Scaling walls for fun and a challengeTeenagers at the peak of a sport are celebrated because of their unusual talent and potential. Now, in the relatively less well known field of sport climbing, another star is born.
Staring intently at an artificial rock recently was 16-year-old Kim Ja-in, who was in the middle of her training routine ahead of the UIAA World Youth Championship in Beijing that begins next week.
Standing 152 centimeters (5 feet) tall and weighing 44 kilograms (97 pounds), Kim has a relatively small physique for a sport climber, but she is quite nimble. She stretches her arms wide apart, aiming at anchors in the rock, and slowly moves up the overhanging wall. There are large square cushions on the floor for protection in case of a fall. Standing beside her is her coach, Lee Jae-wook, giving her instructions on how to keep her balance and change direction.
“She knows exactly what she wants and where she wants to go,” which is one of her biggest strengths, Mr. Lee said.
Kim is involved in an increasingly popular sport, a style of climbing that differs from traditional or adventure climbing. Climbers ascend artifical rocks indoors or outdoors, relying on anchors ― often closely placed bolts ― attached to the rocks for protection.
After making her name by winning the lead competition at the UIAA (International Council for Competition Climbing) Asian Championship in Yeongam, South Jeolla province, last October, she placed eighth at the UIAA Worldcup in Chamonix, France, and ranked 12th in the women’s bouldering category at the UIAA World Championship in Munich, both in July.
It was in the sixth grade that she began her venture into sport climbing. An unexpected result from a physical strength test showed that Kim had greater strength than her two brothers, who were then already training for sport climbing. In the beginning, her parents had no intention of encouraging her to become an athlete, but Kim kept making a strong impression.
She had excellent stamina, and only one month after learning the sport she outperformed another girl who had 11 years of experience. “Ja-in learned very quickly when she first started,” her mother, Lee Seung-hyung, said. “I thought she was going to make it big if she survived the tough training.”
In 2002, when she was a junior high school sophomore, Kim competed in a local sport climbing championship in Haeundae Beach in Busan and surpassed the top-ranked female climbers in Korea, who ranked among the top 10 in international competitions. At that point she really grabbed people’s attention.
Recalling her experience at the competition, she said, “I was very curious to know how all the hard work I put in was going to pay off.”
A year later, she began competing in prestigious sport climbing events such as the Worldcup. So far, Kim’s best showing in the Worldcup is a seventh place finish in Shanghai last year. Kim said it was one of the happiest moments in her life when she entered the eight-person final.
Kim’s excellence in the sport is attributed to her parents, especially her father, who still enjoys mountain climbing. Her mother stopped after she got married. Kim’s two elder brothers, Ja-ha, 21, and Ja-bee, 18, are sport climbers as well.
Ja-ha placed sixth in the men’s speed competition at the International World Games in Duisburg, Germany, while Ja-bee ranked 11th in the men’s lead at the Worldcup in Chamonix, France, both in July.
In the past, her parents were uneasy about their daughter continuing the sport she loves. Initially, she only practiced on vacations, and her parents expected it to continue that way. “She was the youngest child and a daughter and I felt sorry about her becoming an athlete,” Ms. Lee said.
One day when Kim was going through tough training, Ms. Lee asked her daughter if she wanted to do something else.
“That was on Parents’ Day and she replied in a letter, ‘the training was difficult and I thought about quitting it now and then, but there is nothing else that is as interesting as this,’” Ms. Lee said.
“The more I work, the more I can accomplish, and I feel a sense of achievement from it,” Kim said. “Though it is hard physically, I have always enjoyed it.”
She practices four to five hours a day, five days a week. Her routine continues when she is in school.
“Ja-in compares herself to the male athletes she trains with and works even harder,” Mr. Lee said. “Thus she surpasses other female athletes of similar strength.”
One time, Kim had to stop her routine. In winter training, she strained a ligament in her arm, which was her first major injury. The condition lasted for several months.
“That was a difficult time. I wanted to climb, but I couldn’t. It was frustrating,” Kim said.
Now she has fully recovered and produced good records in the Worldcups, but Ms. Lee is still worried about her daughter.
After she built her reputation, Ms. Lee said, “People have high expectations for her, and they are hard to impress. She always feels pressured to do well and I feel sorry that she has to deal with it at such a young age.”
“When she can’t make a move she intended, she is disappointed with herself,” Mr. Lee said. He is concerned that when she is inevitably alone, such as in a competition, she might be unable to control her emotions.
When she is not training in a basement rock climbing gym in Seongsan-dong, Mapo district, Kim goes out with her friends and does what girls of her age usually do in their spare time: watch movies, sing karaoke and enjoy snack foods. Kim said her friends are amazed that she is involved in what seems to be a dangerous sport they are not familiar with. They even asked if she could die in case of a fall, she said.
Asked if she misses spending time with her friends, Kim said, “I always do, but if I give it up, I could accomplish more.”
The 3 categories of sport climbing
Sport climbing, a type of competitive rock climbing, has three different categories: lead, speed and bouldering. In competitions, athletes are separated and not able to watch others climb or preview the rock wall until their turn.
Lead climbing has a time limit and involves climbing routes set by anchors affixed to the rock to which a climber can attach his ropes. Climbers are evaluated based on the difficulty of the route.
Bouldering is done on artificial rock faces, boulders and other surfaces close to the ground, without much climbing gear. Speed climbing challenges the speed and agility of the climber.
In sport climbing, the trust of a partner, a sense of balance, quick judgment in assessing the wall and a strong will matter most, said Lee Jae-wook, an adventure and sport climber.
In the early 1990s, regional governments started building artificial walls for sport climbing. There now are more than 100 rock walls nationwide, both indoor and outdoor, including 50 walls in the Seoul metropolitan area and Gyeonggi province.
For the locations of rock walls, visit < http://www.kimcs.com/sportsclimb/spclimb04_a.html >.
by Limb Jae-un