A Portrait in Speed: Iranian Speed Climber Farnaz Esmaeilzadeh

By Alex Lubben ,
Iranian speed champion Farnaz Esmaeilzadeh (left) at the Victoria, British Columbia, World Cup in 2015.

Iranian climber Farnaz Esmaeilzadeh explodes up the walls. She’s a competition speed climber—the goal isn’t whether she can get to the top but how quickly. She leaps from blob to blob, reaching the top of the 15-meter wall in sub-10 seconds; it looks like she’s throwing the holds down to the ground. She floats rather than climbs, like she’s somehow less susceptible to gravity than the rest of us.

Esmaeilzadeh’s competition best—9.02 seconds—set at the 2015 International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Championships in Victoria, Canada, landed her in seventh place in the event and established her as the fastest female climber in Iran.

Speed climbing, with its rigorous rules and aura of direct competition, isn’t well known in the States, but it’s big in Eastern Europe and Asia. (See “A History of Speed,” p.78.) The IFSC, which oversees World Cup events in speed, sport climbing, and bouldering, sets the rules. All competitions take place on regulation 15-meter walls with standardized grips—those red, amoeba-like blobs you may have seen at your gym. At a comp, two climbers sprint side-by-side up identical, standardized 5.10a routes, gunning for the touchpad “finish line.” The event will be part of climbing’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In 2013, at the height of her competitive ability, Esmaeilzadeh took home gold at the Asian Championship and was ranked sixth in the world by the IFSC. Then, in 2016, as part of the Iranian women’s speed-climbing team, she took home fourth at the Asian Championship in China, charging up the wall in 9.97 seconds. Esmaeilzadeh has placed at sport and boulder competitions as well. In 2002, in her first climbing competition, she took home silver in lead at the Iranian national championship.

At the end of 2016, she was ranked thirty-eighth in speed climbing by the IFSC. While her results may be slipping—at 28, she’s older than most of the top 10 speed climbers, women mostly in their early twenties—she’s faced challenges her Western competitors haven’t. As an Iranian woman, she’s had trouble finding a coach, as well as securing funding and visas to travel internationally. And she’s also competed with a “handicap”—the long-sleeved shirts and the hijab (head scarf) she’s sometimes worn in competition—that sets her apart from her Western competitors and kept her from being sponsored. Esmaeilzadeh has at times pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable for Iranian women, wearing less conventional headscarves that sometimes leave tufts of her hair visible. Some Iranians have criticized her dress, she says, while others have expressed enthusiastic support.

Esmaeilzadeh with her father, Javad, and mother, Parvin, after taking gold in Speed at the 2013 Asian Championship.

As far as she knows, Esmaeilzadeh was the only girl from her hometown of Borujerd, Iran, who climbed. A city of 250,000 people at the base of the Zagros Mountains, it’s not much of a climbing center. However, her mountaineer parents, Javad and Parvin, and family friends exposed Farnaz and her brother, Farshad, to the peaks at an early age. “There’s good climbing there,” her friend Bahman Yari Saeed Khanloo told me. “You’d expect there to be more of a climbing community, but there isn’t.”

Though Borujerd lacked climbing walls, there were trees. “The taller and the more slippery the tree,” she told me via email, “the more the adrenaline rush and the better one’s learning environment will be!” Boughs would break and Farnaz would fall—sometimes far enough to hurt herself, though never seriously—but she’d clamp back on and climb up again. She remembers pushing her way into whatever games—soccer, climbing, roughhousing—Farshad was playing when they were kids.

Farshad is now a big-wall climber and, professionally, a translator. But when Farnaz was 12, Farshad’s amateur carpentry helped her to develop her climbing. He built a 12-foot wood climbing wall in their backyard, nailing on holds made of rock. The siblings would climb in old sneakers that, she says, made climbing more difficult than simply going barefoot. (“As a result, I gained upper-body strength,” she says.)

In her teens, Esmaeilzadeh’s family moved to Zanjan, a bigger city in northwestern Iran, where there were full-spectrum climbing gyms. That’s where she scaled her first speed wall. The pacing and dynamism of the activity spoke to her, and she was hooked.

Since entering her first speed comp—the 2007 Asian Indoor Games in Macao—Esmaeilzadeh has been training without a formal coach. There are a few training bootcamps in Iran, but, according to Esmaeilzadeh, there aren’t any coaches training women. She learned the basics of climbing technique by watching YouTube videos.

