You became World Champion in 2009 after having climbed for only three years. In your first Russian Cup in 2006, you became 53rd. How did you discover climbing? What happened between 2006 and 2009?
Nothing special happened, I just trained. When I started in November 2005, I was a complete beginner. My progression was steady.
I started studying at the University in Moscow when I was 17. You were supposed to choose a sport. Climbing seemed to be one of the more interesting sports and I had never tried it before. In fact, it was completely new, I didn't even know it existed before. I didn't go straight into sport climbing however. Initially, it was mostly alpinism. We mostly ran and did physical training, there was very little climbing. We were preparing for mountains. Half a year later, I decided I was better at climbing and stopped with the alpine stuff.
Around the time that you started, Dmitrii Sharafutdinov and Salavat Rakhmetov had great results in bouldering. Rustam Gelmanov was also very strong. How did this influence your career and approach?
A year and a half after starting climbing, I began training with Rustam Gelmanov. I never had a coach in my whole life. When I started climbing, I always trained with guys that were stronger than me. Once I had reached their level, I changed training partners. Within a bit more than a year, I was training with Rustam. In Moscow, most climbers were not stronger than me. I think this approach works very well for beginners.
Now this would probably not work anymore.
No. I am sure that if you start now, it's impossible to win the World Championships within four years. The level is much higher now, and the sport is a lot more complex than it was 5 or 10 years ago.
Did you do another sport before climbing?
Two sports. I picked up Kung Fu when I was 10 and did that for two years. I was good at Kung Fu and those two years gave me a lot. I developed good flexibility, which I have maintained, even if it is no longer as good. Plus, I learned technique and precision. When I was 14 I was in track and field for one year. But I was the worst in my section all year long and hated it. I was also very active in general at a young age.
What played a bigger role in your development: talent or hard work?
The first three or four years, I was helped by my talent. But you know, a lot of young climbers start, make good results, and then they get worse. For me it was the same. When I stopped to progress, I tried to find new ways to improve my level. I always did this analysis by myself. Except for the two years during which I trained with Rustam, where I did what he did.
From 2009 on, I trained by myself exclusively. I made a lot of mistakes and lost a lot of shape. Especially in 2012, where I completely changed my training system. I then even stopped competing in 2012 and 2013. Now, I have found a good way, but I have lost a lot of health, shape and power to find it.
I feel that I can be really good in climbing - always. I just had to find the right way. During the two years in which I didn't compete, I was thinking a lot. I read a lot of books and talked with smart people. I built my program. And I am basically still using this program.
You also studied at university.
Yes, I studied at the Aviation University until 2012. My major was in IT Technology.
Did you apply the approach you learnt there in your climbing?
I think it is very important to have higher education. Because if you are smart in general, you can be smart everywhere. I think it is important study. It is important to use your brain. The brain is the most important part in climbing. Maybe not in speed (laughs), but in bouldering for sure.
At the 2009 World Championships, you took the Bouldering title. Rustam Gelmanov had been a sort of mentor for you before. How did the title influence your relationship with him?
From that moment on, we never trained together again.
You did some Lead competitions in 2017. Was that because you want to do the Combined format?
Yes, only because of the Olympics. I had already made one try in 2016. It was kind of an experiment, I need to know what I should do to be good in two disciplines. Last year, I competed in Villars, before that, I did no lead training, but I was in really good shape. I became 12th in qualifications and 17th in semi-finals. I got confident that I could easily finish in the Top 20. Then I trained Lead, and I see the result: it was a little worse. I am not sure about how much to train lead.
Do you talk to coaches to get advice?
How to say... there are no coaches in which I believe 100%. Almost all the advice I have gotten from coaches was not so smart. I don't believe that we have super good coaches in climbing at the moment.
Because we don't see great results, except for the Japanese Bouldering team. But they don't share anything with anyone. All I see now in Bouldering in Europe: it is not good. I have been training for 10 years. When I talk with a coach and he tells me something and I know that I trained that way before 2012 and it doesn't work, then I know my system is better. I then can't trust this coach for advice in Lead climbing, because when you have no good plan for Bouldering, why should you have one for Lead?
In men's Bouldering, the Europeans had a lot of trouble last season. What were their mistakes, you think?
