Adam Ondra’s Race to the Top

Written by on March 6, 2020

March 6, 2020

BRNO, Czech Republic — The world’s greatest climber is a wiry 27-year-old with a curly mop of hair and a noticeably lengthy neck. His identify is Adam Ondra, and on a misty fall day in an industrial valley on the outskirts of his hometown, he was inside the huge steel silo of a former rock quarry that had been transformed right into a climbing health club.

Ondra leaned again and stared up the 15-meter wall that rose to the rafters. The wall leaned towards him barely, menacingly, and was freckled with pink holds dusty with chalk.

It was a path to the Olympics, and Ondra was flummoxed. He needed to get to the highest in below eight seconds. By the point the Summer season Video games in Tokyo open in July, possibly he may do it in below seven.

The world report is 5.48 seconds. That may by no means occur for Ondra. He’s the world’s greatest climber, however not its greatest pace climber. And as quickly because the Olympics have been over, he would by no means do the pace wall once more. However first he needed to get there.

Ondra discovered little pleasure in all this. To him, climbing was by no means meant to be about muscle reminiscence and pace. It was about drawback fixing and creativity. It was effectivity, daring, management.

“The truth that you possibly can climb in 5 seconds or six seconds has nothing to do with climbing,” Ondra mentioned. “It’s a circus.”

Nonetheless, the pace wall earlier than him was the impediment, and few respect a problem greater than he does. He clipped his harness into the auto-belay system, glanced to make sure the clock was reset, and positioned his toes on the digital begin pad. He lifted his proper foot on the wall and grabbed a pink maintain with two arms. He froze and scowled. He took just a few arduous, loud breaths.

He lunged skyward. He slipped, cursed and fell slowly again to earth. An strange wall silently taunted a rare man.

PictureOndra’s home in Brno, Czech Republic, includes a custom climbing gym, where many of his acrobatic moves involve letting go of the wall, just for a moment.

“The issue is, I’m not quick sufficient to show off my mind,” Ondra mentioned. He smiled by way of the dejection, and an unstated query hung within the chalky air.

Why is he doing this?

Ondra might be one of the best indoor climber on this planet, and doubtless one of the best out of doors climber on this planet, and positively one of the best mixture of the 2. Even those that are extra well-known, like Alex Honnold, say that Adam Ondra is one of the best climber on earth.

“He’s mainly rewritten climbing the previous 10 years,” Honnold mentioned.

Ondra has climbed three of the 4 hardest routes on this planet; nobody else has finished multiple. He went to Yosemite Nationwide Park for the primary time in 2016 and have become the third particular person to free climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, doing it in lower than half the time wanted by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson in 2015. Ondra’s growling, screaming, upside-down scaling of Silence in a Norwegian collapse 2017 is perhaps the toughest and loudest climb ever captured on film.

Ondra blends these pursuits with the indoor competition circuit. He’s the one males’s climber to win season-long titles in each bouldering (ropeless, acrobatic crawls up brief, typically overhanging partitions) and lead climbing (the basic, methodical self-discipline with its excessive partitions and lengthy ropes), and the one one to win each world championships in the identical yr.

Ondra has a factor for climbing challenges. The debut of climbing as an Olympic occasion is the following one.

It comes with a compromise that nobody likes: just one climbing medal every for women and men.

The Worldwide Olympic Committee needed that medal to go to hurry climbing. It’s a vertical dash to the highest — simple to grasp, good for tv. However the sport’s governing physique, the Worldwide Federation of Sport Climbing, pushed again, understanding pace climbing is an odd spinoff of the game’s broader ethos.

Velocity partitions have had the identical design, the identical holds, put in precisely the identical locations, for greater than 20 years. Each wall at each competitors is identical. Velocity specialists are, usually, compact and explosive athletes who’ve been doing the identical route all their aggressive lives. Gymnasium rats greater than rock climbers, most of them hardly ever compete in bouldering or lead, simply as Ondra by no means bothered with pace.

However when the I.O.C. refused to offer climbing extra medals, the climbing federation created a mixture occasion for the Video games. Velocity, bouldering and lead have been mashed into one.

