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Olympian Alannah Yip Took the Long Road to the Games

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From Vancouver, Canada, Alannah Yip qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at the 2019 Pan-American Championships. Yip, 27, is primarily a bouldering specialist, although she shines in all three disciplines. Prior to Pan-Ams, Yip had placed 13th and 14th at the two other Olympic qualifying events, in Toulouse and Hachioji, respectively, proving herself to be a consistent combined-discipline athlete.

Yip sat down with Gym Climber last week to discuss how she’s made it to where she is now, and her goals for Tokyo.

Can you walk me through your climbing background? When did you start?

The first time I went climbing, I was around 6 years old. I joined the youth team at a local gym when I was 9 and started competing when I was 10. Sean McColl, his family is pretty close friends with my family. I’ve actually known Sean since the day I was born. Our parents went to University together. So growing up, our families were really close. And Sean and his brother were like, older brother/cousin figures to my younger brother and I. So I always wanted to do whatever they did, I thought whatever they did was super cool. So when they started competing and doing well, I really wanted to try it out as well, and then I fell in love with it myself.

And how did you get into competing?

The local gym had a youth team. And it was a competition-focused youth team. So when I joined, it was with the intention of competing locally, and then that turned into nationally, which turned into internationally.

Let’s fast forward to college. Shortly after starting college, you sort of decided to stop climbing, which I imagine must have been a really tough decision. Can you walk me through what you were feeling? And what went into that decision?

Yeah, but at the time, it didn’t seem like a really hard decision, because I had just competed in my last Youth Worlds, which was right before starting second-year university. So I trained all through the first year. And then going into second year, I was moving out to UBC [University of British Columbia] for the year. Second year mechanical engineering is a notoriously difficult and time-consuming program. So I wanted to put 100% into that program. And I didn’t really see a future in climbing. I liked to do it recreationally. But I just thought that I wouldn’t have enough time to do it the way that I wanted to do it—to train the way that I was used to training. And then getting from UBC to any of the local gyms, it’s at least 45 minutes one way on a bus. So time-wise, it just didn’t work. Plus, like a three-hour training session… It just seemed like too much.

And about eight months into that program, or at the end of that program, I was not super happy. I loved engineering, but I was missing climbing a lot.

Alannah Yip, after qualifying for the Olympics at the 2019 Pan-American Championships. Photo: Daniel Gajda/IFSC

So then you started working it back in?

I started climbing again, just recreationally, that summer with a friend of mine who was also in engineering, and we had been on the same youth team together. So I guess I climbed, just recreationally, maybe competed a bit locally for another year and a half, before I did my study abroad in Switzerland. And it was actually Kimanda Jarzebiak who helped me get me in touch with the National Swiss coach at the time and also the coach of the local team in Zurich where I was studying. And he welcomed me with open arms to train with their local team. It was awesome. I ended up not really studying that much on my study abroad and just climbed a lot. But the coolest thing for me was getting to train with all these women who were around my age and who had been World Cup finalists and semifinalists, and realizing I could keep up with them. So that was like a big mindset shift for me.

And then whenever you returned home, I’m guessing you had more school left?

I came back in September, 2015… So I think I had one and a half years of school left, but I ended up taking an extra year. I split my fourth year over two full years. Just to lighten the course load. … I ended up graduating in April of 2018.

I’m wondering how you were able to balance training and studying? 

Actually, I did it very poorly. I would say I trained really hard and had a lot of school… but I also didn’t really sleep for like two years, like four hours a night. I don’t even know how I did it. Because if I don’t get eight or nine hours of sleep now, I’m a zombie. I lived off of caffeine. I didn’t do it the best way. I think you could do it much better than I did by having better time management skills. I’m very bad at procrastinating, or  rather very good at procrastinating. So oftentimes, I was training, I would go to school from like 8am to 5pm. And then I would come home to the North Shore [Greater Vancouver]. And then I would go to the gym from 6 or 7pm to 10 or 10:30. And then I would go home and then do homework. And eating in between those in the car. I’d do homework until like 2 or 3 in the morning and then get up at 6 o’clock so I could get to school at 8. It was insanity. I think that if had I managed myself better, I probably could have made more progress. I could have been stronger.

It just sounds like a really challenging time. So I’m wondering what kept you going?

I really wanted to compete on the World Cup circuit. Actually, back in 2015 when I was studying abroad, one of my good friends was Mária Čelková. She lives in North Vancouver and grew up in North Vancouver, but was born in Slovakia. So she actually competed for Slovakia. She went to compete in the 2015 Munich Bouldering World Cup. And I went to Munich for a week to stay with her, support her during the World Cup and watch. And we made a pact that the next year, we would train super hard over the winter. And then we would do the whole bouldering circuit.

So that definitely kept me going through that winter, that pact with Mária and the fact that we got to train together most days of the week, so we could push each other. And just knowing that getting to do the full circuit was coming the next year.

Jumping forward again, this time to Pan-Ams. I imagine you were feeling the pressure before the lead final round. What was going through your head?

