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Everybody can climb

Climbing World Championships 2018

Everybody can climb

Meet the Tirol Paraclimbing Team Train at the Innsbruck Climbing Center.

“Climbing is totally me.”

Text: Eva Schwienbacher, Picture: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut

Paraclimbing will be featured at the IFSC World Championships in Innsbruck/Tirol this autumn. We interviewed two athletes of the Tirol Paraclimbing team and talked about why they picked up the sport and what climbing means to them.

Today, Jasmin Plank has to take it slowly. She hasn’t fully recovered from her last attack yet. Nevertheless she is in a good mood as she puts on her harness. She checks if her fellow climber Gabi Fröhlich is ready to be her belayer and takes to the route that features white holds. The team is coached by Katha Saurwein and Ines Kappacher and has been training together for nearly two years.

It is the first route of today’s Paraclimbing Training, held every Thursday at the Innsbruck Climbing Center. It is early afternoon and the gym is not crowded and busy yet. Gabi and Jasmin have already finished their warm-up regime. Now, all they want to do is climbing. Jasmin reaches up, grabs hold, and begins to pull herself up the wall. She hangs for a moment, the toes of her climbing shoes gripping the sheer face. Controlled and dynamic, she puts her hand out and above her again. With a few more moves she arrives at the top. Today, her extremities do what they are supposed to do. This is not always the case. Sometimes she is presented with loss of control of arms, legs, hands and feet.

Members of the Tirol Paraclimbing Team and Fellow Climbers: Jasmin Plank and Gabi Fröhlich 

Falling suddenly ill

For six years, Jasmin has been living with her serious health problem. It all started at the age of 23 with sudden blurry vision. Thinking that she would need glasses, she went to see an ophthalmologist who sent her to a neurologist. Her symptoms were classified as inflammation of the optic nerve and she was treated with cortisone for four weeks. During that time, Jasmin had to quit doing sports for the first time. Before all of this she was super active and went inline skating for two hours each day. “I needed sports as a balance to my work life,” explains the preschool teacher.

When she tried to resume inline skating one month later, it didn’t work out anymore. Her muscles were too weak and she had no coordination. First, she believed that this was because of her medication. As symptoms persisted, Jasmin began thinking they could be a sign of a serious health problem. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) but as she did not have definite multiple sclerosis symptoms the diagnosis was not supported. Later, doctors declared Jasmin was suffering from possible tetraparesis, without being able to definitively explain why this was now her new reality.

At least once a year Jasmin has to present to hospital for examinations and tests. She sees her neurologist regularly and goes to therapy, especially during an attack, which is usually followed by a period of relief from symptoms. Weeks or even months may pass before another attack occurs, commonly with cramps and muscular weakness affecting all four extremities. Jasmin’s last attack occurred with extreme headaches and the loss of sharpness of eyesight. “Even during an attack, I try to continue climbing. If I am not able to climb, I go to the climbing center to belay my fellow climbers. I just have to stick to this routine,” says Jasmin. “The climbing center is my personal retreat, my place of strength,” she adds. Usually, she finds herself climbing here three times a week.

How It All Began

Jasmin is one of roughly 30 members of the Austrian Paraclimbing team that will be making their debut on the world stage in front of their home crowd in Innsbruck. They have been preparing for the event for nearly two years. It all began with an initiative led by the Austrian Climbing Association (KVÖ) in Austria’s two westernmost provinces of Tirol and Vorarlberg. Sports psychologist Madeleine Eppensteiner, a Vorarlberg native, and Tiroleans Franzi and Katha Saurwein were involved right from the start. Sisters Franzi and Katha, ergo therapist and professional sport climbing athlete, share their skills, experience and encouragement with differently abled people. The first Paraclimbing Workshops took place in Wörgl and were attended with much enthusiasm. Soon a group of athletes decided to train together regularly.

“Paraclimbing gives disabled individuals the chance to experience their sport in a competitive environment,” explains Katha Saurwein, who is a member of the Austrian National Team in Bouldering. Based on the theme of “everybody can climb”, they aim at encouraging people with disabilities to get involved with climbing. The Austrian Paraclimbing team was founded a year ago. There was no selection process. “Our only requirements were that athletes attend regular training, that they train endurance and strength themselves and that they are willing to compete,” explains Katha. And that’s just what they do. “They are all super dedicated and driven to work hard. They never let their disability get in the way of their ambitions. Sometimes there is no holding them back,” says the 30-year old coach.

Ines Kappacher (left) is the coach of the weekly team training regime in Tirol. Katharina Saurwein is head coach of the Austrian Paraclimbing National Team. 

Creative Thinking and Learning

Training for climbing with differently abled people was a new and different story to the trainers and coaches, too. It has been an adventure for them to invent techniques for climbing and training. The team consists of climbers with different disabilities, including visual impairment, neurological disabilities, paraplegia and amputees. “We just had to learn with each individual athlete as to how they climb and how we can improve their own technique – which is fairly unique to their own “disability”. Everyone is different – someone who is almost blind certainly has other needs than a wheelchair user,” explains Katha. Training involves specialized tools, not-so-specialized methods, and a whole lot of creative thinking.