“We needed to have three disciplines,” the federation’s chief govt, Marco Maria Scolaris, mentioned. “In any other case you’ll kill the disciplines you permit behind.”

The result’s a bit like giving snowboarding one medal and awarding it by combining the outcomes of, say, downhill racing, ski leaping and moguls.

If climbing’s debut goes properly, it will likely be expanded to 2 Olympic medals in 2024. The I.O.C. will get its pace occasion, and bouldering and lead — disciplines extra suitable in tradition — might be mixed.

For now, although, Ondra and everybody else will should be fluent in all three. This was why he was standing on the backside of a pace wall in Brno.

Ondra caught his breath. Gaggles of tiny kids scampered up and down the colourful, bumpy partitions round him. Most paid little consideration to him.

“That’s why I like coaching in Brno,” Ondra mentioned. “Right here, most people who needed to get a selfie or a signature have already finished so.”

He approached the wall for one more try. He went by way of his routine — rope, clock, mat, positioning, breaths. He churned up the wall, lurching from one maintain to the following in a clatter of thumps and grunts.

He smacked the button on the prime: 7.78 seconds.

Sure. Sure. Ondra pumped his fists and kicked his toes as he slow-glided again to the bottom.

“I do know the Olympics is only one factor in my life,” Ondra mentioned. “It doesn’t matter what occurs, I can come again to my rocks and do what I used to be used to doing. I can come again to what makes me joyful.”


“Who’s the man with the lengthy neck?”

The query was from a younger boy to his mom.

“That’s Adam Ondra,” she mentioned.

Ondra gazed up on the bouldering wall earlier than him whereas sifting his arms in a bag of powdered chalk. To the group watching behind his again, it was an inverted wall with a number of giant, colourful, three-dimensional shapes bolted to it, some the dimensions of sofas, some rounded and a few with corners, plus just a few specks that have been finger holds. The sample appeared random.

To Ondra, the route was apparent. This was his component: technique, not pace.

Ondra got here to Colorado with a plan. He at all times has a plan. He would give up his out of doors rock-climbing pursuits for many of two years to give attention to qualifying for and competing on the Olympics.

He would compete full time in bouldering within the 2019 Climbing World Cup season within the spring, go to the August world championships in Japan to earn a spot within the Olympics, then flip his consideration to hurry coaching by way of the autumn. He would plow into 2020, singularly targeted on Tokyo. He would win a gold medal.

When Ondra makes a plan, it normally occurs.

He stands out from climbers simply on appears to be like. He’s taller and leaner than most, greater than 6 toes of rippled sinew. He’s sturdy sufficient to do one-armed pull-ups with somebody on his again. His fingers have muscle tissue.

He has darkish, expressive eyebrows, a hawklike nostril and an unusually lengthy neck. Ondra lengthy thought his neck was a detriment, a waste of size that didn’t make holds simpler to achieve however solely added weight to his body. Then a physiologist defined one profit — his head is like the tip of a pendulum.

“As I’m about to set off with my subsequent transfer, I push again my head and it forces my toes tighter towards the wall,” Ondra defined. “I do it subconsciously.”

Ondra grunts and groans when exerting himself. He screams and convulses when he falls, and generally when he wins. In victory or defeat, he waves to the group, a wristy, childlike wave, like Forrest Gump earlier than he jumps off the shrimp boat.

Ondra has a popularity for good cheer. He smiles when he speaks. He’s well mannered and inquisitive, a deep thinker with a facet of goofy. He has a level in economics and is fluent in 5 languages: Czech, English, Spanish, Italian and German.

But his day-to-day life is aimed virtually solely at changing into a greater climber. He received his begin outdoor at age 3. His dad and mom, Miroslav and Eva, leisure climbers, typically took Ondra and his sister and brother to crags outdoors Brno.

Ondra took to it immediately. Holds have been bolted to his bed room partitions at age 7, then prolonged to the ceiling, even down the hallway. There have been home guidelines: He needed to chalk up within the lavatory. And he needed to climb barefoot as a result of sneakers would scuff the partitions.