I was actually surprisingly calm. I’ve never been so calm before. And I think I knew in a way that it was all under control. I just, it was all up to me. I could win it or lose it for myself. If I tried my best, I was probably going to win. And I don’t know…  somehow I was able to stay really calm. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clear-headed going into a climb before.

Do you have any techniques that you’ve used over the years while you’re competing to help you get into that good mindset?

On and off, I practice meditation. I find that helps me stay grounded and just put things into perspective. Sometimes when you get nervous, everything seems way bigger and more important than it really is. I actually meditated for a little bit, or tried to in-between rounds at Pan-Ams. I at least closed my eyes, put some earplugs in, and tried to shut out everything that was going on around me.

Afterwards, how did you celebrate? 

We had some champagne. Sean and Mike Doyle went and bought some champagne and an ice cream cake. They got my name put on it… “Congratulations Alannah!” or something like that. So we went back to where we were staying. We were having champagne and ice cream cake. And then we went out for a fancy dinner all together, which was really nice.

So you had cake before dinner?

Yeah [laughs]. Cake and alcohol before. And then a seafood restaurant. It was super fancy.

Sounds awesome. How has your life changed since qualifying?

Well, I guess everything’s changed, because a week after I qualified is when the whole world shut down. It’s a little hard to separate those two things. It’s been super weird to have a whole year at home, like with no possibility of travel for an entire year, and to just train. It’s been great. I love it. Training is my favorite part.

And we actually just had a new lead and speed gym open. It’s like 30 minutes from where I am. And it’s 16, 17 meters (53 or 56 feet) tall. It’s like the same angle as the World Cup wall in Chamonix. It’s about five or 10 degrees overhanging, and then 30 or 40 degrees overhanging, and then a head wall at the top. So I think I’ve been able to make a lot of progress in lead and speed.

But in terms of how things have changed, I do a ton more interviews now. It was like a lot, a lot of media leading into games. I think also, climbing being a new sport, it helps a whole lot… or it makes it worse. However, you’re looking at it, I guess. And also being an individual sport. I don’t think all the players on a team sport would get maybe quite as many interviews.

What do your favorite training sessions look like?

Bouldering sessions! Recently, once a week, we get to go into Climb Base 5 Coquitlam, and Andrew and Simon Parton, the head setter of Base 5 Coquitlam, will clear off an entire section of wall and put up five to seven boulders that are specifically for me, and Sean if he’s home as well, to get to work on. So then we get to come in the next day. And we’d usually do a mock comp—a five minutes on and five off round. And then we’d get to work on them together afterwards. So that’s been super fun. That’s always my favorite part about preparing for the World Cup circuit.

But actually, we’ve been doing a ton of lead this year, obviously. And especially since it’s historically been one of my weaker disciplines. So I’ve really started to enjoy more lead climbing.

And what are some of your least favorite things you’ve been doing in your training?

So speed can either feel amazing or terrible. Like two weeks ago, I had a session where I got three personal bests in a row. It was amazing. And then on Wednesday, I did the same workout, and I had an emotional breakdown. And it was the worst day that I’ve had in months. So sometimes speed is the hardest. But also the hardest workout we’ve been doing recently are just endurance on lead.

What does success look like for you in Tokyo? 

So the first success I think will actually be to get there and get to compete being healthy. Not getting COVID or any other illness, and not injuring myself beforehand. I haven’t traveled since Pan-Ams, and I’m kind of nervous about it. And we’re going to get tested every single day, obviously. You can’t test positive, and you can’t be in close contact with anyone who tests positive. So I think we’re just gonna have to be very, very careful. I always am, but to the n-th degree there.

And then the second thing would be, it would be successful if I go in and I perform to a degree that I’m really happy with. If I don’t make a stupid error. I don’t slip somewhere that I shouldn’t have or miss-read a Boulder terribly, or something like that. It’s hard for me to have a goal about placement, since it’s so dependent on what other people do. And right now, like you have no idea where anybody else is. I mean, you have some idea maybe from seeing other people’s placements at the World Cups, but that’s only one, maybe two disciplines. So you don’t really know where you stand.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned over the years? 

Oh, that’s a tough one. I learned a lot of really good ones. The importance of being diligent and following your training plan. And being very dedicated at making sure you’re doing all your sessions. But also not doing more than that because you’re nervous or something like that. So that you’re recovering properly. Showing up and giving 100% in every training session, and there’s the flip-side of giving 100% to your recovery as well. That’s one I did kind of learn the hard way through those tough years of school. And I think I underestimated it for a long time.

The importance of mental strength in climbing and competition climbing, both of them really, like outdoor and in competition. I think for me, where I’ve always had success or come out on top, I’m not necessarily the physically strongest climber in the field, almost ever. But I try to be the smartest one.

What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

I raced go-karts as a kid. A couple of years. My dad’s really into racing and cars in general. My brother was actually the youngest person in BC to get his race license to race actual cars, not just go-karts. So racing is a big part of my family’s life.

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