Keen to take up climbing? Top UK climber Shauna Coxsey on the ‘mind-blowing’ growth of the sport

With the Paris Olympics set to shine even greater light on the sport, Abi Jackson talks to Shauna Coxsey, one of the UK’s most successful climbers.

Shauna Coxsey at the Red Bull Dual Ascent 2022, Switzerland
Shauna Coxsey at the Red Bull Dual Ascent 2022, Switzerland

Noticed the growing buzz around climbing?

Once the reserve of more hardcore enthusiasts, climbing has become a lot more accessible in recent years – particularly with more and more indoor climbing walls and centres cropping up across the country, where children and adults alike can learn to climb with ropes and harnesses, or give bouldering a go (climbing without ropes).

Even before it made its debut as an Olympic Sport at the Tokyo 2020 Games, according to the Association of British Climbing Walls, participation was already growing by 15-20% a year.

Now with the Paris Games this summer, Red Bull athlete and two-time bouldering world champion Shauna Coxsey – who became Team GB’s first-ever sport climber ahead of Tokyo – believes the boom will get even bigger.

“I think we’re going to see a huge influx of new and fresh enthusiasm for the sport after Paris,” says Runcorn-born Coxsey, 31, who now lives in Sheffield. “Our sport was already [seeing] growth that was mind-blowing to be part of pre-Olympics.

“When I started, I spent the first decade of my climbing life trying to explain what climbing was, trying to explain what bouldering was – and l could now go out on the street and ask anyone what bouldering is, and they’d be able to say, ‘Oh, my kid’s been to a climbing party, I did it with a friend, or my cousin goes every week’ – everyone has some connection to it now. The Olympics really just snowballed that growth that was already happening.”

At the Tokyo Games, competitors were required to compete in three disciplines (boulder, speed and lead) and then given an overall score. For Paris, the disciplines have been separated into two – meaning there’ll be winners for combined boulder and lead, and separate winners for speed.

“There are hopes for it to be three [separate categories] in the future,” says Coxsey, who started climbing aged four after seeing it while watching adventure sports channels on TV with her dad and asking if she could try it (by age seven she was competing, and soon sweeping up medals at every British Bouldering Championship she entered).

“But this first separation with speed climbing having its own set of medals is really important for the development of our sport. I think it’s only going to encourage more people to watch, enjoy, and ultimately get involved in [climbing].”

She is keen to highlight, however, that just as with all sports, there’s a huge difference between what happens at the Olympics, and what happens at your local climbing centre. You don’t have to be a super-fit athlete to give it a go and reap the benefits.

“Every single person that walks through the door for the first time is a beginner. Every person you see at the Olympics walked into a climbing wall for the first time at some point, you know? It’s so easy to forget that when you see elite performance,” she says.

Shauna Coxsey has been climbing since childhood
Shauna Coxsey has been climbing since childhood

There’s been greater focus in recent years “to ensure the sport is being more inclusive, and people feel welcome when they walk through the door”, notes Coxsey, who suggests that signing up to an induction course is the best way for beginners to start. This will ensure you’re equipped with safety advice, as well as helping build skills and confidence. Most climbing centres will also have shoes and chalk bags (and ropes/harnesses if necessary) available to hire, so you don’t have to rush and buy all the kit.

For Coxsey, there are three key elements when it comes to the benefits of climbing.

“You have the social element that you can choose whether or not you want to embrace – so you can go to a climbing wall, do your induction and then not speak to anyone and be in your own zone, or you can embrace the community and be part of that. I always recommend people go climbing with their friends, bring other people in, because it is such a fun sport to do with other people,” she says.

“Then you’ve got the physical side – it’s a full-body activity. If you can walk up the stairs, you’ll be able to get up a climbing wall, but if you want to progress, you’ll need to work on all elements of your body. When you go climbing for the first time, you’ll be using muscles you didn’t even though you had – literally the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes!

“And you have the mental side – there’s very much a problem-solving element to climbing. Have you been able to look at a wall, see a route and figure it out? If you don’t do it the first time, then you’re trying to figure out different ways and different methods.”

Shauna Coxsey perfming during Red Bull Dual Ascent 2022 in Switzerland
Shauna Coxsey perfming during Red Bull Dual Ascent 2022 in Switzerland

After Tokyo, Coxsey retired from competitive climbing and has since shifted to focus on rock climbing. In 2022, she and husband, fellow top climber Ned Feehally, welcomed their baby daughter, Frankie – but Coxsey is now ready to push on with more challenges and adventures with the Red Bull team.

“We’re at a point where I’m really starting to ramp it back up again, which is cool,” says Coxsey. “Being part of the Red Bull family has been a huge part of my success, from the support I’ve received and also being part of that athlete community. And when you’re with Red Bull, anything is possible – you can have the wildest ideas and they’ll make it happen.

“We’ve got some ideas in the pipeline – things I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a little kid… My main goal this year is to climb harder than I’ve ever climbed.”

To find out more about Shauna Coxsey, visit her Red Bull athlete page: