Under normal circumstances, sport climber Colin Duffy practices with Team ABC in Boulder, Colorado, three times per week after his 10th-grade classes let out. He returns to the facility on the weekends for more time in the gym, and he occasionally climbs outdoors.
But just a few weeks after the 16-year-old secured the final climbing spot on the U.S. Olympic team with his March 1 performance at the Pan-American Championships, the novel coronavirus pandemic upended his usual training regimen, closing gyms.
So now he’s confined to his home, and the 9-foot wall surrounded by mats and a mattress in his family’s basement is the new incubator for his dreams of Tokyo, where sport climbing will make its debut.
“I think I’ll look back at March, and just the craziness of it all will really stick out,” said Duffy, whose schoolwork and upcoming Advanced Placement exams have migrated online.
Athletes such as Duffy who have qualified for the 2020 Games will keep their spots, so he sees this as an extra year to grow and improve. For now, he maintains his muscle memory and finger strength on the wall his family added to the basement about five years ago. The wall has a few small panels with changing angles, which makes it a bit awkward, but Duffy still gets in workouts about four or five times per week.
“I try to follow as close to a routine as I would if I was at my home gym,” he said.
Duffy starts by warming up his fingers and body, beginning with simple movements and holds. He then works through specific drills – hanging with one arm or one-arm pullups, again starting with large holds, called jugs, and then progressing to more difficult ones. On a small hold, he’ll try to hang as long as he can to improve his strength.
Duffy creates sequences in his head and then performs them on the wall. He can change and reset the holds, so even the small wall presents endless possibilities. Duffy works on his endurance by doing circuits, climbing up and down to simulate what it would feel like to hang for an extended period.
“The mental aspect of competitions is a lot different than just climbing outdoors or just a session at the gym, so keeping the mind strong during this time is also really important,” Duffy said. “Competitions have that extra level of pressure and stress that can’t really be replicated when just training.”
At home, it’s difficult to train for speed climbing, one of three disciplines in the Olympic format. In a head-to-head competition, climbers race to the top of a 15-meter wall along identical routes.
The basement wall also isn’t conducive to dynamic movements – often called dynos – when a climber’s hands and feet both leave the wall as he jumps.
“I can’t really re-create that having only a 9-foot wall,” Duffy said. “A lot of times, those types of sequences take up tons of space.”
Duffy instead stays prepared through conditioning. Exercises such as pistol squats help build the required leg power, so even if it takes a short time to regain the muscle memory, he said, “my body will be physically in shape enough” to execute those moves.
On a video call twice a week, Duffy works with a personal trainer, who helps him strengthen his core through plank- and pushup-based exercises. Duffy also shares virtual workouts with his team a few days a week.
Duffy hasn’t climbed outdoors since the pandemic interrupted his usual training. He noted, “The virus can still spread even in the mountains, so it’s definitely best to stay home and keep everyone safe.”
Videos of other climbers scaling the walls of their houses and hanging from kitchen countertops have circulated on social media. Duffy posted a clip of him climbing a rocky pillar outside his home, but that was more for fun than any serious training.
“I’ve been trying to keep it all to my wall,” he said. “A lot of people have tried to climb all their door frames, but I don’t think my parents, when I have my own wall, would appreciate that.”
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