Interview – Campbell Harrison on 2016

We speak to one of Australia’s best competitive climbers, Campbell Harrison, about his recent travels overseas to compete on the World Cup circuit and at the World Championships. 

All photos by Yvette Harrison

This was your second season on the World Cup circuit, how did it compare to your first?
Last year’s season didn’t really go to plan… I was registered for three IFSC competitions: a Boulder WC in Munich, Lead WC in Stavanger and the World Youth Championships in Arco. I only managed to start in one, however, after rupturing a finger pulley mid-round in Munich. It gave me a taste for the World Cups and a real desire to return. This year I registered for six competitions, and was able start in all of them! It was much longer than last year’s trip, but certainly far more successful, and I was able to learnt a lot more.

Campbell competing in the bouldering at the World Youth Championships in China.

Campbell competing in the bouldering at the World Youth Championships in China.

Can you tell us a little bit about how the season proceeded and how you found each event?
Well, if there’s one thing that can be said, it’s that World Cups are hard. Really hard. If not just for the routes themselves, which usually range between grade 30 and 32 for qualifications, they are mentally exhausting. With every event I found myself getting more comfortable with the process of competing in a World Cup. Warm up areas are cramped, and often super intimidating if you let yourself get distracted. As I found myself getting more comfortable with the idea of competing in WC’s, I was putting more pressure on my actual performance. As such I never really found my rhythm, no matter how sure I was that I could climb better. I definitely saw lots of improvements in my approach as the season neared its end, and so overall it was a very satisfying experience.

What were the highlights?
Basically any time I managed to sneak into the top 40 on a route! The standard is super high, and so this was an underlying goal of mine throughout the season. I think I did my best climbing in my second qualifiers in Briancon and Arco. These were two routes where I really felt like I was able to give everything and came off the wall feeling genuinely satisfied. Putting performance aside, the World Championships in Paris was the single best and most exciting competition I have ever attended. It has been a dream of mine to compete there for a number of years and it managed to be everything I’d ever dreamed it would.

Were there any low points, and what did you learn from them?
In Villars, my second competition of the season, I felt the desire to perform so strongly that I slipped off at what was more or less the start of both routes, giving me my worst placing of the season. I kind of forgot that results will come with time, and that my priority needs to be enjoying the experience, and learning as much as possible.

In Imst I let my temper get the best of me after what felt like a really disappointing round, which is something I’m not proud of. It forced me to reconsider my perspective on competing, and shake up my mental approach going into the very last competition of the season.

Campbell competing in his first international speed event in China – he got to the top of the wall in 14.49 seconds.

Campbell competing in his first international speed event in China – he got to the top of the wall in 14.49 seconds.

Is there anything you are going to change about your physical or mental preparation before next season?
Physically I’m going to take the time to focus more specifically on Lead, as it’s my preferred discipline, and I think I need to make it a priority if I want to achieve my goals. I’d also like to fine tune my basic health and fitness by rounding out my diet and training regimes. My fingers have given me a bit of trouble in the last couple of years and tend to be a weakness of mine, so taking the time to rehabilitate and strengthen them is a must!

Mentally, I think that finding a passion or interest outside of climbing could help me de-stress more effectively, increasing the efficiency with which I train each day.

What can you tell us about the mind games climbers play to gain an advantage over their World Cup opponents? We are thinking here about the classic study in competition mind games, Pumping Iron (which is well worth a look if you haven’t seen it).
That’s a really interesting question. Personally, I didn’t feel anyone really playing ‘mind games’ with me. Everybody was generally very friendly, and fairly forthcoming with beta and advice in the Lead comps. Bouldering felt a little different, as people definitely try to show-off what they’ve got whilst in the warm up area… But I’m not so sure if this was about psyching others out, but more so it helps certain athletes feel confident in their abilities before stepping up to the wall, which is a must in these comps.

Big teams and their coaches do tend to dominate and control large portions of wall space, and will give you a dirty look if you cross through the path of a circuit they’re running. Ultimately, though, there’s not enough room for you to simply step out of the way, and you almost have to continue warming up as if nobody else was around.

All of that said, I was never really on anybody’s competitive radar, and as far as I know this could all be very different in the later rounds of the comp!

Assuming you are going to compete next season, have you set any goals for what you’d like to achieve?
I’m trying hard not to set any numerical goals for next year’s comps, I just want to work on my consistency and confidence within the World Cups.

Campbell competing during the lead event in China.

Campbell competing during the lead event in China.

