How Alannah Yip became a Canadian sport climbing trailblazer

Alannah Yip is calm. She has to be. Standing before the Canadian sport climber is a 50-foot-tall wall of sloping overhangs and jutting edges, dotted with a series of holds strategically positioned for her to navigate — a vertical puzzle of which she will soon become the lone moving piece.

It’s March 1, 2020. Yip is one of eight women competing in the final round of the Pan-American Championships in Los Angeles, and one of five vying for a single Olympic berth — the last opportunity to punch her ticket. Behind her, a crowd that includes coaches, judges, friends, fans and fellow climbers awaits her first move, all hushed excitement and tension. But Yip’s senses are fixed solely on the tall task ahead. “The whole day, I had this vision, this image in my head that I was walled in,” she says. “[I was] keeping the outside world out, because all that mattered was how I climbed. All I could control was myself.”

Over the previous year, Yip’s Olympic pursuit has taken her to competitions around the globe, including two previous opportunities to secure an Olympic berth that she left empty-handed. Now, a dominant day of bouldering and a strong showing in speed climbing has her in position to top the podium in this combined event. Everything has come down to this final discipline, this final lead climb.

With her harness secured, Yip starts her ascent. She progresses quickly up the first third of the route. Every move must strike a balance between strategy and action — every extra second she takes to determine her course is an extra second’s strain on her body. A slight bobble as she engages an overhang shows just how narrow the margin of error is, how quickly things can crumble with one slip of the hand or foot.

The higher she climbs, the more comfortable Yip looks. Each hold is assigned a number — one through 58 in ascending order — and tracked by judges to measure her progress. After navigating a tough section to close out the second third of the route, she grips hold No. 46. With her legs powering her next move, she drives upwards, and reaches for No. 49, her right arm outstretched, grasping it without any doubt. Settling into this new position, she takes hold of No. 50 with her left.

Because competitors aren’t permitted to watch each other climb before their own turns on the wall, Yip doesn’t know that Chile’s Alejandra Contreras hit hold No. 52 to lead the field. As she pauses for a few moments to collect herself, she can’t hear the commentator’s words narrating her climb for those watching from afar: “The Olympic dream for Alannah Yip depends on the next 30 seconds or so. She is three moves away from going to Tokyo….”

“I was keeping the outside world out, because all that mattered was how I climbed. All I could control was myself.”

With both hands grasping the ledge of hold 50 and her right heel firmly set parallel to her shoulder on the smooth, curved surface of hold 49, Yip eyes her next sequence. A foot above her hands is hold 51, a small, pink, palm-sized piece. Hoisting herself up, she reaches and secures it with her right hand. Just to her left, tucked onto the side of a large triangular protrusion, is hold 52. It’s in easy reach, but Yip has another idea. With her shoulders and hips square to the wall, she straightens her left leg, pushing her whole body over to the right. A buzz from the crowd grows loud as everyone in attendance realizes her bold strategy. Pushing from her left, her right arm extends northeast to grip the large, pink, vertical ridge interrupting the smooth, grey wall.

And then, as quickly as she’s up, she’s down.

For a moment, Yip hangs from her rope, legs dangling as she’s slowly lowered to the ground, her focus still fixed on the route and on the way she placed her feet, where she went wrong. And, just for a moment, Yip doesn’t know that she’s made it. Because she reached hold 53.

As she touches down on the ground, her teammate, Becca Frangos, embraces her. “You did it!” Frangos tells her. “You’re going to the Olympics!”

“I didn’t really understand her for a second,” reflects Yip, who was still so focused on her climb. “And then it dawned on me.

“It was overwhelming relief, to begin with. This was my third chance to qualify. I had failed two times. I had been travelling and competing for about an entire year straight. I had almost burned out right before this competition,” she says. “I was just so relieved to have finally done it.”

This summer, as Yip makes her Olympic debut, so will her sport. Twenty women and 20 men will compete in three different disciplines — speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering — with one gold medal per gender on the line. In order to land atop the podium in the combined event, an athlete must be well-rounded and consistent, turning in a strong performance in all three disciplines. For this reason, fellow climber Sean McColl, who will also compete for Canada at the Games, sees the sport as perfectly embodying the Olympic motto: Faster, higher, stronger.

