‘I’m a pregnant woman making decisions’: Shauna Coxsey on rock climbing — and the ‘bullyers’ who want her to stop | Sports
The week that her baby is due, Shauna Coxsey is at her local climbing center in Sheffield as usual. The British Olympic climber has been scaling walls and rocks throughout her pregnancy, and videos shared to her Instagram account show her moving upwards gracefully and powerfully, taking control of her body as she switches holds to cling to hers accommodate growing belly.
Her decision drew criticism — as she knew it — and she was forced to hit back at online “bullying.” First off, she says that with nearly 450,000 Instagram followers, she knows social media is “a place where you’ll be criticized no matter what you say.” But she had also seen the reaction of other women. “One of my good friends who is incredibly strong and confident gave up climbing because she couldn’t fault the judgment and funny looks she was getting late in pregnancy,” says Coxsey. “The idea that someone would stop doing something they absolutely love because of the verdict; It’s so sad that we’re in a position where this is still happening.”
She knows not every climber can continue climbing while pregnant, but wants people to know that for others, “it’s possible. I think it’s important that we share these positive stories and we know there is a choice. It’s not like we have to sit on the sofa every nine months.”
Climbing is as natural as humans. It’s part of how we used to survive
Of course, Coxsey isn’t the first woman to climb while pregnant. British climber Alison Hargreaves scaled the north face of the Eiger when she was almost six months pregnant in 1988, and other athletes, such as French climber Caroline Ciavaldini, have continued the sport throughout pregnancy. “I have pregnant friends who are still climbing,” says Coxsey. “They climb in their comfort zones, mitigate those risks and choose something that keeps them fit, active, healthy and happy.”
She was able to shrug off most of the negative comments, she says, but it’s “knowing other women are being judged, which is hard. I hope sharing empowers women to make their own decisions, and a small part of me hopes that some of the people judging might think twice next time.” She smiles. “Maybe that’s naive.”
Coxsey is grateful when other people point out that she’s an Olympic climber and knows how to climb safely, but she also doesn’t think that’s quite the right message. “I’m a pregnant woman making decisions,” she says simply as we chat over Zoom. When we’re done, she and her husband will go to the climbing wall. Today, she says with a laugh, they’ll strap a watermelon to his stomach so he can see what she’s dealing with.
Coxsey competed in the Tokyo Olympics last year. Photo: Tsuyoshi Ueda/Pool
She wasn’t exactly planning on climbing at that point, “because a lot of my success and happiness to date has come from pushing my limits and trying to be the best I could be. So I was curious if I would still enjoy climbing.” In fact, she has regained her love for the sport.
“There is so much more freedom and enjoyment in a very different way. When you turn your passion into your job, it’s difficult to stay in love with it.” This phase, she says, “brought everything back, filled me again”.
She had been training hard for the 2020 Olympics, which took place last year. It was climbing’s first time, but Coxsey knew before the Games it would be her last event as a competitive climber. Her goal now is to become an elite climber. The UK’s most successful competitive climber, she has climbed 30 World Championship podiums, including 11 gold medals, and won two world titles in bouldering.
Getting to the Olympics has meant years of hard work, dealing with injuries, multiple surgeries and then having to undergo rehab during lockdown. All of this, plus a back injury, meant she wasn’t at her best for the Games, where she finished 10th out of 20 women who qualified. The run-up, she says, “wasn’t pleasant at times, but I was so determined to get there and the fact that we actually made it feels like a great achievement.”
She always wanted to be a master rock climber. When she was four, she saw French climber Catherine Destivelle on TV and knew it was something for her. Her father took her to the local climbing center and “it felt like I should do it. I think climbing is as natural as humans; it’s part of how we used to survive. It’s a fundamental skill. You see children: they can climb; it is within us.”
“I need to climb for my body and my mind,” says Coxsey. Photo: Band of Birds
Coxsey, 29, grew up in Runcorn, mostly with her father (she has a large family of five older half-sisters and one half-brother). And as a child she climbed everything. “My father often came to the park to invite me to dinner. I was swinging on this rope swing and he said, ‘Is it safe?’” Yes, she replied — Coxsey had climbed up the tree and along the branch to see. She laughs. “It was a huge tree. I see it when I go home and I ask myself: why did I climb up there?”
It’s not really about bravery, she says. “I wouldn’t say I was the bravest climber. I think it’s more the ability to assess risks that my father instilled in me.” As an IT consultant, he also rode trials bikes. “He comes from a world that’s all about taking risks and pushing yourself, so he’s always been a great encouragement to me.”
Although ambitious from the start – she started competing at the age of seven – she didn’t know it was possible to become a professional climber until she did. It was a male-dominated sport, although less so today, she says (thanks probably in part to Coxsey, who created the Women’s Climbing Symposium to encourage women to take up the sport). “Not only are there more women; It attracts more people of all ages, backgrounds and minorities and makes sure people feel welcome in this space.”
Coxsey worked with a physical therapist specializing in women’s health throughout her pregnancy. What might seem risky to a casual observer is well within their comfort zone. “And that comfort zone changes based on how I’m feeling that day, and it changes throughout pregnancy as I’ve changed.”
Her husband often accompanies her and may try a route first, if she is unsure of the stop or movement then they discuss it. He might tell her it’s beyond what she wants to do or advise her to take a break.
There are climbs she can’t do, “like super steep stuff – I don’t want to put too much strain on my abs”. Leaning into a rock face is tough with a bump in the way. Pregnancy can loosen ligaments, and Coxsey knows women who have had to stop climbing because it hurt their hands too much. “My hips are a little looser, but they still feel very strong,” she says. She doesn’t pressure herself to rush back to training and vigorous climbing after the birth of her baby, but will do it move by move, like climbing in pregnancy. “If I don’t climb for a week, I really don’t feel good. I have to climb, for my body and my mind.”