By 11, Ondra was dominating junior competitions. He gained his first World Cup season title in lead at 16 and adopted with one in bouldering at 17. In 2014, at 21, he gained each occasions on the world championships. He’s nonetheless the one man to do this.

Outdoor, at 13, he scaled his first 5.14d route, an issue score achieved solely by elite climbers. In 2013, Ondra became the first to top La Dura Dura in Spain, rated an almost unimaginable 5.15c, in a pleasant competitors with the veteran Chris Sharma, lengthy thought-about one of the best climber of the world’s hardest routes.

In 2016, an article in Climbing journal mentioned that seeing Ondra scale a wall was “like watching Michael Jordan play basketball or Einstein do math.”

“Adam may be very targeted, very regimented,” Sharma mentioned. “He’s received a plan. And his plan is mainly to be the best climber of all time.”

He’s additionally a bridge between the out of doors and indoor climbing worlds — between mountain climbing’s lonely pursuit of unconquered routes in faraway locations and competitors climbing, with its plastic partitions, carpeted gyms and trophies.

The toughest a part of that’s not simply assembly the expectations of the remainder of the world, inside and outside, however in outdoing himself.

“If you win each time, you possibly can solely lose,” mentioned Klaus Isele, an Austrian coach who labored extensively with Ondra by way of 2017 and 2018. “Effectively, you possibly can both lose or be simply pretty much as good as folks count on you to be. However you possibly can by no means be higher. That’s a troublesome place to be.”

Ondra has few pursuits past climbing, and a singular, open-minded give attention to enchancment. For greater than a yr, he has been adopted by a small crew from his firm, AO Productions, making a weekly YouTube sequence known as “The Road to Tokyo.” He has sought recommendation from the Czech nationwide ballet’s physiotherapist, in search of tips about “ankle posture.” He had a observe coach train him the way to explode from the beginning of the pace wall, like a sprinter from the blocks. He lately embraced acupuncture and Chinese language medication.

Isele recalled after they agreed to work collectively.

“I awakened the following day to 6 emails from Adam,” Isele mentioned. “‘Why is that this man stronger than me? Why can Chris Sharma do that?’”

In Vail, Ondra purchased a massager for his neck and canisters of oxygen to fight the excessive altitude. An hour earlier than bedtime, he placed on sun shades with yellow tint to assist calm him. He placed on blue-tinted glasses within the morning. And he went to mattress two hours sooner than he usually would, to counter the results of the time change.

“Colorado is eight hours completely different than house,” Ondra mentioned. “Six hours is type of OK. Eight is worse. So I’m performing prefer it’s six.”

On a sunny spring Saturday on the base of the ski slopes, folks crowded onto an unlimited garden, many to look at Ondra. They wore plaid shirts and trucker hats, like climbers on a relaxation day.

Bouldering — half ballet, half gymnastics, all energy and desperation — is sort of a vertical recreation of Tornado. Ondra accomplished the primary two issues, however the third threw him. His lengthy limbs, a bonus when attempting to achieve a maintain, have been a detriment for the awkward, coiled positioning wanted. His annoyed scream pierced the dance-club beat pulsing by way of a wall of audio system.

The fourth and last boulder drawback was not a lot better. Ondra neared the highest however couldn’t end. Gravity gained; it virtually at all times does. Ondra gave a weak wave to the group.

He was one profitable upward transfer from the season championship, however misplaced it to Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki, Ondra’s newest rival.

Ondra isn’t used to not successful. He held his head in his chalky, calloused arms.

“I like lead greater than bouldering,” Ondra confided later. “It’s much less merciless.”


It was the 2019 world championships, inside a suburban Tokyo enviornment with Olympic bids at stake, and Ondra stood on the backside of the lead wall.

A yr earlier, in Innsbruck, Austria, the climbing federation added the mixed occasion (pace, bouldering, lead) to the world championships, to check the format for the Olympics. Ondra completed second.

All he needed to do in Hachioji was end within the prime seven and he would have a free pass to Tokyo in 2020. It felt like a formality.

