Matthew Fall finds a natural fit to reach new heights in speed climbing
The Olympic Games act as a window to the sporting world.
Disciplines that get little air time or publicity normally see their profile skyrocket every four years.
It will be no different in Tokyo this summer, and three new events will make their debut at the Summer Games hoping to captivate a new audience and inspire the next generation.
Surfing, karate and sport climbing will be making their bows, and while the first two already have huge uptake across the globe in some format, the third may be an eyeopener to many.
Not so Matthew Fall though.
The 18-year-old biological natural sciences student at Selwyn College has already been taking part in the discipline for the past decade.
Sport climbing has three different elements – lead, bouldering and speed climbing – and they will be contested as one in Japan, before becoming separate entities in Paris in 2024.
Fall is a specialist in speed climbing.
“It suits my body type the best,” says Fall. “Climbing is a weight-based sport and I’m naturally someone who puts on quite a lot of muscle.
“For lead climbing you are holding your weight up for a very long amount of time. The limit is six minutes but even that is a long time to hang off your fingers and hold your body up the wall.
“Bouldering suits me quite well as well. I would call somewhere between my primary and secondary discipline. I very much enjoy competing in bouldering, but I think I’m more competitive at speed.
“It fits my body type well because speed is very much a power-based sport. If you do it right, you are only ever on the wall for less than 10 seconds – and it’s all explosion and all power.
“I think what got me really into it and why I approached it as a later athlete when I was bigger and stronger is that it is something that really lends itself towards physical training and that is something I really wanted to develop.
“The physical effort you put in is the physical reward you take out of it.
“All the moves are different, it’s not like you’re going up a ladder. It’s a very specific route, and a lot of that has a lot of room for fine-tuning.
“There is a measurability of it; it is very easy to track your progress when you’ve got a number at the top of the wall saying how well you’re doing.”
So what is speed climbing?
It is quite simple really. It is one person against another on a 15-metre wall, with a five degree overhang, and the winner is the quickest to get to the top.
It is a standardised route, wall angle, height and holds around the world.
Fall’s current personal best is 7.30sec, while the world record is 5.48sec, set by Iranian Reza Alipour Shenazandifar, who is also a pioneer in the sport having created a ground-breaking move by skipping the first hold.
It was quite a straightforward introduction to the sport for Fall which came as a day out when he was eight.
The enjoyment meant that one thing led to another as he went to Edinburgh International Climbing Arena Ratho, at the time the world’s largest climbing centre, which was close to his home in Scotland.
Having joined youth teams, he progressed to competitions which eventually led to winning the Junior British Speed Climbing Championships in Wales last year.
Fall explains the appeal.
“I find it quite a cerebral sport, which is what I’ve heard people describe it as, and that really resonates with me,” he says.
“For a lot of it, it’s you against the wall. It’s an atmosphere that you don’t really get in other competitions. You will work with other people to solve problems and beat the wall, in a way; except in speed climbing when you are directly competing against someone else so that has changed the dynamic a little bit for me.”
Every move is so important that it is about far more than the physical element.
Slip, miss a foot or hold and the chance of winning has gone. In a race that varies between six and eight seconds, there is no margin for any error.
This happened to Fall the year before his junior championship success, and the mental aspect of overcoming that became huge.
“It’s so easy to get fazed before you go onto the wall because there is a really big mental aspect to pushing everything into that really short period of time,” he explains.
“If you release that at the wrong time or in the wrong way, it can lead to you being flustered and your feet can slip, your hands can slip, you can miss a hold.
“There is quite a lot of pressure because you are directly racing against another person and you can see them in your peripheral vision. You know exactly how well you’re doing against them, and it’s trying to really focus your mind so it’s you against the wall again.
“It’s very easy to see how the other person is doing and then think ‘right I need to speed up’, then you get flustered and make mistakes.
“It’s about being able to channel all your energy into this really short burst of power, and that brings with it the biggest mental package on the performance side of it.”
In the early stages of learning the art, muscle memory becomes all important and that is gained by learning the route and doing it hundreds of times so that every movement is fine-tuned.
It then means that competitors do not need to look at their feet to know where to place them – it is automatic.
With so much time off the wall during the past year because of the pandemic, Fall has had to remember the art each time lockdown has been lifted.
Once that muscle memory is there, and the nuance of every single move is in place, it is about developing power and strength.
That is why being part of the University of Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme has been a boost in order to develop strength and conditioning to boost Fall’s explosion and power.
“It is one of the main benefits of the UCAPP programme, in that I’ve been able to work with a coach to really develop physical strength which translates much more directly to the wall in speed than it would in say bouldering and lead which are a lot more nuanced,” says Fall.
He describes being selected for the UCAPP scheme as almost serendipitous. He posted a profile on the Cambridge freshers Instagram page before coming to the university which mentioned competitive climbing.
This was picked up by the University of Cambridge sports department who said they believed he may be suited for UCAPP and was encouraged to apply.
“To be part of that sporting community within Cambridge seemed like a really attractive thing to sign up for,” says Fall.
As a fresher at university, he is now in the last year as a junior and making the transition to the senior circuit will be the next target.
“I’ve got quite a way to go still with getting my time down so I am actually viable on the senior international stage,” says Fall.
“2024 in Paris is a dream. It’s something I really want to work towards, but it’s really making sure I can get the time down now so I’m in a position where I can even consider it.”
By that point, the sport of climbing could have a far greater appeal as it is hoped that the profile at the Tokyo Olympics will cast the discipline in a new light.
“Putting it onto such a big stage where everyone will see it, that is going to dispel a lot of the myths about what competitive rock climbing actually is,” says Fall.
“The exposure is definitely the biggest thing because a lot more investment will go into the sport itself, performance facilities, very good quality climbing walls because there will just be more money in the sport.
“That will only be good for the competitors and for new people coming into the sport, and hopefully inspire the next generation of climbers.”
There are three main climbing disciplines, and competitors will take part in them all in Tokyo but they will be split into three separate disciplines at the 2024 Olympics.
The three styles are lead, bouldering and speed climbing.
- Lead climbing: It is the most recognisable event as the climber has six minutes to climb as high as possible on a wall that is taller than 15m.
Safety ropes are attached to quickdraws on the climbers way up, allowing the rope to run freely while they stay anchored to the wall.
If the two competitors climb to the same point, the winner is the one who got there first. The climbers are not allowed to practice on the routes first, and get given a few minutes to study the possibilities before the clock starts.
- Bouldering: Athletes scale a number of fixed routes on a 4.5m wall in a specified time.
They take it in turns and each route is laid out with hand and footholds in a specific colour, varying in difficulty based on the size of the holds and the way they are spaced.
The route is completed by grabbing the top hold. It is about power and finger strength.
- Speed climbing: A straight race between two climbers up a 15-metre wall set at a 95-degree angle, with the two climbers on safety ropes and the fastest to the top wins.
The route is the same all the time, as are the holds and the angle.