Their mission was made even more challenging through financial difficulties. Their resources didn’t allow a stable platform for planning ahead, for more international competitions to be attended, and an increase in support for the team as a whole. Luckily, the team has made beneficial sponsorship arrangements that secured funding for the weekly team training for the next year. The skills and abilities are quite different in the team. Some started climbing as a child and continued with paraclimbing after suffering an injury. Others were born with a disability and discovered climbing as their sport later, such as Gabi Fröhlich. 

By now, coaches Ines (second from the left) and Katha (third from the left) have bonded well with athletes Jasmin (first from the left) and Gabi (fourth from the left). The coaches had to learn with each individual athlete as to how they climb in the beginning.

“The Eagle Eye among the Visually Impaired”

Under normal circumstances this rock climber in the gym would be worth watching. But what makes her effort even more remarkable is that she happens to be almost blind. Gabi is a seasoned and skilled belayer for her fellow climber Jasmin Plank. Then she puts on her climbing shoes and heads to the wall herself. She slowly and deliberately raises her right hand, reaches up, grabs hold with her fingertips, and begins to pull herself up the wall. “White holds are hard to recognize for me,” she explains later. “I can hardly spot them on the grey wall.” This is why Gabi prefers coloured routes.

As Gabi talks, her light blue eyes wander from left to right very quickly. She has ocular albinism, an eye disease that is characterized by severely impaired sharpness of vision (only 20% visual acuity on both eyes). Nevertheless, the 28-year old climber has good orientation skills. Gabi, who was born in the Austrian Province of Styria, has been given the nickname “Eagle Eye” by her former coach.

Right Hand Twelve O’Clock

Gabi was introduced to climbing by the local Blind Sports Association. She fell in love with the sport and joined the training team two years ago. What she likes most at climbing is the smooth moves and the possibility to push herself beyond barriers and past personal limits. Climbing helps her continuously work on ways to conquer the limitations of her disability—and she loves competition. “I spend all of my energy attempting to progress my skills in any way I can. I have always been determined and my desire to be the best at whatever I did in life has always been who I am. I need that challenge to get around it, to work past it and push harder, to compete against others,” says Gabi. 

Before projecting a climb, Gabi has to start by figuring out where all the holds are. She can memorize roughly a third of a route; top climbers are able to remember all the holds. Recently, Gabi and her coaches have started to use a radio communications headset. “This felt quite weird in the beginning but I have come to appreciate its benefits,” says Gabi.

The coaches, too, had to learn with Gabi as to how she climbs in the beginning. With the help of the headset, the coach on the ground tells her where the next hold is. “We use the “o’clock” system that pilots use to indicate direction. It works out really well meanwhile,” explains National Team Coach Katha Saurwein. “You have to find a strategy that suits both, climber and belayer.” Being told “right hand twelve o’clock,” Gabi knows exactly where the next hold is (directly in front, that is).  

Blind athlete Gabi Fröhlich is being “shown” the route by her coach Ines (left). 

Dreaming to Compete in Front of the Home Crowd

Both, Jasmin and Gabi, have their sights set on giving their debut on the world stage in front of their home crowd in Innsbruck this September. They have been preparing for the event for two years. Paraclimbing has become a regular fixture of the competition climbing scene and with more athletes competing in events than ever before, the Austrian climbing team has had to institute a selection process for the national squad. They use fitness assessments and competitions as a basis for selection for the Austrian Paraclimbing Team. “Being selected for the National Team is a tremendous motivator for me,” says Gabi. “I really want to be a part of it.” Jasmin has already earned a spot on the team. “Before getting ill, I never thought about participating in World Championships. I didn’t think it would happen. I see it as one positive aspect of my disease – it got me into competitive sports,” says Jasmin. “I honestly don’t know who I would be without climbing. Climbing is totally me. It gives me strength.” 

Fuel for the fire ahead of Innsbruck: Staying engaged in their training is the most important part for the Paraclimbers. 

It was the therapy climbing program during rehab that brought her on the path to adaptive climbing. Rather than dwell on things she couldn’t do anymore—inline skating—Jasmin focused on things she could do. When she wasn’t able to walk, she would pull herself up the climbing wall with a rope. And Jasmin is a fighter. “Giving up was never an option.” Jasmin does not know where her personal journey will take her – or when her next attack will occur. She had to quit inline skating but she didn’t let that hold her back from seeking out a new sport, proving that what others may see as a hindrance can often be your greatest asset. The young woman clearly doesn’t view her health problem as such, instead approaching her climbing with the same attitude as any other sportswoman. 

Paraclimbing – Fast Facts:
The first IFSC Paraclimbing event was held in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2006. Paraclimbing has been featured at the IFSC competition schedule since 2010. The sport was introduced at the World Championships in Italy’s Arco on July 18 and 19, 2011. The first Austrian National Championships in Paraclimbing took place in 2017. The IFSC Climbing and Paraclimbing World Championships take place biannually and showcase the most elite sport climbing athletes from across the globe. Different classes and categories will be represented at this year’s Paraclimbing World Championships in Innsbruck

Classes and Categories:
Classers and categories for the Paraclimbing competition are in line with the international categories as defined by the IFSC. The disability of athletes has been classified into three classes (A, B and C) with various categories each. The levels of disability were specifically defined according to the basic climbing moves. A Class: Amputees and Paraplegia; B Class: Visually Impaired; C Class: Limited Range, Power or Stability (LRP). Each class has various categories. 

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