However by afternoon on competitors day, by way of the primary two disciplines, Ondra was in 12th place. He was final amongst 20 rivals in pace, then a disappointing sixth in bouldering.

The combined-climbing outcomes are a matter of arithmetic. A competitor’s place in every of the three disciplines is multiplied collectively. The climber with the bottom complete wins.

A sweep of all three disciplines can be an ideal rating of 1. Ending second in every would rating eight factors (2x2x2).

The mathematics will get sophisticated in a rush, although. If Ondra gained bouldering and lead however completed 20th in pace, his complete can be 20 factors (1x1x20=20). That may put him forward of somebody who completed third in all three (3x3x3=27).

Close to the tip of the Olympic qualifiers, the maths was fuzzy. The scoreboard shuffled with each competitor like a practice station departure board with flipping numbers. Ondra figured he wanted to complete within the prime three in lead, his greatest occasion, to qualify for Tokyo.

“I’m nervous,” his longtime girlfriend, Iva Vejmolova, mentioned. “However he might be OK.”

Lead is the sport-climbing self-discipline most like mountain climbing within the creativeness. Climbers put on harnesses and clip their ropes with carabiners at numerous intervals and go as excessive as they will in six minutes. It’s exhausting to assist your self on the wall that lengthy, so most fall off lengthy earlier than that. Ondra is among the many few who often attain the highest of the route.

Ondra moved with confidence, like a spider on the wall, when he abruptly slipped off. Surprised, he hung from the rope together with his mouth open because the viewers applauded politely.

The calculators did their silent work. Outcomes have been in: Ondra was third. He was within the Olympics.

However climbing is merciless.

One other athlete’s camp filed a protest, claiming Ondra had inadvertently stepped on one of many bolts protruding from the wall. The bolts give climbers a spot to clip their ropes, however stepping on one is an apparent infraction.

Officers rushed right into a room and huddled round screens. Photographers scanned their pictures and movies for proof. There was one place the place Ondra appeared to blindly step close to a bolt, however did he contact it? Nobody round Ondra may inform.

For 10 minutes, he was in Olympic limbo. Vejmolova clung to him. Ondra appeared as if he may cry. The world emptied. A jazzy tune got here from the audio system, discordant with the temper.

An announcement got here: Ondra was disqualified.

There was no tantrum, no scream, no histrionics. Simply silence. Ondra and Vejmolova walked out of the sector hand in hand to their rental automobile. He would want to discover a completely different manner into the Olympics.

That’s one factor about climbing. It’s principally a sequence of failures. There may be at all times one thing pulling you again to earth.


Ondra headed outdoor. He had not rock-climbed in six months, however he wanted a reboot — “to regain some confidence, regain some pleasure,” he mentioned.

He went to Italy, to a favourite climbing space known as Terra Promessa, in early September. Then he went to Austria to sort out Qui, his “nightmare route,” one which perplexed him for a decade. Just one particular person had flawlessly scaled the pitch, again in 1996. Ondra, lastly, turned the second.

“Mountain climbing has extra components that make me joyful,” he mentioned.

Ondra speaks as if he’s sending pitches, one measured burst at a time with pauses between — the verbal equal of clipping within the rope. Generally you suppose he’s completed when abruptly he’s going once more. This was a kind of occasions.

“In competitions, there may be solely the problem half, nothing extra,” he mentioned. “I get pleasure from doing properly. I benefit from the coaching, the struggling, the coping with the strain of getting to carry out proper now, at this hour, on this present day. However in mountain climbing, there may be way more that I get pleasure from — seeing new locations, the pure reality of being outdoors, of being 50 meters or 500 meters above the bottom, feeling the air and feeling free whereas transferring up the wall. There are too many components that I like about mountain climbing, however all of them are related to freedom.”

Rejuvenated, Ondra returned to the competitors circuit and swept three World Cup lead occasions. He gained the 2019 season lead title, a comfort after his disappointing second place in bouldering.

But he nonetheless had not certified for the Olympics.

