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By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Shauna Coxsey admits her first serious attempt at speed climbing left her thinking that the Olympics were not for her after all.
As a child she fell in love with lead climbing and for the past decade the 28-year-old Briton has been one of the world's best boulderers. But when sport climbing was added to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics programme, it created a dilemma.
To win gold medal a climber must excel in three very different disciplines -- lead, bouldering and speed -- and while the first two are as natural to Coxsey as walking, the last took her out of her comfort zone.
Lead, commonly seen on rock faces with climbers using ropes and clipping into fixed bolts, tests strength and endurance.
Bouldering requires Houdini-like dexterity and puzzle-solving skills with an un-roped climber picking a path across a wall no higher than four metres high and adorned with coloured holds resembling huge chunks of candy.
Speed climbing is basically vertical sprinting.
"It's been a fascinating process on many different levels," Red Bull-backed athlete Coxsey, one of 20 women who will be competing for gold at this year's delayed Olympics, told Reuters. "I love being in the flow, climbing precisely and being in control.
"But speed climbing you sort of have to let go and fight your way up the wall. It's scrappy and intense and fast-paced and not an area that felt natural to me previously."
With every 15m speed climbing wall having the same layout, it is easy to rank who is the quickest.
Russia's Iuliia Kaplina holds the women's world record of 6.9 seconds while the men's record is held by Iran's Reza Alipourshenazandifar who rocketed to the top in 5.48 seconds.
"When I started preparing for the Olympics I was most nervous about speed climbing. I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I do and that I would get addicted to the adrenaline and watching my times get quicker," Coxsey, who was initially sceptical about the three-disciplined Olympic format, said.
"It's been a steep learning curve, piecing it all together, working on little sections, doing the same thing every session. It felt like a completely different sport. It's been refreshing and eye-opening because the improvements are so tangible."
If anything, the delay to the Olympics caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that also scuppered Coxsey's wedding plans, means the 2016 and 2017 overall World Cup bouldering champion, will arrive in Tokyo even better prepared.
She underwent knee surgery late last year to fix a problem left over from a first operation and brought forward wrist surgery. And while the lockdowns shut many of Britain's climbing walls, she has trained hard in the basement of her Sheffield house she shares with fiance Ned Feehally.
Former British champion Feehally invented a piece of kit known as the Beastmaker, a wood block with holes that is mounted on a wall and which climbers hang from to build up finger strength. He has also built two climbing walls for Coxsey.
"We were fortunate to find a house with a big basement and he hand-carved every single hold that's on our wall. It's a labour of love," Coxsey said.
"It's really a beautiful piece of artwork and it feels like a bit of a crime to climb on it!"
Coxsey says the one-year delay to climbing making its debut at the Olympics has intensified her excitement, even if the Games will be muted by strict COVID-19 protocols.
"It's my first Games so I have nothing to compare it with," she said. "Without being able to compete much it's hard to know where everyone's at in their preparations but if anything that will make it even more exciting."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)