By Jung Min-ho
When 12-year-old Kim Ja-in looked up at a climbing wall for the first time, she thought it would be impossible to reach the top. A decade later in 2010, Korea celebrated her becoming the world No. 1 women’s lead sport climber.
“I cannot believe where I am now. Competing with world-renowned climbers is an unbelievable experience for me,” Kim said. “I want to continue to succeed but as the sport speaks for itself, it really no longer is about competing with others. Rather, it is a battle with myself,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times.
This year, she won the overall gold medal at last month’s Paris World Climbing Championship and took silver in the lead. She won her second International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Worldcup lead gold of the year in Atlanta on Oct. 1 following victory in Belgium in September. The 24-year-old is currently back in Seoul and training for the IFSC Worldcup that starts Oct. 12 in Xining, China.
“Growing up in a family where everyone likes and enjoys climbing, it was natural for me to start climbing at an early age,” Kim said. “Of course, the wall looked impossibly high and scary at first and it was unimaginable for me to get the top of it.”
Her parents met at a mountaineering club and her two older brothers are also sport climbers.
Lead is one of three disciplines in sport climbing along with speed and bouldering. In lead, a climber attached to a rope has to ascend a 15-meter artificial rock wall with plastic holds in eight minutes. The difficulty varies with different routes to the top. Bouldering sees a climber relying only on the holds without a rope to climb a 5-meter wall. The speed contest is about reaching the top of a 15-meter wall in the shortest time.
Knowing how difficult it is to make a living as a professional climber, her parents initially opposed Kim taking up climbing professionally.
“I don’t exactly remember what I wrote, but my mom said it was a letter that changed her mind,” said Kim. “She said she wanted to raise me as musician since I had been singing in a choir for quite a while but I was stubborn.”
As her mother told her, climbing at the top level was much harder than expected. Injury was common, and daily hospital checks for cuts, bruises and arthritis in her fingers is now routine.
“My shoulder injury in 2008 forced my biggest slump. It was the most difficult time of my career,” Kim said. “But I couldn’t stop climbing because I love it so much. I like the feeling when I’m completely engaged in it.”
Contrary to how it may appear, Kim says that climbing is a sport that requires delicacy rather than power.
“The most common mistake beginners make is to rely too much on power when climbing. What is really important is to understand the center of gravity and take the right step delicately. With that, I don’t think there is any particular difficulty for women.”
The International Olympic Committee is planning a new addition for the 2020 Summer Games, and sport climbing is on the shortlist. With the IOC’s decision to be made at a general assembly meeting in Argentina’s Buenos Aires next year, Kim said she hopes her sport makes it.
“I want to become the first sport climber to compete at the Olympics. It will be really exciting. Until then, I want to try my best in every competition and enjoy what I do,” Kim said.