Sport climber Alannah Yip competes on the climbing wall at Santiago 2023.Thomas Skrlj/COC
Thomas Skrlj/COC

Sport climber Alannah Yip talks problem-solving on and off the wall, how dreams become goals

Alannah Yip, and her beloved sport of sport climbing, both made their Olympic debuts at Tokyo 2020

Yip, along with her teammate and longtime friend Sean McColl, were Canada’s first-ever sport climbing Olympians. Yip finished 14th in the women’s combined event. 

Her journey since then has had its ups and downs, both on and off the wall. She endured a difficult World Cup circuit in 2023, but that was followed by a big bronze medal performance at the Santiago 2023 Pan Am Games. Off the wall, Yip began grappling with an alopecia diagnosis this past December.

The 30-year-old has taken learnings from all of these experiences and is using them to inform her path towards the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

The Olympic Qualifier Series (OQS), which will feature sport climbing along with breaking, BMX freestyle, and skateboarding, kicks off May 15-19 in Shanghai, China, followed by another event in Budapest, Hungary, June 20-23. Through the OQS, 10 quota spots will be allocated for each gender in the boulder and lead combined event while five quota spots are available for each gender in speed climbing. 

We chatted with Yip ahead of the first OQS event to get a sense of her mindset while seeking her second Olympic berth and what lessons she’s taken away since Tokyo 2020. Tell us a little bit about last year, including the experience in Santiago and winning the bronze medal. Overall, how would you assess your 2023?

AY: So, 2023 was definitely not my best year performance-wise. I’d been struggling since the Tokyo Olympics with finding my confidence again on the wall and in competition. Even though I tried my best to prepare well for the 2023 World Cup season, I just don’t think I did enough, especially enough work on the mental performance side.

But I kind of hit my stride by the time we got to Santiago–I had an amazing preparation for that. I had been working with a new sports psychologist and we were starting to really mesh, and the things that we had worked on I was able to utilize those tools in competition. I had an amazing training camp beforehand where I learned so much and was able to go into the Pan Am Games very focused and very present and able to enjoy myself.

And I was able to have probably the best performance I’ve had since my Olympic qualifier in [Los Angeles] in early 2020.

Alannah Yip competes on the climbing wall
Alannah Yip of Canada competes in the Lead portion of the Women’s Boulder & Lead finals during the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games on Tuesday, October 24, 2023. Photo by Thomas Skrlj/COC Have you been able to identify what happened with the confidence dip?

AY: I think there were a lot of reasons for that confidence drop. I definitely had a kind of post-Olympic blues that lasted quite a while. I think changing the team around me, my coaches and support staff, has been a big factor in helping me get out of that. 

I’m actually working with my little brother for my strength training now. He has a degree in human kinetics and he’s currently doing his masters in strength and conditioning. Post-Olympic blues are a real thing even for those of us who work behind the scenes. They ramp up and then they just end. It leaves you going– “wait, now what?”

AY: Yeah, it was a pretty crazy experience. There’s so much leading up to it, like hype and media and everything. And then the second you fall off your last climb, it’s just over and you’re going home. It was abrupt and that’s hard to deal with. But you’re feeling better now?

AY: Definitely. I feel like I’ve been picking up momentum and Santiago was an amazing experience for me. I was actually so burned out from the season that I almost didn’t go to Santiago. But I am so glad that I did because the preparation for it was fantastic; it put me in a great space mentally and physically. 

And the experience there was like the Olympic experience I didn’t get to have in Tokyo. I got to meet other athletes, I got to hang out with my team. [In climbing] we never spend much time together on the road, everyone’s kind of just doing their own thing. So just being there as a unified team and then feeling like some part of something bigger, part of Team Canada, was incredible.

I’m still riding the high from that and I’m hugely motivated to train and to perform at the next Olympic qualifying events.

Alannah Yip of Canada wins the bronze in the Women’s Boulder & Lead finals during the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games on Tuesday, October 24, 2023. Photo by Thomas Skrlj/COC And we’re looking ahead to the Olympic Qualifier Series.

AY: Yes. So climbing is involved in the Olympic Qualifier Series, which is put on by the IOC. It’ll be the Olympic qualifier for 50 per cent of the Olympic field for climbing, skateboarding, breakdancing and BMX [freestyle]. There’s been a change in the competition format with speed climbing getting pulled out as a separate discipline. Do you prefer that now that you’ve only got bouldering and lead combined, or did you like having speed mixed in?