I think they should work more. All I see is old school training. The Japanese are really good because they worked hard to find new ways that no one knew before. They think about other sports, and combine the knowledge from different sports for climbing. They have a lot of coaches that all work together. In Europe, every coach thinks that he's the smartest one and his system is the best. They are authoritarian. But they should understand that they know nothing and start their education from zero. Five or ten years ago, their system worked because there were not a lot of super strong climbers. But the level increased, while their education did not. I can't tell you what I do, because that is my secret. Laughs.
Let's look at the general approach. Is it too focused on climbing?
Yes, exactly. It should be wider. Not only climbing. In Lead, I think it's okay to focus on climbing! But in Bouldering, the challenge is very new. If you want to be good in Bouldering, you should do something new.
I think it'll be more obvious in a few years. I thought about my training a lot in 2016 and changed things for 2017. Every season, I understand a bit more and fine tune my program.
That sounds dire for European climbers.
I see nothing that I would want to copy from them. Some Europeans can be very good in one style, like the French in Paris 2016 and the Germans in Munich. I think it's only due to the style of the route setting. The Japanese team is good in a lot of different setting styles. Their weaknesses are small. This is the basic rule of training: Don't train your strength, train your weaknesses. But you need to follow it correctly. If you are strong in your hands, but bad in coordination, you should not work your coordination in climbing. You should do another sport for a few months, where coordination is important and a challenge. You need to widen your repertoire to improve, not focusing on small things, but on the big picture.
Since you have started bouldering, the sport has changed a lot. Where do you think it's headed?
Yes, it is a completely different sport now. I don't know what the future will be like. Every year, things change a little bit. It will probably rely more on being dynamic and flexible. I think we'll never return to just crimps and slopers where all you need are strong hands.
How important is the mental aspect for you? You have a reputation for being extremely focused before and during competitions.
Yes. Sometimes I am very focused and I do well, sometimes not, and I don't do well. At the moment, I have a big problem with the most important competitions of the year, which I have not been successful at in the last years. I don't really know why. I made it nine years ago at the World Championships, and since it has been difficult. This is kind of a dark place for me.
There are a lot of people that want to talk to me before a competition and I can't open up to them. In World Cups, I travel alone and it's easy to be focused. At the Championships, the team travels together. We have meetings, communicating with people, that makes everything harder. It is better for me to be alone.
How about rock climbing?
I don't go often. Maybe a bit more than a month total per year. Because I focus on the comps. That's how I pay the bills. When I go rock climbing, it's my vacation. I am a professional sport climber, I make a living from prize money and federation support. I don't have big sponsors, even if that got better in 2017. I got my first money sponsor in 2016. So, rock climbing was purely for pleasure. If I wanted to rock climb more, I would have to get a job. Just yesterday I went climbing with a rope in Zillertal. I love easy rock climbing. 6c-7a is perfect.
Will you be at the 2018 World Championships in Innsbruck this year?
Yes. I will try to be on the Olympic team. But for me, September is the worst time. I am usually best in April, May and June. I need to adapt for the World Championships.
Are the Olympic Games a big goal for you?
The Olympics are extremely important in my country. If you are an Olympic athlete, you have really good support. So being in the Olympic team is really important for me, but it is hard.
How do you like the new gym in Innsbruck?
I like it a lot! It is the most beautiful gym ever.
What do you think about the format in Bouldering?
I think it's perfect. I know that there is talk about changes, but I like none of these suggestions. They are too far from bouldering, I hope it stays the same.
Would increasing the number of bonus holds make it better?
On the contrary. You could maybe remove the bonus, even. You can do the boulder, or you can't. Bouldering is good. One bonus, two bonuses, ten bonuses, ... what is that? It's not Bouldering.
Do you want to become a coach in the future?
That is a really hard question. I already worked a bit as a fitness coach for a few years. I would only want to be a climbing coach if I was sure that I know how to make people better.
Will you continue to climb after your competition career ends?
Yes, for sure. I really like climbing.
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Mountains or beach? Mountains
Fontainebleau or Rocklands? Rocklands
Season WC winner or World Champion? World Cup
The most impressive competitor ever? Adam Ondra
The best problem in the world? Dreamtime, Cresciano
Your favourite moment as a climber? Munich 2015, when I won my first WC after the break, definitely.
Interview by Ben Lepesant, all photos courtesy of Aleksei Rubtsov
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