago when you led the class “Climb Like a Girl”. I was a 60-year “old man” at the time and undoubtedly the oldest climber in the group. I fell on my first attempt and thought I should give up climbing – too old, too slow, too whatever. You urged me on and I made it to the top. As you say, it feels great. But more important than that feeling of being at the top is the fact that I tried, that I was there, that I was pushing myself, that I was still living life the best way I knew how. You were there, you tried, and you are still “facing future”! I have never stood on any podium but I am grateful that I keep trying. I have your North Face poster of you in China in my office. You simply wrote “Keep Climbing, Enjoy”. That’s all there is. Enjoy. You continue to inspire even when you “fail”. – Phil Timm

    • Phil,
      I really, really appreciate your response. Thanks for taking the time to read my story and to respond in such a thoughtful manner. Your words brought a smile to my face. I will of course keep climbing and enjoying it as well 😉 I hope you’re still doing the same!


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