“The Olympics are the rationale why I received so psyched for competitions once more,” Ondra mentioned. “With out that, I do know, all proper, I’ve gained the world championships possibly two occasions, thrice, however going to 4 occasions, 5 occasions? I don’t actually care. However the Olympics are one thing completely different.”

There was a second probability to qualify. Those that didn’t declare locations on the worlds may compete in Toulouse, France, in December, for just a few extra Olympic spots.

Ondra spent most of November at house making ready.

Brno is the Czech Republic’s second-largest metropolis, about 120 miles southeast of Prague. It spreads over a panorama half rolling, half rugged, lined in forests and fractured by valleys and ravines. It’s off the same old vacationer observe, however has an outdated metropolis heart lined in cobblestones and topped by a fortress and a cathedral.

Ondra grew up within the metropolis heart, however he and Vejmolova now share a suburban home on the outskirts. They met at nationwide climbing competitions when he was 11 and he or she was 9. They’ve dated since 2013.

In 2018, they constructed a tall extension to their home. Inside are 4 partitions, about 15 toes tall, that slim close to the highest. The partitions are lined in tons of of holds of all shapes, sizes and colours. Thick security pads line the ground.

Vejmolova, nonetheless a aggressive climber, makes use of it to offer classes to kids. However principally it’s a customized health club for Ondra.

He marks holds with completely different colours of tape to create coaching routes. From the road, by way of a slim window to permit pure gentle, neighbors may glimpse a shirtless Ondra crawling the partitions like an insect. They may hear him grunt and groan and scream.

However as his window to an Olympic berth narrowed, increasingly, periods came about on the solely pace wall on the town.

“It’s the primary time ever that I practice for one thing I don’t get pleasure from,” Ondra mentioned.

However he did discover it oddly fascinating.

“It’s really fairly tiring, and it’s solely six seconds of effort!” Ondra mentioned. When talking about climbing, his enthusiasm generally calls for an exclamation level as punctuation. “From the perspective of elite climbers, it’s ridiculous!”

Makes an attempt on the pace wall butchered his fingernails, a key to clinging to the wall in different disciplines. However Ondra felt he was getting extra explosive, which may assist his bouldering.

The important thing to the pace wall is momentum. As a result of the holds are thus far aside, the wall is more durable to climb the slower you go. Like monkey bars, success requires movement.

Ondra was nonetheless a gangly sight on the wall, however his occasions have been taking place with almost each apply session.

“It’s getting higher,” he mentioned between makes an attempt at some point. “It’s fairly a great feeling, flowing and operating up the wall. It’s a venture, and I consider it like several venture. You’re simply attempting to get it wired.”

He is aware of he won’t ever be a world-class pace climber. He simply needs to get beneath seven seconds in Tokyo. That may get him near the highest 10 heading into the bouldering and lead parts. That may give him wiggle room within the math of a decent competitors.

“My technique is, it doesn’t matter what, to win in lead,” Ondra mentioned. “Which supplies me virtually definitely fourth, and most definitely third. I’m fairly conscious that I’m very probably the final in pace. And I’ve to know that, and never be dissatisfied in that.”

So why spend months training one thing he doesn’t get pleasure from if it is not going to have an effect on the result on the Olympics?

“If I simply don’t attempt to enhance in pace, it will likely be more durable with my head,” Ondra mentioned.

Ondra appeared relaxed at house within the weeks earlier than Toulouse. He attended a daylong seminar known as “Prepared for Tokyo,” organized by the Czech Olympic Committee, and gained the Czech nationwide championship in lead climbing earlier than an adoring viewers in Prague. He launched an autobiography in Czech titled, “Adam Ondra: A Climber of Physique and Soul,” and held a ebook signing at a big bookstore. He made plans for a December journey to Nepal.

Principally, although, he climbed. When it got here time for Toulouse, he was prepared.

Throughout {qualifications}, amongst 22 rivals, Ondra was first in lead, second in bouldering and 14th in pace, with a time of seven.464 seconds.

Throughout the eight-man finals, Ondra was first in lead, third in bouldering and final in pace.

The multiplication put him in second place. He was within the Olympics.

There was aid. However with Ondra, there may be at all times a way that the toughest half is forward.



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