Sport

RISING CHAMP

South African speed climber sets sights on scaling Olympic heights

South African speed climber sets sights on scaling Olympic heights
Aniya Holder has qualified to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France, later this year. (Photo: Thomas Holder) | Aniya Holder at the 2023 Africa Champs. (Photo: Danie du Toit) |

Aniya Holder from Gqeberha is the only sportswoman who will be representing Africa in speed climbing at the 2024 Olympics.

In recent years, several new sports have been added to the Olympic Games. One of these is sport climbing, which made its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. It is made up of three disciplines: boulder, lead and speed climbing.

There will be only one sportswoman from Africa competing in the speed climbing category at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France – Aniya Holder (22) from Gqeberha in South Africa. She will be joined by one male speed climber, as well as a male and female climber in the boulder and lead category, in representing the region.

“It felt amazing [to qualify]. I had trained very hard… I put a lot of work into it, just to see what I could do,” said Holder.

“Having that goal and focusing on that was something I could put my mind to, and just keep going.”

She is just very driven. She puts her mind to something and then she makes it happen, and she puts in lots of work.

Holder secured her place at the 2024 Olympics during the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) African Qualifier in December 2023. At the qualifier, she completed the 15m sport climbing route in 11.33 seconds, more than two seconds faster than her nearest rival.

Reflecting on the significance of competing in a new Olympic sport, Holder said: “It’s very cool. It’s the first time that the three [climbing] disciplines have been separated. At the last Olympics, you had to do all three. So… each athlete had to be averagely good at everything, whereas most of the time speed climbers and boulder and lead climbers are not the same.”

Racing to the top

Speed climbing involves completing a standardised 15m route in as short a time as possible. It is currently the fastest Olympic sport, according to Jay-D Muller, Holder’s coach at the Valley Crag Indoor Climbing Centre in Gqeberha. While the speed climbing community in South Africa is currently quite small, he anticipates that there will be a rise in young athletes competing in the sport over the next few years.

Muller described Holder as “hard ­working” and “dedicated”, adding: “She is just very driven. She puts her mind to something and then she makes it happen, and she puts in lots of work.”

Holder’s path to the Olympics has not been easy. She started climbing at 14, with a focus on bouldering and lead climbing. However, she suffered two major injuries in a short time – broken fingers in late 2021 and a wrecked elbow in early 2022 – that took her off the wall “pretty much for good”.

“At the time… being injured and trying to go back to boulder and lead [climbing] and struggling at it was not very motivational. It was difficult,” she recalled. “Then my coach suggested that I try speed climbing because it’s a lot more straightforward. It doesn’t have such hard, compressed moves – it’s more running up the wall. I started that in October 2022 and then quickly fell in love with it, and I’ve been training since then.

“Starting speed climbing was like a fresh new slate. Progress was only going up – you’ve got nothing to compare yourself to because you’re starting out. There was no pressure; I was just doing it for fun. Obviously, now I’m quite competitive, so I put pressure on myself. But it’s fun.”

When Holder first started training to reach the IFSC African Qualifier, she didn’t realise it was a gateway to the Olympics. She had simply identified a series of competitions, culminating in the IFSC round, that she could use to push herself as an athlete.

“Once I found out that it was the Olympic qualifier, quite close to when I first started training, then I was like, ‘let’s go for it’,” she said.

Holder works as a route-setter for the bouldering section of the Valley Crag Indoor Climbing Centre, and as a coach for some of the other climbers. One of the challenges she has faced on the road to the Olympics is balancing training with a nine-to-five job.

“Everything so far has been self-funded, so that’s a bit of a struggle… We also don’t have a full-speed climbing wall. We just have a third of it. It’s usually 15m long and we’ve got 6m. We have to divide our wall into three pieces and then every few months, we change from the first piece to the second to the third, which is quite a mission and annoying to train on. If I want to train properly, I have to go all the way to Joburg, which is quite expensive,” she explained.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘It gives you the idea it doesn’t want to be climbed’ — SA mountaineers conquer the formidable K2

Holder is running a funding campaign for her Olympic journey on Thundafund under the tagline, “The Queen of Speed Climbing, SA, needs you”. Over the next few months, her training will involve many laps on the wall, trying to improve her speed. She will also be engaging in plyometrics and general fitness to increase her strength and power.

When asked if she had advice for aspiring speed climbers, she said: “If you want it hard enough, then make the sacrifice and go for it. Push hard and you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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