Pregnancy

‘I’m a pregnant woman who makes choices’: Shauna Coxsey on climbing – and the ‘bullies’ who want her to quit | sport

Jhe week her baby is due, Shauna Coxsey is, as usual, at her local climbing center in Sheffield. The British Olympic mountaineer has scaled climbing walls and boulders throughout her pregnancy, and videos shared to her Instagram account show her gracefully and powerfully climbing her way to the top, in control of her body, as she changes her grip to accommodate her growing bump.

Her decision drew criticism – as she knew – and she was forced to hit back at “bullying” online. To start, she says, with nearly 450,000 Instagram Followers, she knows that social media “is a place where you are going to be criticized, no matter what you say”. But she had also seen the reaction of the other women. “A good friend of mine, who is incredibly strong and confident, stopped climbing because she couldn’t be bothered by the judgment and funny looks she was getting in late pregnancy,” Coxsey explains. “The idea that someone would stop doing something they absolutely love because of judgment; it’s so sad that we’re in a position where this still happens.

She knows that not all climbers can continue climbing while pregnant, but wants people to know that for others, “it is possible. I think it’s important that we share these positive stories, and we know there is a choice. It’s not true that we all have to go sit on the couch for nine months.

Coxsey is of course not the first woman to climb while pregnant. British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves scaled the Eiger north face when she was almost six months pregnant in 1988, and other athletes, like French mountaineer Caroline Ciavaldini, continued the sport throughout of pregnancy. “I have friends who are pregnant and still climbing,” Coxsey says. “They’re stepping into their comfort zone, mitigating those risks, and choosing to do something that keeps them fit, active, healthy, and happy.”

She managed to brush off most of the negative comments, she says, but it’s “knowing that other women face judgment that’s hard.” I hope sharing it empowers women to make their own choices, and a small part of me hopes some of the people judging will think twice next time. She smiles. “It may be naive.”

Coxsey is grateful when other people point out that she’s an Olympic climber and knows how to climb safely, but she also thinks that’s not quite the right message. “I’m a pregnant woman who makes choices,” she says simply when we talk on Zoom. When we’re done, she and her husband are going to tackle the climbing wall. Today, she laughs, they’re going to tie a watermelon to her belly so he can see what she’s dealing with.

Coxsey competing at last year's Olympic Games in Tokyo
Coxsey competed at last year’s Olympics in Tokyo. Photo: Tsuyoshi Ueda/Pool

She didn’t necessarily intend to climb at this point, “because a lot of my previous success and satisfaction has come from pushing the limit and trying to be the best possible. So I was fascinated to know if I would still find climbing as fun. In fact, she rediscovered her love of the sport.

“There’s so much more freedom and fun in a very different way. When you make your passion your job, it’s hard to stay in love with it. This step, she says, “brought it all back, m still filled”.

She had been training hard for the 2020 Olympics, which took place last year. It was the first time rock climbing had been included, but Coxsey knew before the Games that it would be his last as a competitive climber. Her goal now is to be an elite level climber. The UK’s most successful competitive mountaineer, she has been on the World Cup podium 30 times, including 11 golds, and has won two world bouldering titles.

‘I never thought about quitting’: Shauna Coxsey on climbing while pregnant – video

Getting to the Olympics meant years of hard work, dealing with injuries, several surgeries, and then having to rehabilitate herself during the shutdowns. All of this, along with a back injury, meant she was not in her best shape for the Games, where she finished 10th, out of 20 women qualifying. The approach, she says, “wasn’t pleasant at times, but I was so determined to make it happen, and the fact that we made it feels like a huge achievement.”

She had always wanted to be a champion climber. At four, she saw French mountaineer Catherine Destivelle on TV and knew it was for her. Her father took her to the local rock climbing center and “it looked like what I was supposed to do. I think climbing is such a natural thing as human beings; it’s part of how we used to survive. It is a fundamental skill. You see children: they know how to climb; it is in us.

Shauna Coxsey standing by a climbing wall
“I need to climb, for my body and my mind,” says Coxsey. Photography: Band of birds

Coxsey, 29, grew up in Runcorn, mostly with her father (she has a large family, with five older half-sisters and a half-brother). And as a child, she climbed everything. “My father came to the park to invite me to dinner. I was swinging on this swing and he was like, ‘Is it safe?’ Yes, she replied – Coxsey had climbed up the tree and along the branch to check. She laughs. “It was a huge tree. I see it when I get home and I think to myself: why did I climb up there?

It’s not really a question of bravery, she said. “I wouldn’t say I was the bravest climber. I think it’s more the ability to assess risk, something that my dad ingrained in me. A computer consultant, he has also ridden trial bikes. “He comes from a world of risk assessment and pushing the limits, so he’s always encouraged me a lot.”

Although she was ambitious from the start – she started competing at the age of seven – she didn’t know it was possible to be a professional climber until she became one. It’s a male-dominated sport, but less so now, she says (thanks, probably, in part to Coxsey, who set up the Women’s Climbing Symposium to encourage women in the sport). “It’s not just about having more women; it attracts more people of all ages, backgrounds, minorities and makes sure people feel welcome in the space.

Coxsey worked with a women’s health physiotherapist throughout her pregnancy. What may seem risky to a casual viewer is well within their comfort zone. “And that comfort zone changes based on how I feel that day, and it changed throughout the pregnancy, as I changed.”

Her husband often accompanies her and may try a route first if she is unsure of a hold or move, then they will discuss it. He might tell her it’s beyond what she wants to do, or advise her to wait.

There are climbs she can’t do, “like super steep stuff – I don’t want to put too much pressure on my abs.” Leaning over a rock wall is difficult with a bump in the way. Pregnancy can loosen ligaments and Coxsey knows of women who have had to stop climbing because it hurt their hands too much. “My hips are a little looser, but still very strong,” she says. She puts no pressure on herself to rush into training and intense climbs after the birth of their baby but – like climbing during pregnancy – will do so step by step. “If I don’t climb for a week, I really don’t feel well. I need to climb, for my body and my mind.