The week her baby is due, Shauna Coxsey is, as usual, at her local climbing centre in Sheffield. The British Olympic climber has scaled climbing walls and rocks throughout her pregnancy, and videos shared on her Instagram account show her making her way gracefully and powerfully upwards, in control of her body, as she switches holds to accommodate her growing bump.
Her decision drew criticism – as she knew it would – and she was forced to hit back at the online “bullying”. For a start, she says, with nearly 450,000 Instagram followers, she knows social media “is a place where you’re going to get criticised, regardless of what you say”. But she had also seen the reaction other women have faced. “One of my good friends, who is incredibly strong and confident, stopped climbing because she couldn’t be bothered with the judgment and the funny looks she got in her late pregnancy,” says Coxsey. “The idea that someone would stop doing something they absolutely love because of the judgment; it’s so sad we’re in a position where that happens still.”
She knows not every climber can keep climbing through pregnancy, but wants people to know that for others, “it is possible. I think it’s important we share those positive stories, and we know that there is a choice. It’s not the case that we all have to go and sit on the sofa for nine months.”
Coxsey is, of course, not the first woman to climb while pregnant. The British climber Alison Hargreaves scaled the north face of the Eiger while nearly six months pregnant in 1988, and other athletes, such as the French rock climber Caroline Ciavaldini, have continued with the sport throughout pregnancy. “I have friends who are pregnant that are still climbing,” Coxsey says. “They’re climbing within their comfort zone, and mitigating these risks, and choosing to do something that keeps them fit, active, healthy and happy.”
She has been able to brush off most of the negative comments, she says, but it is “knowing that other women face judgment which is hard. I hope that sharing it empowers women to make their own choices, and a small part of me hopes maybe some of the people who are judging might think twice about it next time.” She smiles. “Maybe that’s naive.”
Coxsey is grateful when other people point out she is an Olympic climber and knows how to climb safely, but she also thinks that is not quite the right message. “I’m a pregnant woman making choices,” she says, simply, when we speak over Zoom. When we’re done, she and her husband are going to take to the climbing wall. Today, she says with a laugh, they are going to strap a watermelon to his stomach so he can see what she has been dealing with.
She did not necessarily plan to be climbing at this stage, “because a lot of my previous success and satisfaction has come from pushing it to the limit and trying to be the best that I could be. So I was fascinated to know whether I would still find climbing as fun.” In fact, she has regained her love of the sport.
“There is so much more freedom and enjoyment in a very different way. When you make your passion your job, it’s difficult to stay in love with that.” This stage, she says, “has brought it all back, fulfilled me again”.
She had been training hard for the 2020 Olympics, which was held last year. It was the first time climbing had been included, but Coxsey knew going into the Games that it would be her last event as a competition climber. Her aim now is to be an elite-level rock climber. The UK’s most successful competition climber, she has made it on to the podium at the World Cup 30 times, including 11 gold medals, and won two world titles in bouldering.
Getting to the Olympics meant years of hard work, coping with injuries, several surgeries, and then having to do rehab on herself during lockdowns. All that, as well as a back injury, meant she wasn’t in her best shape for the Games, where she came 10th, out of 20 women who qualified. The run-up, she says, “wasn’t pleasant at times but I was so determined to get there, and the fact that we actually made it feels like a huge achievement”.
She had always wanted to be a champion climber. At four, she saw the French climber Catherine Destivelle on TV and knew that was for her. Her father took her to the local climbing centre and, “it felt 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’s a fundamental skill. You see kids: they know how to climb; it’s within us.”
Coxsey, 29, grew up in Runcorn, mainly 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 dad would come to the park to shout me in for dinner. I was swinging on this rope 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 go back home and I’m like: why did I climb up there?”
It’s not really about bravery, she says. “I wouldn’t say I was the bravest climber. I think it’s more the ability to assess risk, which is something that my dad ingrained within me.” An IT consultant, he also rode trials bikes. “He comes from a world of assessing risk and pushing yourself, so he was always very encouraging of me.”
Although she was ambitious from the start – she started competing at the age of seven – she didn’t know that it was possible to be a professional climber until she became one. It has been a male-dominated sport, though 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 getting more women; it’s getting more people of all ages, all backgrounds, minorities, and ensuring that people feel welcome in the space.”
Coxsey has worked with a specialist women’s health physiotherapist throughout her pregnancy. What might seem risky to a casual onlooker is well within her comfort zone. “And that comfort zone changes depending on how I feel that day, and it’s changed throughout the pregnancy, as I’ve changed.”
Her husband often accompanies her and might try out a route first if she is unsure of a hold or movement, then they’ll discuss it. He might tell her it’s beyond what she wants to do, or advise on a hold.
There are climbs she can’t do, “like super-steep stuff – I don’t want to put too much strain on my abs”. Leaning into a rock face is hard with a bump in the way. Pregnancy can make ligaments lax and Coxsey knows women who have had to stop climbing because it hurt their hands too much. “My hips are a little bit looser but they still feel really strong,” she says. She is not putting any pressure on herself to rush back to training and intense climbs after the birth of their baby but – like climbing while pregnant – will take it move by move. “If I don’t climb for a week, I really don’t feel good. I need to climb, for my body and my mind.”