AY: I am very happy that we are pulling out speed into its own discipline, for a couple of different reasons. I think it’s really good for the growth of the sport. We now have an extra 28 athletes in the Olympics. It went from just 20 per gender in combined and then now there’s an extra 14 [in each gender] in speed. So we’re growing, we got an extra medal [event]. It puts us on a great path for moving ahead. 

But also, splitting speed climbing out just makes sense. Speed climbing is fundamentally a different type of sport than lead climbing and bouldering. It’s much more closely related to athletics–it’s basically a vertical sprint. But lead climbing and bouldering are all about problem solving, where every climb and every round of competition is brand new. Your challenge is to figure it out in the best way for you personally to climb it and then execute that. 

Alannah Yip of Canada competes in the Boulder portion of the Women’s Boulder & Lead finals during the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games on Tuesday, October 24, 2023. Photo by Thomas Skrlj/COC If someone’s tuning in to climbing for the first time and they’re watching you compete in boulder and lead, what advice would you give them?

AY: You’re watching for the person who gets overall the highest on the lead route and on the boulders generally gets higher than everybody else. There’s three scoring opportunities in bouldering. There’s two sort of midway points where you get five points and 10 points and then the top where you get 25 points. So it’s a point-based cumulative scoring throughout the event. 

But, in my personal opinion, what you should really be watching for–what my favorite moments in the sport are–is when there’s a climb and two different climbers or more, figure it out and execute it in completely different ways. I think those are the most exciting and most magical moments for our sport because it just shows that there’s not one definitive right way to do something. It’s about figuring out what’s your right way to do something. A given problem can have multiple solutions. What do you wish more people knew about sport climbing? 

AY: I think it’s the same thing. I wish more people understood that we don’t practice these exact climbs. We have to practice every possible type of movement under the sun so that when they put something brand new in front of us at the Olympics or at whatever competition we’re at, we’re able to identify what kind of movement it is and hopefully execute it.

So, we’ve never seen these climbs. We don’t get to watch anybody else climb them. And in bouldering, in semifinals, at least in some formats, we don’t even get to talk to other people about what it looks like. It’s just you and the wall, and I love that.

Canadian climber Alannah Yip competes in the Women’s Sport Climbing Bouldering qualifications during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Wednesday, August 04, 2021. Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC Have you been to Paris?

AY: Yes, I’ve been a few times. Any favourite memories?

AY: One of my favorite memories is the first time that I went with my family just as tourists when I was around 11. My dad and I shared a banana crepe right in front of the Eiffel Tower. How iconic! I’m sure it was an extremely overpriced crepe, but that’s a great memory. 

The 2016 Climbing World Championships were in Paris and that was my first year competing on the whole World Cup circuit. It had just been announced that climbing was going to be in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

When I started climbing, the Olympics were not on the radar, not even close to being on the radar. Climbing was for the kind of weird kids who couldn’t do soccer. Most of us quote unquote, “failed” out of the normal sports. So we found something else–we found climbing. 

I had a really good performance at that event, so kind of over that week or so I was realizing that maybe I could go to the Olympics. That was a pivotal moment.

Alannah Yip training at the Richmond Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C. on Friday, March 19, 2021. (Photo: Christopher Morris/COC) You say you were the kid who fell out of the other sports. But if you weren’t an Olympian in sport climbing and you could choose to be an Olympian in any other sport, what would it be?

AY: Do I get the skills of another sport or do I have to use my mediocre skills? Whatever you would like to be good at.

AY: Then I would say freestyle skiing or ski cross. I think Vancouver 2010 was the first year of ski cross and I was there. I was 16 when Vancouver 2010 happened and I was pretty captivated by that sport. Also, it didn’t hurt that we won a lot of medals.

I was at the Opening Ceremony in Vancouver [as a spectator] and that was a pivotal moment for me. You know how long the Opening Ceremony can be… I did not move throughout the entire athlete parade! I was so transfixed, just imagining what it would be like to walk into the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games representing your country.

And then sadly, I did not get to do that in Tokyo. Maybe Paris! At that point in 2010, we’re still six years away from your sport becoming an Olympic sport! It seems like you were dreaming about the ceremony that you, at the time, would have had no shot of being in.

AY: Yeah, absolutely. At that time, it was a dream, not a goal. I differentiate those two in my head. A dream is something that isn’t realistic, isn’t feasible, and a goal is something that is, so it was absolutely just a dream at that point. So was there a mental switch for you? Was there a moment when the Olympics went from being a dream to a goal?

AY: It was absolutely the world championships in Paris in 2016. I think I was in the airport in Chicago or something on a layover on my way to the world championships. And I turned on my phone and it had just been announced that climbing was going to be in Tokyo 2020. And you know, I thought that’s pretty cool.