Getting ready to hit the climbing wall at the Sochi Games will be an enduring memory for Gord McArthur.
“That moment of looking up as I’m tying in my rope and seeing the crowd in front of me was wild. Totally wild,” said the Cranbrook native, who was in Russia to represent Canada in the demonstration of ice climbing during the Winter Olympics.
McArthur, along with the rest of the climbers in the UIAA world cup family, showcased their sport on the world’s biggest stage during the Games in a bid to get it included into the Olympic program.
“We didn’t compete for medals, but we had to put on a show everyday, just like the other athletes did. We had to perform at our best,” said McArthur. “We had hundreds and hundreds of people watching us, sometimes thousands, everyday, for two weeks.
“It was just an amazing experience. There were a lot of ups and downs, for sure, but the fact that we got to represent our sport in front of the world of sport—the people who celebrate sport—was a dream come true.”
Because ice climbing was a demonstration sport, it wasn’t a formal part of the program, but the UIAA—the governing body of competitive climbing—took over to run the show.
“As athletes we all got together and got creative in how we did do some of our performances, which was really cool. We became a really big family there, despite the language barriers,” said McArthur.
“There were athletes from Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Canada, US, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain.
“So there was a lot of different languages and we all just came together and became a family and a team and performed like that, which was one of the best experiences, and we got to share this amazing opportunity together.”
The structures included a 60-foot tower with three walls of ice, along with a main wall that competitors would climb all day, every day.
“Our venue was certainly a spectacle,” added McArthur. “People would stop by and go, ‘Whoa.'”
The Games were split between the sites in the city proper and the alpine events in the mountains. The ice climbing demonstrations were in the Olympic Park in the city, which is right on the coast of the Black Sea and temperatures rose high enough for a few days that the athletes were getting sunburned.
“We were sweating to death in our pants, in our long-sleeve shirts and long underwear thinking it’s going to be winter,” laughed McArthur.
He spent most of his days on the climbing wall, but there was also some free time here and there were he was able to visit Canada House—a gathering place for Canuck athletes, family and friends—as well as catch some other Olympic events, such as a men’s hockey game between the Czech Republic and Sweden.
“I met some of the figure skaters, met some of the hockey players, I met some luge and bobsledders, they’re all amazing athletes, not because they’re the best, but because they pour so much into their sport and I can relate to that,” McArthur said.
On the World Cup tour
Before and after the Olympics, McArthur was hard at work on the World Cup tour, criss-crossing Europe and Asia in six different competitions over two months.
After the world championship wrapped up in Ufa, Russia, McArthur finished the season in 13th overall.
“It was awesome,” McArthur said. “Last year I think I was 30-something overall, and I was pretty happy with that, but to jump 20-something spots in the rankings, I was really happy with that ending.”
The world championship followed two months of travelling with stops in South Korea, Romania, Switzerland, France and Russia, not to mention a competition in Italy that was cancelled due to an avalanche.
McArthur said heading to Ufa for one last competition after the Olympics was one of the toughest parts of the season.
“It was a long haul, because it was [something] every weekend, then the Olympics, then after the Olympic high, we still had to get our game faces back on and go to the world championships,” he said.
“That was probably the hardest part, because after the Olympics, everybody just wanted to go home.”
Not only were all the athletes mentally drained, but the Ufa climbing structure was difficult and there some tough variables that everyone had to adjust to, McArthur added.
But he persevered to finish 15th in the semifinals, which landed him into 13th overall to end the season.
“To get a ranking of 13th in the world—the world’s a big place, so I’m really happy with that result, there’s no question,” he said.
His improvement comes after many months of dedicated physical and mental training, which was apparent during one competition in Romania.
In the same competition a few years ago, McArthur watched a Russian climber—one of the best in the world—fall early in his qualifier, which wasted a minute of his five-minute time.
However, the competitor brushed himself off and tackled the route again, finishing it in less time than most of the others climbers who never fell off the structure.
When McArther got started in the Romanian qualifier this year, he fell early.
“I now had only four minutes left on the clock, but I climbed probably the best I’ve ever climbed and topped out,” he said. “I just flew through the whole route. It was flawless.
“To perform like that under that pressure, that was probably the one that stood out the most, because that’s the mental toughness that I’ve been working on.”
Though he is living out his dream of competing on the world cup circuit and at the Olympics, there are challenges that come along with it, some expected and others not so much.
For example, his climbing gear was stolen from his car during a stop in France.
He went grocery shopping after a training session and discovered his bag—which contained his gear and his cellphone—was missing.
“Instantly, I knew someone stole it,” McArthur said.
Climbing gear isn’t just generic equipment, it’s specific and modified by each individual user.
Offers poured in to use borrowed gear from his fellow competitors, but Petzl—one of his sponsors—was able to come through and provide the necessary equipment.
Other kinds of challenges were more familiar to him due to his years of experience on the world cup tour, like being away from home for so long and missing his wife and two young daughters.
“I can’t count on one hand how many times I looked at Expedia to get a flight home, even just to call it quits,” McArthur said. “Whether it be halfway though the season or at the end of the season, there were many occasions where I wanted to pack it in and come home.
“But at the same time, those are the occasions where you have to bear down and remind yourself why you’re there and remind yourself that those who support you are still supporting you.”