Climbing joins the Olympic Movement in two years’ time, and Molly Thompson-Smith hopes to scale the heights in Tokyo.
Thompson-Smith, a 24-time national title winner at just 20 years old, is the ideal poster figure for a sport making its debut at the XXXII Summer Games, and one seeking to squeeze itself into Britain’s mainstream. An infectious personality with an unmistakeable passion for her sport, she speaks with the steel of a serial winner combined with a sense of humour that epitomises the balance between work and life that has seen her stock rise exponentially.
Two years ago, Thompson-Smith admits, she believed that her race was run. “I thought I’d trained hard, but my performance wasn’t reflecting the work I thought I’d put in. I was just finishing school and I went travelling. I had plans to stay out there for many months, but I actually came home after three.
“Then I had the best season of my life after a short period of training. I’ll always come back from the low moments and that’s how I know that I’ve picked the right sport for me and that it’s what I want to do with my life. The Olympics will come and they’ll go and I’ll try my best to be there. But at the end of the day I really like climbing and competing and the bad spells are just part of competing at elite level.”
As she recalls her aborted gap year to Thailand, Thompson-Smith cannot help but chuckle at the circumstances that would build up to the most successful year of her competitive life. “I was meant to be away from January to September,” she says. “But I came home in April. The lack of climbing walls, and not being able to train twice a day – I missed that after about two weeks. I stuck it out for a bit longer to make sure, but then I came home. I realised that I’ll never be able to go away on a holiday without being able to climb or train. The only time I really enjoyed it was when I was climbing on rocks.”
If such an attitude put pay to the trip of a lifetime, it has been a major factor in the resurgence of Thompson-Smith as an athlete. “Last year was a whirlwind,” she says. “A lot of it came so quickly. It’s hard to carry on when it happens so fast. You have so much expectation on you and so much pressure and, for me, I don’t feel much better than I was before. I don’t even know how some of it happened.
“I got a lot of attention straight away when I won my World Cup medal and to people who didn’t really know about me, I was seen as a new person on the scene when really, I had competed at that same competition for six years. I wasn’t new at all – it was strange.
“My coach had to coax me back on to the wall when I went to the first competition after my break because I wasn’t prepared,” she says. “Everyone else had had months of training and I’d just been messing about in Thailand for a few months! But then I came 14th at the European Championships and I realised that it wasn’t too bad.
“I think everything felt like it had come together last year when I got my medal at the World Cup. With the national titles, I’m really competitive and hard on myself, but those national titles are things that I felt I deserved because I’d worked really hard for them.
“With the World Cup, though, my goal for last year was to have a top ten ranking position in one event. I basically knocked all my goals out of the park last year. I think just the fact that I’d come back from travelling and had two months to prepare made that a highlight. I never thought two months would be enough.”
That Thompson-Smith became the first British woman to win a World Cup medal when she took bronze in Slovenia late last year, is in no small part down to her support network. Her mother, Angela, plays netball, while father Tony is assistant manager of Queens Park Rangers Ladies. Their role as parents who understand the travails of elite sport, she explains, has been imperative to her development.
“My parents are both sports fans,” she says. “They watch a load of it, they do it themselves, they know that nothing is certain in sport. It is really up and down. It’s never just an upward trajectory. They understand that I’ll have dips and I’ll peak. Having someone who’s there for you the entire time, rather than having people who latch on to you when you’re successful and forget who you are when you have a bad year. I think them understanding and being people who I can just go and talk to is just really important.
“On top of that, they have a real appreciation for the hard work I’m putting in. It’s just so nice to come home and have supportive parents. I know other people with really pushy parents and parents who think they know stuff. My dad has never tried to tell me what he thinks I should be doing. He just says, ‘You are working with your people. I’ll be here to support you if you need it’. I value that so much.”
The nature of her upbringing also means that the pressures caused by UK Sport’s funding of climbing ahead of the Olympics are unlikely to affect Thompson-Smith. “As a competition climber, I’ve had to fund everything since I started competing,” she explains. “We have never had funding so it’s not really much of a change. We’ve just had the criteria for the funding and it’s really high. Currently, I’m not sure anyone qualifies for it.
“It’s good to have goals and to be motivated towards reaching those targets. But, then again, we’ve done it without funding and I’m sure we have the talent to do it again. It’s just that the funding would be helpful.”
In the long-term, however, funding would assist Thompson-Smith with her dream. Having been given the opportunity as a Sky Scholar to focus full-time on her climbing, the notion of leaving the sphere of competitive sport is one that she can hardly bring herself to consider.
“Hopefully with the Olympics, climbing can become a bit more mainstream and it can gain a bit more backing and support. Then it won’t be such a hard choice for young people to commit to going to their climbing wall. I went to visit a Sky call centre the other day and three of the people there said they were going to try climbing, and that made my week. If one person starts and finds something they love, then that’s good enough for me.”
Sky Sports and the Women’s Sport Trust have partnered to encourage everyone to show up and support women in sport by watching, attending or playing this summer. Be a part of the campaign by sharing your experiences of women’s sport on social using #ShowUp
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Friend graduated with a degree in Modern Languages from Durham University, where he was sports editor of the student newspaper, Palatinate. He has edited Sports Gazette for St Mary’s University since September 2017, and was runner-up in the 2018 David Welch Young Sportswriter competition. Nick, an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. In more delusional times he had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. Now he counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessarily in-depth knowledge of all three. Nick’s latest articles