“Faster is speed climbing because it actually is a race against the clock,” McColl explains. “Higher is lead climbing, as physically whoever gets highest on the route wins that event. And stronger — bouldering is often considered a strength and a jumping and coordination type of game, and all about problem solving.”

Yip seems purpose-built for the challenge. Her hands tell the story of a thousand climbs, her fingers bearing the wear (and sometimes, tear) that comes from asking them to exploit the smallest of surfaces to support her whole body in space. Her physical strength is evident in her lean, muscular five-foot-four frame, with powerful legs that serve as her biggest driver. And her flexibility allows her to pull off gravity-defying sequences while suspended from the tiniest of overhangs.

But climbing, whether indoors or out, requires more than physical readiness. For Yip to achieve her goal of advancing to the final in Tokyo, the mental side of the sport — all calculations and creativity — is vital. Attention to the smallest of details is often the difference between winning and falling off. No two climbs are exactly the same, and there is no singular blueprint for success, no one perfect way to summit. The pursuit of climbing may be linear and vertical by nature, but sometimes the best move is lateral. And though the sport can be solitary at times, the climber versus the wall, it takes a community to reach the top.

The same is true of Yip’s path to the Olympic Games.

Before they were tabbed as Canada’s first-ever Olympic-bound sport climbers, Yip and McColl were childhood friends — the kind that felt more like cousins, their parents part of a tight-knit group bonded from their days attending the University of British Columbia. “We grew up together,” Yip says. “I’ve known him since the day I was born.”

Literally, it turns out. “I think I was at the hospital,” says the 33-year-old McColl of the day in October 1993 when Yip first arrived on the planet. His parents are her godparents.

McColl’s family started climbing when he was 10 years old. An athletic kid and strong sprinter, he took to it naturally and by year’s end was entering — and winning — local youth competitions around North Vancouver and getting his start on the national competition circuit. It didn’t take long for Yip, six years his junior, to decide she wanted to try it, too.

“I really looked up to Sean and his brother, Jason. I wanted to do everything that they did. So when they started climbing and going to the youth world championships and Sean was winning, I really wanted to do that as well,” she says.

It was the McColls who took Yip to the North Vancouver climbing gym for her first attempt at roping in and scaling a wall at age six. And it was the McColls who took Yip climbing outdoors for the first time, too, five years later in nearby Squamish. She was hooked. “I really liked the problem-solving aspect, and I liked the combination of individual and team sport that it was,” she says of those early years.

Yip soon joined the Vancouver-based youth climbing program headed up by Andrew Wilson — her coach to this day — and she, too, began competing in local and national competitions. At 17, she skipped her high school graduation ceremony to compete at her first World Cup, where she placed 18th in bouldering.

Still, over the years and competitions, even as Yip saw McColl succeed on the international stage, she didn’t necessarily see herself forging a career out of the sport. She’d always had other plans. “When I was little, six or seven, I wanted to be an inventor, just like my dad — that’s what I called it … which, I realized later, was engineering,” she says with a smile. “With my dad, we used to build a lot of things around the house. We built leaf-blower hovercrafts [and] my brother and I raced go-carts that my dad built and maintained.”

Between her dad, Doug, an engineer, and mom, Moira, a family doctor, much of Yip’s childhood with her younger brother, Trevor, was spent learning and building and seeking solutions. And though she didn’t see it as a real career path, climbing was a natural fit. “A lot of people that climb are also engineers, computer scientists, and that sort of thing,” says Yip. “I think the biggest thing is that engineering and climbing are all about problem solving — being faced with something that you have the fundamental building blocks to solve but you need to find your own way to get to the top, to get the solution of that problem.”

In 2012, after balancing a busy climbing schedule with an even busier first year in UBC’s engineering program, Yip felt she had to choose between school and climbing — that she could no longer do both. Then 19 years old, she’d aged out of the junior World Cup circuit, and without an elite senior climbing team to join at the time, it felt like the natural end of an era. So, she hung up her harness, put away her climbing shoes and chalk bag, and took the path she’d always anticipated taking.

