In the lead-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, climber Janja Garnbret had the perfect 2019 competitive season. She won every single bouldering World Cup on the circuit – achieving a world first. It was the ideal lead into an Olympic year for the Slovenian athlete, who is widely considered the greatest competitive climber of all time. But then Covid hit, and the Olympics was postponed.
During this high-stress period, filmmakers followed Janja, along with fellow female Olympic climbing hopefuls Shauna Coxsey, Brooke Raboutou and Miho Nonako, through Olympic qualifiers, lockdown training and covid uncertainty, to the Olympics. The result is the brilliant film, The Wall – Climb for Gold (available to watch on Netflix), which documents their Olympic journey and the incredible pressure they shouldered to get there.
To celebrate the launch of the film, I put some questions to 23-year-old Janja, who is a six-time world champion, 32-time World Cup winner, the first woman to onsight 5.14b and, of course, the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in climbing.
Watch the trailer
Rewinding to March 2020 and the Olympic postponement announcement, how difficult was it hearing the news that the event you had spent years preparing for, and were in peak condition for, wasn’t happening as planned?
In 2019, I won all the bouldering World Cups, and I was in a super-good flow, which I wanted to carry into the 2020 season, so when I first heard about the Olympics’ postponement, I was really sad and disappointed. Once I realised that my goal was just postponed and not cancelled, I tried to take it as a positive in that I could train more for speed [climbing], which was my weakness, and I could also upgrade my bouldering and lead climbing. That extra year was definitely helpful in terms of my speed climbing. My biggest fear was: is the Olympics just postponed, or will it be cancelled in the future? But later on, I was sure it would happen, so I took it as a positive.
What was your strategy for extending your Olympic preparation by a year?
During quarantine, I was lucky that I had a small spray wall so I could still train. I couldn’t do all the things I would normally do [in training], but I could still climb. When I was in lockdown, I kind of reduced the training because I felt there was no point in training at 100% with the Olympics postponed by a year. But I still tried to keep up my fitness. I still did some speed exercises, but I reduced my training overall. I took some time off, and I did things that I wouldn’t be able to do during the normal season.
What did your training look like in the run-up to the Olympics in 2021 – did it differ from your usual training schedule?
Training for the Olympics didn’t differ that much from my usual training. However, we had to add one more discipline (Speed) to our normal training routine and that was the biggest challenge. Previously, I was combining training for lead and bouldering, so adding speed to that was quite a challenge. But I think my coach and I made the perfect plan for the Olympic season; it was a perfect mixture and combination of all three disciplines.
You were under a tremendous amount of pressure going into the Games. How did this feel, and how did the pressure affect you mentally and physically?
The pressure was definitely insane. I was going into the Olympics as the favourite to win, so everyone said I was already the winner. Everybody had [metaphorically] already put a gold medal around my neck. So that was definitely a challenge – not only because everybody else had big expectations, but most of all because I had big expectations of myself. I’m a perfectionist, and the win was the only thing on my mind – I didn’t want any medal; I wanted the gold medal!
What was the pressure like when you reached Tokyo?
The pressure didn’t affect me mentally that much until I came to Tokyo. It was the week before the Olympics that it started feeling real and I realized the pressure is on. What also made it challenging was coming into the Olympic village three days before the start of qualifiers, when basically every athlete in other sports had already finished their competition. Climbing was among the last of the sports, so it felt like everybody else was already walking around with medals around their necks, while I hadn’t even started with qualifiers yet.
How did you manage the pressure?
I said to myself, ‘I’ve trained years for this, and my head cannot mess with me right now.’ And because there were no spectators, I think this made it a bit better for me because I could think of it as training, take it as a normal World Cup and just relax. When the qualifiers started, I broke the ice, and later I could relax, as I knew what to expect in the finals. I could put the pressure aside, put expectations aside, and go back to my roots. I knew what I had to do to climb well, which meant having fun and not thinking about the outcome, being present and just doing my best. It was definitely hard. When I finished the competition, that’s when I realised the pressure was insane because my chest felt lighter than before.
You’ve said that your biggest obstacle is your mind. What strategies or pre-competition rituals do you use to stay calm and focused when competing?
I don’t know if I have any pre-comp rituals… [however] if you took a video of me preparing for a competition, you would definitely see some. For me, I need to be in a calm state of mind. I need to have fun, I need to feel good, I need to have a really good day. It’s not just about feeling good but being in a happy state of mind and being 100% focused. For me, the biggest motivation is that I know that I’ve been training well. Then I feel like I have nothing to be afraid of because I know I’m well prepared. [When the competition starts] I’m super-focused, focused on the movements, how I feel the holds, and my body. Then I relax, and I just go climbing.
After your Bouldering World Cup win in Meiringen in April, you announced that you were taking the rest of this season off – can you share more about your decision, including what plans you have instead?
In Meiringen, I told everyone that I wouldn’t be competing in the rest of the Bouldering World Cup season. The decision was made at the beginning of the year, and part of it was because I wanted to do more rock climbing. In the previous years, I had school, and I’d been really focusing on the Olympics, so I had no time to go climb outside. I wanted to change that after Tokyo.
The second thing was that the Olympics definitely took their toll mentally and physically, and I wanted to put my focus elsewhere. Paris 2024 is still two years away, and although that seems far, it will be here super-fast. For Paris, I want to be 100% myself, 100% prepared, and motivated as never before. So that’s why I took off the rest of the Bouldering season. I will still do the European Championships in August, and all the lead climbing World Cups, so I’m just skipping a few bouldering World Cups. And I think this is the perfect year to do that.
What does a typical week of training look like for you when you’re competing? And do you include strength sessions or finger strength sessions?
A typical week of training looks like this: I climb six days a week, and one day is always a rest day. I do 95% of my training on the wall – I don’t do any weighted pull-ups or fingerboarding. Basically, I do all my training on the wall. And the other 5% of my training is with my physio, where we do injury prevention exercises.
Last year, you completed the world’s hardest female onsight, Fish Eye, in Oliana, Spain. Do you have any more outdoor climbs/routes on your bucket list?
I have a lot of climbs on my bucket list. I’ve already started working on some of them and I’m really excited to get back on them.
Where are you happiest climbing – indoors or outdoors?
This is a really hard question! When I was a kid, I feel like I was raised into a competitor. I think people saw that fire in me for competitions. I first started climbing indoors, then two years later, I went outdoors [to climb]. So I think my heart is indoors, as that’s where I feel at home and the happiest. However, when I’m outside, I also feel super-happy, and I feel relaxed in nature when it’s just me and the wall. I think both indoor and outdoor climbing have a special place in my heart.
Who are you sponsored by, and what are your must-have items of kit for training?
My must-have items for training are definitely climbing shoes (I climb on the Five Ten Hiangle) and chalk (Camp in my eyes is the best). Beyond this, I never climb without Rhino Skin Spray (product ‘Spit’) because I have really dry hands, and this spray helps hydrate them, so I don’t dryfire.
Generally speaking, Red Bull and Adidas are my most important sponsors. Together with them, I have the chance to bring the biggest and coolest projects to life. The setup is well rounded as I have had my insurance company Triglav and my hardware sponsor Camp with me for many years. And of course, I’m a proud ambassador for my home country Slovenia!
The Wall – Climb for Gold is now available on Netflix in the UK: https://www.netflix.com/title/81595864
You can keep up with Janja’s climbing via her social media: https://www.instagram.com/janja_garnbret/ and https://www.facebook.com/garnbretjanja/ . You can also visit Janja’s website at www.janja-garnbret.com.