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Navigating its way: Climbing in the PHL continues to ascend

After being newly introduced in the 2020 Olympics, bouldering has experienced an underrated renaissance in Asia, including the Philippines.

Last August, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics saw the introduction of five new sports. Of these five, sport climbing has been on the steady rise in many Asian countries including the Philippines.

In recent years, there have been a number of gyms that offer the chance for budding athletes to try climbing as a sport or a hobby. This was the case for Rochelle Suarez, a member of the national climbing team and finalist at the 2019 Asian Cup Bouldering event held in Hong Kong. She was first introduced to climbing in 2015; stating that while hiking in the mountains, she and her peers saw mountain climbers and sought an indoor counterpart of the activity. “We found it very interesting and very different. So it made me pursue it,” she elaborates.

Her newfound interest in climbing led her to join local and international competitions in 2018, which resulted in multiple podium finishes. Exposure to such tournaments, according to Suarez, “will make you a better climber.”

Peaking interest

Olympic climbing can be broken down into three disciplines: bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing. Lead climbing sees climbers attempt to scale a wall with the use of carabiners and ropes, and the goal is to reach the highest point in a single attempt. Speed climbing, on the other hand, is similar to lead climbing although the objective is to climb a standardized route in the quickest time possible. But among the three, bouldering seems to be the most well-known in the country. Franz Lim, (BS-MKT, ‘08), the Philippine National Climbing Team manager, explains bouldering as climbing “a 15-foot wall na you basically solve [like] a puzzle.”

But as with any activity, especially ones that motivate you to stay in shape, there needs to be something that hooks one to keep doing it. “Like other puzzles, marami siyang levels. There’s easy, medium, intermediate, [and] hard and [there are] also a lot of styles,” Lim expresses.

In bouldering, the arrangement of the holds can be rearranged differently from wall to wall. These patterns of holds and volumes create paths called routes which affect the difficulty of a wall. In solving the said puzzles, discipline and a lot of mental fortitude are required, along with physical strength and dexterity.

But what makes bouldering an even more appealing sport is that anyone can engage in its activities, even children. Lim cites that some routes may be challenging to an athlete in their twenties, but at the same time, an eight-year-old would be able to climb the same wall. This is because body types are not as important as the climber’s strength-to-weight ratio.

Difficulties of an emerging sport

Though various disciplines of sport climbing have seen increasing coverage, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the progress of the sport and its athletes, especially in the Philippines where enforced lockdowns prevent the opening of gyms and athletic facilities.

Even the Philippine National Climbing Team’s training was “nowhere near normal” since many members are not situated in Metro Manila—with some even in other countries. Adjusting to this setup, the athletes resorted to personal training since there was no way of meeting together. Even those residing in Metro Manila had to follow suit as social gatherings were prohibited.

For Lim, managing a national team amid the global pandemic was a difficult task. In maintaining the team’s development and assuring its progress, finances also became a big factor.

“A lot of [the] members of our team [are] minimum wage earners. Some of them lost their jobs. So far, wala tayong full-time athlete… ‘yung earnings nila [do] not solely [come from being an athlete],” the team manager discloses.

Meanwhile, from an athlete’s point of view, the pandemic took away years of opportunities to train and to compete. “We aged and ‘yung playing years nabawasan din so it really affected the training and also ‘yung laro din,” Suarez laments. “‘Yung growth ng sport medyo nahinto rin kasi nawalan ng momentum—biglang na-cut ‘cause of the pandemic.”

(Our playing years were cut short, so it really affected our training and our play. The growth of the sport was kind of stunted as well because it lost its momentum—it was cut ‘cause of the pandemic.)

Fortunately, the availability of vaccines has allowed athletes and hobbyists to return to the climbing gyms. This slow return to normalcy also allows others to try climbing for the first time, with Lim mentioning that a lot of newcomers have been visiting gyms. He further points out that the communities these climbing gyms have cultivated change drastically over the pandemic and have since grown. “It’s interesting na parang during the pandemic, maraming new faces din…a lot of them I [have] never met. I think it’s slowly getting back and it’s also attracting a totally new set of people,” he remarks.

Setting clear goals

Currently, the Philippine team aims to achieve two things: to resume operations and training and to qualify for global tournaments like the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Climbing World Championships and the Olympics.

Despite not being able to fight for a slot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the sudden cancellation of the IFSC Asian Championships, the team has high hopes for the upcoming World Championships. “I think we can get there naman with the athletes we have pero it’s still a really, really hard qualifying process,” Lim shares.

On to the next

Although currently reliant on private funding and sponsorships, the team also eyes bigger improvements for the sport in the coming years—one of these includes grassroots programs. Since most of the climbing gyms in the Philippines are beginner-friendly, developing grassroots programs for those who are interested in the sport would not be a problem. The only hurdle if ever would be the opportunities to start and the resources to sustain such an ambitious project. “I think it’s one of the most important things din—to have a community of younger people,” Lim furthers.

The climbing community in the country is currently composed of those in their early 20s to mid-30s. There are only a few from the younger generations who would try out the sport, primarily because they feel “a little out of place due to the generation gap with the other climbers,” says Lim.

Looking for other ways to address this, the team manager also aspires to see the sport in collegiate leagues like the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the University Athletic Association of the Philippines. “Personally, I think dapat mauna ‘yung university level. Generally, climbing is not an expensive sport but ang facilities kasi mahal siya,” he points out. These collegiate leagues might eventually be the spark that the climbing industry has been waiting for to spotlight the sport.

(Personally, I think the university-level tournaments should be established first.)

Sharing these aspirations with Lim, Suarez hopes that there would be adequate facilities in the future that can cater to the different disciplines of the sport. As of now, the Philippines only has the facilities for bouldering and lead climbing, leaving no opportunities for athletes and hobbyists alike to explore speed climbing.

Moreover, Suarez hopes to see herself and the Philippine team at par with world-class athletes from neighboring countries like Indonesia and Japan, who are highly acclaimed in the sport. She is optimistic that eventually, the Philippine National Climbing Team will make an appearance in the Olympics and represent the country.

By Jaime de los Reyes

By Luis Agus

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