After months away from the sport, as she neared the end of her second year — the most intensive in her program — climbing began to call to Yip again. It wasn’t the competition she missed, but the community and the outlet the gym provided. “If you’ve been a part of that climbing team since you were 10 or 12, you lose so much of your life [once you age out]. And if you don’t see them — all your teammates and your coaches — a couple days a week? It’s hard,” she says.

As she eased back into recreational climbing, she was able to reintroduce herself to the sport. “I definitely needed the time away from climbing so I could re-establish my relationship with it,” she says. “I think there was a lot to rediscover … or just change.”

No longer held accountable by parents or coaches or teammates, Yip’s decision to climb — or not — after a long day of classes and work had to be entirely her own. “I didn’t have Mom and Dad drive me to practice four days a week anymore. I had to make the decision,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my coach is at the gym waiting for me to get there.’”

Though Yip feels that the time away ultimately made her a better climber, it wasn’t until a study-abroad opportunity in Switzerland in 2015 that she realized she could actually compete. “That was a big turning point for me,” she says. “I went to Switzerland and climbed with this team, and three or four of the women on the team were my age, around 20 to 22 [at the time], and all three or four of them had made a World Cup semi-final or final — and I could keep up with them.”

A few months later, when a friend and former climbing teammate from back home in Vancouver, Maria Celkova, flew to Munich for a World Cup competition, Yip decided to join her. The two climbed, caught up and explored the city. Yip watched Celkova’s competition. That week in Munich, Yip and Celkova made a pact: “The following season, we would do every single World Cup competition — do the whole circuit,” says Yip.

That was August 2015. When she got home, Yip immediately jumped back into the local competition circuit, landing on podiums and eventually winning nationals in March 2016.

McColl, already a four-time IFSC World Championship gold medalist, saw the change not just in Yip’s mentality, but in her skill. “She came back and she almost just, she knew how to climb now. We will often make a joke that, like, generally, North Americans don’t know how to climb but Europeans do. So we have to learn how to do it,” says McColl. “She came back and she knew how to climb. She knew how to train.… She came back after that year and she was motivated.”

“We have to find this really cool balance between being prepared and planning, but also being adaptable and being okay with not knowing.”

By April, Yip was back in Switzerland for the first stop on the World Cup tour and ready to make good on her pact. After Switzerland, she and Celkova continued on to Japan, India, China, Austria and the U.S. Each competition brought a strong result for Yip, who finished in the top 30 in bouldering at all seven stops, and the ever-growing knowledge she could pursue the sport as more than a passion. “I just kind of never looked back,” she says.

In April 2017, she became the first Canadian woman to advance to the final of a World Cup climbing event, and two years later she posted her best World Championship result when she finished seventh in bouldering.

Yip graduated in 2018 with her engineering degree in mechatronics after taking a lighter course load to accommodate competing and training. Reunited with Wilson as her coach, she set a new, invigorating goal: the Olympic Games. When the qualification process opened up shortly after, she funneled her energy and focus into climbing full-time.

“It was always my path to go to school for engineering,” she says. “This climbing thing sort of became my career by surprise.”

Says Wilson: “For Alannah, going to the Olympics is a by-product of her being an amazing person and what she’s learned about herself and her dedication to self-improvement as an athlete. It seems kind of weird to say that, but it is [true]. She just became a great person, and the Olympics came as part of that deal.”

In the field of 20 in Tokyo, which will be whittled to eight for the final, it’s going to come down to the intangibles.

“As athletes move along in our sport, the mental prep and the mental performance tactics and tools that they use become more important,” says Wilson. “I guess you would say that is true of a lot of sports, right? The differences in the physical and technical capabilities at the highest level get a lot tighter, and [victory comes down to] who can actually perform and execute on the day.”

Piecing the puzzle together is only part of the equation. Quieting other thoughts — the doubts and anxieties that come with the pressure of competition and the unknown sequences of a route — is a whole other challenge. “We have lots of athletes who train super well because they’re really regimented and they are disciplined and they have a plan for everything, but they sometimes fall down when they get into competition because you can’t have a plan if you don’t know what’s coming,” says Wilson. “So, we have to find this really cool balance between being prepared and planning, but also being adaptable and being okay with not knowing.”

