Sport

The addition of sport climbing to the Tokyo Olympics line-up sees Melbourne teen Oceana Mackenzie on an upward trajectory in international competition. By Linda Pearce.

Oceana Mackenzie’s ascent

Oceana Mackenzie training in isolation at her Melbourne home last year.
Credit: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

Outwardly inconspicuous among the business parks and factories of industrial inner-bayside Melbourne, a door opens onto a riot of colours and shapes protruding from angled walls. This striking first glimpse into the world of bouldering is an introduction to one of three disciplines in a soon-to-be Olympic sport.

Sport climbing will join surfing, skateboarding and karate as debutants at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games, where organisers are clinging as grimly to the Olympic dream as a nervous rock climber’s fingertips might clutch at an unstable precipice. If it all begins without international crowds as planned on July 23, inclusions on the program will be host-nation favourites baseball and softball after a 13-year absence, plus the quartet of first-timers designed to help address gender equality and boost the youth appeal.

It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that Australia’s first female Olympian in a pastime popular among outdoor adventurers, indoor recreationalists and kids at birthday parties is a home-schooled Melbourne teenager with a thoroughly modern name. Meet Oceana Mackenzie: a quietly thoughtful soul who eschews outdoor rock climbing out of respect for the sensitivities of Indigenous native-titleholders and aspires to study diversity, inclusion and feminism at university.

But not yet, for there is still a VCE to complete and – ideally – an Olympic final to be reached as climbing prepares for its first big mainstream moment in August. After a successful introduction at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, 20 men – including Blue Mountains climber Tom O’Halloran – and 20 women have qualified to compete over four days at the Aomi Urban Sports Park on the Tokyo waterfront.

“It was just super exciting to have our sport recognised as a proper sport, because not many people knew about it,” says Mackenzie of the 2016 announcement that rewarded a two-decade-long campaign. “And to be honest, I didn’t really think that I would be going to the Olympics. It was just like, ‘Oh, this is going to be really great for the sport, it’s going to get the acknowledgement that we all think it deserves.’ Then when I actually qualified, it was kind of unbelievable, to be honest. Just super exciting. Just can’t wait.”

Still just 18, Mackenzie was introduced to climbing about a decade ago by her mother, Ellen, and recalls not so much driving her five older sisters up the wall as following them. Her first memory was being too young to take part – in theory, anyway. “I would start traversing along the ropes wall and kind of not doing it safely, so I remember one of the instructors there was like, ‘Okay, we’ll have to put a harness and a rope on you because this isn’t safe anymore.’ So then I started climbing. I was like, ‘Ah, yes!’ ”

Young Oceana was a natural, according to family friend Sophie Bell, now Australia’s head youth coach. “You can just tell with some individuals: when they get on the wall they just instinctively know how to move, they know how to read the climb. They know where to place their foot, they know how to turn their hips, how to engage their shoulders. So some of them have it from the get-go, and some you have to teach those skills, and Oce was one of those who just had it immediately.” As to what she has now that makes her elite, Bell nominates Mackenzie’s professionalism and dedication, and a cool calmness that assists with problem-solving while the competition clock is ticking.

Indeed, Mackenzie estimates the sport is 30 per cent physical and 70 per cent mental. There are three disciplines: lead (climbing as high up a 15-metre-plus angled wall as possible in six minutes, clipped into a safety harness); bouldering (completing as many unique routes as possible in four minutes per route on a 4.5-metre wall, without ropes or harnesses or the chance to practise beforehand – meaning strategy, power and flexibility are vital); and speed (a timed race against another climber up a standardised 15-metre-high wall). At the Olympics, each counts towards the climber’s final score, achieved by a ranking multiplication, with the lower the score the better.

Sport Climbing Victoria chair Philip Goebel admits the long-term objective is for each discipline to offer its own set of Olympic medals, with the recent introduction of the combined format a foot-in-the-door strategy, and a follow-up appearance at Paris 2024 already confirmed. Athletes from Japan, Slovenia, Austria and the Czech Republic are among the favourites, representing an extended family of climbers worldwide estimated in the tens of millions. Here, the community is small but growing. Despite a tripling of commercial climbing facilities in Victoria in the past three years, the national and various state associations still have, between them, the equivalent of one full-time employee.

Bouldering is not just the biggest growth area but also Mackenzie’s favourite when at home in Australia, given its social nature and the short bursts of power required to excel. She is also well-suited to the combined Olympic format, boasting strong international results in each discipline and in 2019 in Switzerland becoming the first Australian woman since Sam Berry in 2007 to make the final of a Sport Climbing World Cup when she finished sixth in bouldering.

“A lot of people aren’t a fan of doing all three, but ever since we had a speed wall in Australia, I started doing it and really enjoyed it, so I was lucky to just really like all three disciplines at the start,” says Mackenzie.

According to Goebel, one of the sport’s defining characteristics is that bouldering and lead competitors are confronted with a new route in each competition, and either limited time (the former), or with just one chance (the latter) to get it right.

“So the mental and technical aspect of climbing is really unique and requires a lot of creativity,” he says. “Then in terms of the athletic demands, they’re pretty similar to gymnastics. We get a lot of kids that cross over from gymnastics, so that body awareness, knowing how to move your body through space, and performing under pressure with that kind of technical component are our key attributes.”

For Mackenzie, Victoria’s lengthy Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 forced a retreat to a purpose-built climbing wall in the family’s Warrandyte garage, and a strict training routine – including hanging exercises to strengthen the fingers – she says, laughing, kept her “sane”. There was also some mostly sprint-focused athletics work at a local track under a program provided by the Victorian Institute of Sport. “It definitely was really challenging – especially seeing my competitors in other states having gyms open and being able to train was a bit hard. But we got through it and [I’m] maybe better, stronger now, for it.”

Mackenzie’s ticket to Tokyo was booked at the Oceania championships in Sydney in December at her first competition in almost a year. At 173 centimetres, she is on the tall side for a climber. At 18, she is young enough not to have expected to arrive at the pinnacle quite so soon. Yet she is also aware of the possibilities generated by her precious sport’s exposure to so many Olympic-focused eyeballs, hoping it will lead to increased participation in Australia, then improved competition, better-quality facilities and more sponsors.

“Climbing’s so new we don’t really get that much funding for it,” she says, before self-correcting. “Actually, no funding, really!”

The Olympics could change that, and much more. “I think it’s going to do a lot for the sport,” says Sophie Bell. “It will get us on the performance-sport map so we can be taken a little bit more seriously, rather than just being a backyard sport or a leisure sport. I think it’s pretty cool … and I do think Oce is an excellent ambassador.”

So, as they say, remember the name. Oceana Mackenzie’s sporting ascent is just beginning.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "Scaling new heights".

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Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.