Esmaeilzadeh emphasized to me the role her mother, Parvin, has played in her training. “She helps me eat healthfully,” she told me. “Mental support, logistics, cooking, and sometimes belaying me when no one’s around.” And while her parents have both been supportive, cheering her on at competitions, she can train only with her mom. “It’s not possible for my dad to belay me, because men and women have separate hours at the gym in Zanjan,” she says. The men also get more gym time: five to six hours to the women’s two to three. The disparate gym hours reflect Iranian society, which remains highly gender-segregated even as it’s governed by an increasingly watered-down version of Sharia law. Women are required to wear traditional clothing in public, including the hijab. And yet, the country has gradually become more progressive—educational opportunities for women have improved, and Iranian women are winning seats in parliament.

In 2015, Esmaeilzadeh was invited to train at The Boulders climbing gym in Victoria City, British Columbia, for a month leading up to the World Cup at the gym. Freed from the limitations placed on her training in Iran, Esmaeilzadeh placed seventh. She broke her own record during that comp, setting the speed record for Iranian women. In training, she hit 8.67 seconds, which in competition would have put her comfortably in the top 10 at Paris’s World Cup last year—an event she missed due to visa trouble.

Esmaeilzadeh getting rock time on Gandhi (5.12b/c), Bande Yakhchal, Iran.

Esmaeilzadeh wants to make more trips like the one to Canada but lacks sponsors with deep pockets. She mostly pays her own way, teaching Zumba classes and using her comp winnings to fund her travel. In today’s charged political climate, with Islamophobia on the rise in the West, Esmaeilzadeh says that American gear companies have been reluctant to sponsor her, seeing an endorsement of her as an endorsement of her religion (Islam) or the state of Iran. She can hide neither her religion nor her nationality.

“They think religion should be separate from sport,” she says. “I got an email from [an American] company that told me, ‘Because of your clothes, we can’t support you as a sponsor.’” Over the past five years, Esmaeilzadeh has sent emails to hundreds of companies. She’s only recently gotten a few small sponsorships, deals that get her some free gear. Meanwhile, her Western competitors have been able to secure sponsorships that have paid for training, travel, and publicity. And the men on the Iranian team have been able to get full sponsorships, too. As far as Esmaeilzadeh knows, there aren’t any fully sponsored female Iranian climbers.

Travel to the events has also been fraught with hassle. Esmaeilzadeh has faced cultural barriers—she says it’s uncommon in Iran for women to travel alone—and has had to contend with international bureaucracy. Coming from a semi-restricted country, obtaining a visa is often difficult. She missed an IFSC competition in Chamonix last year, and wasn’t able to compete in Chongqing, China, in April 2017. Her visa applications are consistently either rejected or not processed in time. Her teammate Reza Alipourshenazandifar, the 2015 IFSC World Cup gold medalist, had a visa rejected in 2016 as well. The international climbing community, however, has always been welcoming: Esmaeilzadeh says she’s never experienced discrimination on the competition circuit.

Despite advents like Nike’s “Pro Hijab” (on sale spring 2018)—a development perhaps less motivated by corporate goodwill than estimates that the Islamic market will be worth over $5 trillion by 2020—Esmaeilzadeh is not the only woman in sports to be subjected to such headaches. Kubra Dagli, the 20-year-old Turkish Tae Kwon Do champion who competes in a hijab, has been criticized by some (for simply being a woman who does martial arts) and lauded by others (for showing that the hijab doesn’t hold her back), all while she tries to direct the press’s attention to her success as an athlete. “They don’t speak of my success, but of my headscarf. I don’t want this. Our success should be discussed. We made so much effort,” she said in an interview at hurriyet.com.tr.

Esmaeilzadeh (left) in the speed event at the World Championships in Arco, Italy, 2011.

When Esmaeilzadeh and I first spoke over Skype in August 2016, she had been training hard between competitions. Her Skype status was “[flexing arm emoji”] never give up.” She apologized for her English, which by any measure is very good. She’s poised and articulate, and comes across as preternaturally driven and competitive. She told me she’d just wrapped up her morning strength training and would head to the gym that afternoon to climb.

At the IFSC World Cup in Italy, she had just placed nineteenth. “I couldn’t quite get the results I wanted,” she told me. She’d returned to Iran because she’d been unable to connect with a belayer or a training partner. Esmaeilzadeh says she usually trains with one belayer who runs away from the wall to keep up with her, but speed climbers generally need two belayers: one to pull down on the rope, and another to pull the slack through the Grigri. That is, unless you have a $2,000 high-performance IFSC regulation speed-climbing autobelay—which Esmaeilzadeh doesn’t. Her home gym doesn’t have one, and when she decided to skip a competition to buy one, she discovered that, due to customs rules between the US and Iran, she couldn’t have it shipped to Iran.