You were travelling with a bunch of other Australians who were also competing, what was the feeling like travelling together? How would you describe the functioning of the team?
It was really great having the team there whilst travelling. Everyone was fairly new to the World Cup scene, and as such I could really feel the support of knowing that we were all in the same boat. Of course, it was a three month trip, and we all butted heads in one way or another, but that’s a natural part of travelling. We were all super supportive of each other in and out of training, and we never missed a team mate’s climb if we could help it.  

How do you stay healthy when you are travelling to compete?
This can be really tough sometimes! Making sure that you get enough sleep is step one, I think. Find yourself sleep-deprived for too long and you will get sick. Eating the right foods and the right amount of food is super important, too. Obviously you want to stay fit and lean over the course of the season, but without the right intake you’ll run out of energy to train. Alongside this, keeping on top of any injuries and injury prevention routines are crucial.

What advantages do European climbers have over competitors from the SoHem? Do we have any advantages down here in the SoHem?
I don’t like making excuses for Australian athletes, or anyone from the Southern Hemisphere for that matter, but no one can argue that we aren’t disadvantaged, at least to an extent. The competition scene, as well as the gym and training culture is far more developed in Europe, and they’ve got the coaches to bring all of it together. I think, however, being generally distanced from international competition here in Aus, that we have a really great appreciation for the privilege of being able to compete at such a level.

What have you found to be the biggest difference between the way the indoor competition scene is run in Europe and the way it is run here?
I don’t know if I really got an idea of how comps are run in general, as the World Cups are in a league of their own. The elite level does seem to be a bit higher… But with the growth that we’ve seen in recent years, and the increase in the number of young athletes looking to push their abilities to another level, I think Australia will reach this with time.

We’ve read somewhere that you are primarily focused on indoor climbing over outdoor climbing, so much so that you will stay in Melbourne on weekends to train rather than go outdoors, what is it about indoor climbing that inspires you more than outdoor climbing?
I’ve had people say to me that they’ve heard that I don’t like climbing outdoors at all, and this simply isn’t true – I love climbing outside! I really do, it’s just not totally in line with my goals at the moment. When I compare where I am in my competitive climbing to where I want to be, I feel like my time is better spent at the gym rather than out on rock. Inside, I can change my environment to align with my focus for the day, and have a range of tools at my disposal to aid in the training process. One day, my priorities will shift and I’ll be spending more time outside, but at the moment the gym – and in the comps – is where I want to be.

On the other hand, I don’t have a car… or a license… but I’m working on it!! And once that happens, things should change a bit.

Aside from your indoor goals, do have goals that you want to achieve outdoors in the coming years?
For the most part my time outside has been spent bouldering in the Grampians, so I’d like to broaden my horizons by exploring more world-class locations across the globe, and throughout Australia. Bouldering is great, but I really want to get on rope a little more, and get a feeling for where my limit is!  

You train a lot with James Kassay, one of Australia’s most successful and experienced competitors, how much has it helped you to train with him? And has he given you any important advice along the way that you can share with us?
James is one of my really good mates,  and we have a healthy competition going on when we climb together. He usually cooks me on the boulders… But that keeps me on my toes and reminds me that if I want to top the problem I’m going to have to put in my all. Aside from all of the advice he’s given me in specific regard to the competitions, he’s helped me find the difference between when I’m ‘trying’ and when I’m really TRYING! Drawing off of his own advice and experience has allowed me to formulate my own style and techniques that I can employ when climbing and competing.

If you had to choose one, which would it be: Adam Ondra’s drop knee, Rustam Gemanov’s finger strength (which comes with a free mullet) or Jakob Schubert’s stamina?
Schubert has been someone I’ve looked up to since I first became interested in competition climbing, and his stamina gives him an ability to fight to an extent that is rarely seen, even in elite climbers. So that would have to be my pick.

Who are your sponsors?
I’m sponsored by La Sportiva Australia, Edelrid, TRI-Climbing, Force of Nature Coaching, Climb ICP, and Friction Addiction.

In between sending out the questions and getting Campbell’s responses, he competed in the World Youth Championships in China, so we asked him one more question. How did it go and how did it feel finishing up your junior career at the World Youth Championships in China?
My emotions towards my last World Youths are a bit mixed… I’m happy to have made my baseline goal of top twenty in Lead, but at the same time I think I had hoped for a little more, to be perfectly honest. I had a lot of goals for my Youth career that weren’t fully realised. I doubted myself too much, and so I have to find a new mental approach going forward into my senior career to really make it count!

On a more positive note though, I still had a brilliant time, and enjoyed competing across all three disciplines more than I had expected!

You can follow Campbell’s adventures here.

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