At just fifteen years of age, Angie Scarth-Johnson is one of Australia’s most prolific rock climbers — but don’t let her age fool you. By the time she was nine, she was already a world-record holder.
Since then, Scarth-Johnson has competed all over the world, most recently at the International Federation of Sport Climbing Youth World Championships in Arco, Italy.
Now, the elite climber has her sight’s on the biggest challenge of her career thus far. Qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
In an exclusive interview with TheLatch—, the athlete talks about her road to the qualifiers — including how the coronavirus has impacted her training schedule and what it could mean for her Olympic dreams.
NB: This interview took place before the Oceania Olympic qualifiers had been postponed due to coronavirus, with no new date set.
Anita Lyons: Hi Angie, you must be so excited! The qualifiers are just around the corner. How does it feel to be competing?
Angie Scarth-Johnson: I am honoured to have made the top eight female athletes to be up for selection in the Oceania Olympic qualifier round in March, and I feel so fortunate to have grown alongside this sport.
AL: How has the sport of rock climbing evolved since you started at the age of eight?
ASJ: The community in Australia was very small and it wasn’t a ‘normal’ sport to get into as a kid. I definitely didn’t know of anyone who did it outside the established community. When I spoke about it at school, the sport never had the same respect as people had for soccer or swimming, and my climbing achievements were nothing they could relate to or recognise.
But, I was never interested in regular school sports and so I had to find the passion for climbing within myself.
Being a lover of nature and with the influence of likeminded people, I took myself into the whole new world of outdoor climbing, as I grew older I found a passion for both as they both mentally and physically offered me a different experience. Over the years, I noticed the ripple effect of word-of-mouth and friends bringing more friends into the small community of climbing, which is now fast becoming a mainstream sport.
If you told the 8-year-old me that climbing would be an Olympic sport, I would look around at the empty climbing centre and laugh at you.
AL: How does it feel to be competing in a sport that is now recognised at the Olympics?
ASJ: With the announcement of climbing being included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, I was sure this meant something new for me however it took me a while to make the decision to go for it as it meant no outdoor climbing for quite some time.
AL: You’ve recently had a setback with your health and your plans derailed by the coronavirus. Can you explain what happened?
ASJ: The coronavirus has had a huge impact on me. I had been in Europe, Innsbruck Austria for three-and-a-half-months in the lead up to the qualifiers to train and we left just in time before they closed the borders.
I had a bit of a cold so we chose to self-quarantine to do the right thing for our community, however, this has meant no training since I’ve been back.
I’m in the clear now, but there is only one week left before the qualifiers and I’ve lost valuable time. I have tried to keep fit at home by running on the treadmill, weight training and doing pull-ups, but it’s really not the same.
My great grandmother is 95-years-old and I needed to do my part to try and contain the virus at any cost even though I was not considered to have been high risk.
“I’m in the clear now, but there is only one week left before the qualifiers and I’ve lost valuable time.”
UPDATE (after initial interview): I guess I’m quite happy with this outcome apart from it being the right thing to do because now I have time to make up any training I’ve lost during my time off.
AL: What do you need to qualify?
ASJ: There are three disciplines in climbing for the Olympics. Speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing. They are very different types of climbing from each other and require different muscles, body sizes, tactics and techniques to become good at.
Although there are a few ways to qualify for climbing in the coming Olympics, I will be attempting to qualify through the continental qualifier event which only allows one female and one male to go through. For me, this is the only chance I get because I am too young to qualify through any of the other options.
AL: How do you prepare for the qualifiers emotionally and mentally, not just physically?
ASJ: Mentally preparing is and will always be just as important, if not more than physical performance. An athlete’s performance in a training gym can be pretty different in the real competition scene. When you’re finally exposed to the pressure and nerves you can start to second guess yourself knowing that this is now your moment to perform. Strength lays with something so much more powerful than our body’s and it’s our minds.
As cliché as it is to say: “believe in yourself”, it’s really the most powerful thing you could do. Finding that balance between calmness and drive to mentally push yourself to your maximum is something I believe nobody can teach you and that’s what makes it so powerful.
Meditating has helped me keep my cool for both indoor competing and outdoor climbing but it’s hard to know if that alone pushes me to my full potential.
I’m still looking for my complete “stay cool” mode attitude when I compete because competing is still new to me and it takes time to learn how your brain self-sabotages and what to do to stop it before it does.
AL: Climbing can be perceived as a male-dominated sport, how has this changed in recent years?
ASJ: Climbing was perceived as a male-only sport for a very long time and has evolved over time, especially in the indoor scene which is completely driven youth — this means that sexism has been driven out.
There is always the question of whether a woman is taken as seriously, but climbing is definitely fair play.
I hope other young girls will look to me one day as I did to my female role models and will see that we deserve every bit of respect and a fair-go, and with that, we will truly show you what we can become.
AL: What needs to change for females in sport?
ASJ: Society has to see women sport with the same recognition and importance as men. Women need to be given the same training opportunities and facilities as everyone else.
To be an athlete it takes a lot of sacrifice and determination, no matter what gender you are born and it is only right that females are given the same respect.
There must be equality in things like sponsorships and prize money and it is ridiculous we are not at that level of equality yet, but I am in a sport that is now changing those perceptions.
We still have a lot of growing to do but I am so grateful for the great woman in history that has made it possible for me to do what I love today.
AL: You’re so young and are kicking goals rapidly. What would you like to tell other teenagers about pursuing their sporting dreams?
ASJ: If you wish to pursue a dream, no matter what it may be, never going into it half-heartedly. You are truly capable of the unimaginable but only if you truly believe it.
Nobody can push you harder than yourself and every opportunity that is given, must be taken because the good ones don’t come around a second time.
One of the hardest things I’ve learnt over the past few years, was that criticism is your best friend and it’s only there to help you.
Being a self-taught athlete was really hard for me because I always thought my idea of how something should be done was better than even a professional coaches advice, but I’ve learnt that even though I think I’m never wrong, I am a lot of the time and learning from others is the best thing you can do for your growth.
AL: What would it mean to be an Olympian?
ASJ: Climbing has taught me how important it is to sometimes sit back and acknowledge how far you’ve come, allowing you to recognise the incredible human you are and everything you’re capable of becoming.
It’s not a bad thing to think to yourself “wow, I’m so proud I’ve come this far and I have worked hard to be where I’m at today”. You’re not going to win every battle with yourself and it really takes those 100 ‘feel bad days’ to gain those rewarding 2 or 3 successful days.
My biggest goal now is to make it to the Olympics and for that to really happen for me would be life-changing. I would be in tears.
To have the honour of representing Australia as a young woman in this incredible sport that I’ve given nothing but my all in would be beyond words.