“I love to compete, because if I didn’t, I couldn’t see the result of my hard work,” she says. “I couldn’t see the result of training everyday. You can’t have great progress if you’re alone.”

Speed climbing, in her view, takes many of the same types of training needed to be competitive in other styles, with especial emphasis on strength, power, and agility. “I train doing 100-meter sprints,” she said. “Lead climbers don’t do that.” She trains six days a week, mostly at her local gym, with one day of “active rest”—swimming, an easy hike, stretching—in between. Her morning power workout routines involve springs, leg presses, weighted pullups, bench presses, weightlifting, and hangboarding. Next, she does agility training: sprinting up ladders and stairs, and hurdle jumps. “For speed climbing,” she told me, “I’m trying to hone my technique, then work on my cardio and core.” Her diet, she says, is restrictive: no oils, no fats, no added salt. “I compromise on taste,” she says. Her mom, Parvin, cooks and helps her eat right to stay fit for competing.

Just as bouldering in the off-season is good training for redpoint fitness, so it is for speed climbing. The power helps. When Esmaeilzadeh can’t find a belayer, you’ll find her above the crashpads, projecting hard problems. She’s also hoping to take a trip to Italy, where she’s scoped out climbs in Sardinia and Finale Ligure—hard multi-pitch projects that provide a contrast to the 15-meter sprints she’s accustomed to. For moral support, Esmaeilzadeh often turns to social media. She has almost 11,000 followers on Instagram. As she puts it, “Sometimes it’s really good because when you’re hopeless of being lonely, and hopeless of having progress, when you’re mad about everything and you get to your social media and you see lots of people around the world really love you, are proud of you, it gives you energy.”

Esmaeilzadeh working resistance cardio. “lead climbers don’t do sprints,” she says.

Esmaeilzadeh hopes to write a how-to book on climbing to promote the sport in Iran. “I want to write everything [about climbing],” she says, “so that the younger climbers can use it.” She sees herself as a role model for Iranian girls, and has started coaching. The girls under her tutelage have started to see success. Saba Noorsina, an 18-year-old speed climber from Tehran, took home bronze at the IFSC youth championship in Iran last September.

The gym scene is expanding in Iran, much like in the States, and young climbers’ abilities are expanding along with it. She thinks the younger generation will grow up to outclimb their predecessors. “The future is very bright,” she says. (According to the New York Post, there are now 200 female climbers competing on Iran’s national circuit.)

“I’m a role model,” Esmaeilzadeh continues. “I don’t want the girls in my country to think that they can’t compete internationally just because they don’t have a sponsorship. I want to introduce myself as a strong girl, and show that it’s not important in which country you were born. Your choices can make your life different.”

Alex Lubben is a journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in VICE News, The Awl, The Nation, and elsewhere.

Farnaz’s Top Ticks

Esmaeilzadeh has been climbing 13 years and representing Iran in competitions the past 10.

  • First place Asian Championship 2013
  • Second place Asian Championship 2014
  • First place Canadian National Championship 2015
  • Second place Canadian National Championship 2016
  • 7-year holder of the Iranian speed record (9.40 seconds)
  • Four-time first place winner in Iran’s National Sport Climbing Championship for speed (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015)

A History of Speed

Organized speed climbing dates back at least to 1904, when athletes raced up New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington (6,289 feet). In the post-war period, Soviet climbers participated in state-sponsored climbing competitions, including speed. Then, starting in 1989-1990, there have been the Elbrus Races on Russia’s behemoth Mt. Elbrus (18,510 feet). —Jo Flashman

  • 1989: First UIAA World Cups in speed and lead held in Europe (Leeds, England; Lyon, France).
  • January 27, 2007: 57 federations found the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) in Frankfurt, Germany. That year, the IFSC introduces standarized speed-wall requirements: The wall must be made by a certified speed-wall manufacturer, be 15 meters in height, have a regular 5-degree overhang, and use standardized holds and routes.
  • April 30, 2017: Men’s speed record (5.49) set by Reza Alipourshenazandifar at the IFSC World Cup, Nanjing, China.
  • April 30, 2017: Women’s speed record (7.38) by Iuliia Kaplina at the IFSC World Cup in Nanjing.
  • 2020: Speed climbing to be in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games along with lead climbing and bouldering.
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