“I’ve been able to turn it into one of my biggest strengths — performing under pressure.”

Yip’s ability to stay calm and focus on the task ahead is what ultimately propelled her to the Games. But the mental side of the sport hasn’t always been her strong suit. “I think over the years, I really realized what my weaknesses in competition were, and the biggest ones were mental. I kind of fell apart at the sight of the first big-pressure moment,” she says.

She describes past competitions in which she’d find herself, mid-climb, thinking too much about the crowd below rather than the route above, or focusing not on her next move but on the possibility of a random slip or a lost hold that would swiftly and suddenly end her climb. “I worked a lot on mindfulness and resilience,” she says, “and I’ve been able to turn it into one of my biggest strengths — performing under pressure.”

She’s worked extensively with a mental coach on being able to control what’s called her “emotional arousal level”: regulating the energy and passion she brings to the wall according to whatever a climb requires; summoning every ounce of amped-up adrenaline for a physically difficult boulder; and keeping balanced and quiet and calm for more delicate climbs. “[Alannah has a] great tactical mind, but also she has an incredible way to control what’s going on inside of her own environment in her head,” says Wilson. “She’s super resilient. If something doesn’t go the way she wants, she can bounce back fast or be unaffected by it. She knows what to do in most cases.”

For Yip, nurturing her resilience and ability to stay calm requires meditation and visualization — even convincing herself she’s already completed a climb before she’s begun. “Things always feel easier the second time we do them, so if you can visualize well enough, you can kind of trick your body into thinking you’ve done it before. When you’re lead climbing, you only get one attempt — you fall, you’re off — and in bouldering, you’re scored on the number of attempts that you take, so ideally, you only take one,” she explains. “So, if you can walk out there, read the climb really fast, visualize it, make yourself think that you’ve done it before, build that muscle memory a little bit, then you have a better chance at being successful on your first attempt.”

She’s also learned not to put too much stock in any one result. “Knowing that if you fail, it’s going to be okay — in the long run, it doesn’t affect you as a person, your self-worth,” she says. “Obviously you’re gonna try as hard as you can to do that climb, but that sort of deep-seated belief that you’ll be okay in the long run has been important. Maybe that’s just growing up — I don’t know.”

At no time have these lessons of resilience been more applicable to everyday life than the past year and a half of unknown and uncertain and unprecedented events. While that period has been marked by a lack of competitions in which to measure her results, it’s also allowed Yip time to recuperate, refocus and train — and to embrace her status as a bit of wild card for these Games. Though the World Cup circuit has mostly been shut down throughout the pandemic, numerous countries still held domestic competitions. “We built this strategy that we’re not going to go compete and that that’s a good thing because no one knows how strong she is,” says Wilson. “She’s purposely not posting a ton on social media to let the other competitors know what’s going on. And we’re just going to show up at the Olympics and it’ll be the first time they’ve seen her in two years.”

The extra year of training heading into Tokyo has her better equipped to climb faster, higher and stronger. “And just mentally, I’m more prepared,” says Yip. “That is the biggest difference, is mentally.”

Despite the added confidence that comes with knowing how much she’s improved, Yip is as measured when discussing her expectations for the competition ahead as she is when approaching the wall. “First things first, is just getting there, being healthy, not getting COVID and not getting a climbing injury. Getting to step out onto the mats and actually climb,” she says.

Beyond making it to the start of the event, she’s also set her sights set on the final field of eight, and earning the right to challenge for a medal. “And then if I can put in a good performance, for me, and feel happy with what I showed, I’d be happy with that,” she says. “So, we’ll see. Anything can happen once you’re there.”

When Yip approaches the walls and boulders of Aomi Urban Sports Park, overlooking Tokyo Bay, she will be calm. She will be focused. She will map out her route, piecing together the puzzle, the best way forward. She will take a deep breath, and then Yip will begin her ascent.

Photo Credits

Christopher Morris (4); Carol Coelho/Getty Images.