Albert Ok - The Speed Climbing Coach with a Global Athlete Team Interview

© Albert Ok

Albert Ok was once a talented 110m hurdler, a nationally-ranked Guitar Hero player and a chess coach. Fascinated by the minutiae of movement after discovering climbing, he made YouTube videos analysing World Cup beta, earning him millions of views and the moniker 'Professor Ok'. Next, he became a nationally-ranked speed climber. Albert's talent for problem solving and teaching—and a willingness to think outside the box and go the extra mile, experimenting with AI, mathematics and learning Persian—led to his work as a speed coach. Today, Houston-based Albert independently coaches a growing team of 50 speed climbers around the world both in person and remotely, including two Olympic-qualified athletes and the current men's world record holder.

Ok congratulates an athlete post-competition.  © Albert Ok
Ok congratulates an athlete post-competition.
© Albert Ok

GB Climbing speed team member Matthew Fall is coached by Albert. "The Professor's dedication to speed climbing is unrivalled," he says. "To comb through hundreds of hours of footage of the same 15m route takes a certain kind of obsession beyond even that of most athletes, but as a result his knowledge of the intricacies and nuances of every move is unparalleled. I think his ability and passion speak for themselves when dozens of World Cup athletes flock to him from all over the world. It's hard to not love speed climbing when you're with Albert."

After 423 days of attempting to beat his previous best, Albert recently set a new PB of 6.34 seconds.

We sent Albert some questions about his novel approach to speed climbing training, the evolution of the discipline and how he is working to bring out the best in the international team of athletes he coaches ahead of Paris 2024.

The 2020 Olympic Games was one of the greatest things that could have happened to speed climbing. It took a boulderer to look at the Speed route and create the eponymous Tomoa Skip, something I don't think the old school speed climbers would have had the guts to commit to.

How did you get into climbing?

It was by chance that someone in my math class in college invited me on a guest pass and I immediately got hooked. I projected a V0 for a few weeks until I was able to send it. I remember that climb so well I probably could set it from memory still!

When and how did you start speed climbing?

I started just over two and a half years ago. In America it's pretty difficult to access speed walls or even see a full 15m speed wall in a gym (although recently it's been changing slowly). I was always interested in it and wanted to train it for years. In high school I was a 110m hurdler and had big dreams about it, but I got pulled out of the program when I got my first B. Alongside hurdles I was a nationally ranked Guitar Hero player, so it naturally made sense to just do vertical hurdles that vaguely resembled Guitar Hero notes. Once I got access to a 15m wall when I moved back to Houston I was hooked immediately.

Your personal times have improved over the years and you've competed at nationals. What achievements/PBs are you most proud of?

When you break a full second barrier for the first time, it's probably the closest thing to the feeling of flying that I can imagine. My first sub 8 and my first sub 7 felt unreal. When I hit my personal best of 6.47 [ed: now 6.34] it felt weightless as if my hands were barely touching the holds. Aside from breaking big second marks, recently coming back to speed climbing after my devastating septic bursitis elbow injury, I took weeks to get back to sub 7 and when I finally did I just sat in the gym and cried. I don't know when I'll break the 6 second barrier, but when I do I'm sure I'll be crying of happiness.

Albert Ok competing in US Speed nationals.  © Albert Ok
Albert Ok competing in US Speed nationals.
© Albert Ok

When and why did you start speed coaching?

Coaching somehow has always been a part of my life. I was a chess coach through university and coached youth climbing programs as well. When I started speed climbing I just tried my best to share what I was learning and really thought about my own climbing in relation to the best in the world. Over a year ago I put out an Instagram post saying that I'd help anyone for free. I know speed coaching is something that is a rare resource and I wanted the barrier to entry to be as low as possible. One thing led to another and now I have an in-person and online programme! I like to abridge the story and say that I went from making YouTube videos about people breaking the beta to fixing beta for others in speed.

Did you have any mentors or use specific resources to help your coaching? (I saw you learned some Persian in order to be able to communicate with an athlete!)

I came into speed climbing coaching a bit differently than other speed coaches. I took a lot of my inspiration from bouldering coaches (Roman Krajnik (SLO), Takako Hoshi (JPN), et al.) and tried to apply the idea that speed climbing is still climbing and a movement-based sport. I talk to a lot of coaches around the world and other athletes who are self coached and try to take what I believe is the best from all of them.

How does your own climbing inform your coaching, and vice versa?

I'm in a nice spot with my own climbing. I'm obviously nowhere near the fastest in the world, but I'm just fast enough to test out movement concepts in isolated sections. I often take the time to learn betas/sequences that I personally don't use just to see how it feels so I can help others working on them. I'm sort of in a middle ground of beginner to a top level athlete, where I can still relate to the pains a beginner has learning the sport, but am close enough to the top level to be able to put my feet in their shoes and understand the challenges they face. Hopefully I can bridge the gap between the top level to myself so it gets easier for me to push them to faster times. I guess in that way my athletes are continuously pushing me to try my best in training.

What unique challenges do speed climbers face compared to other disciplines in climbing?

My chronic battle with fingernail splits is the bane of my existence as well as for many other speed climbers. If we're going at maximum speed and slightly inaccurately, we are constantly scratching the wall and peeling our nails off our fingers. You'll constantly see the Salt Lake City speed crew putting on layers of superglue, tape, and even lidocaine to numb the pain. Our knees are often destroyed from slipping. Speed climbing might be as close to a one-on-one combat sport as it can be. I don't think I've seen boulderers or sport climbers with this degree of physical damage throughout a session.

Albert Ok video calls with Piper Kelly (USA) after she qualified for Paris 2024.  © IFSC
Albert Ok video calls with Piper Kelly (USA) after she qualified for Paris 2024.

In a nutshell, what makes for a fast run?

At the highest level reaction time really does matter. The difference between losing last season was down to reaction time several times. Outside of the pure limitations of false starting, those who are accurate with their hand, foot, and body placement will always succeed over someone who is fast but sloppy. When someone does a difficult boulder problem in a clean fashion it almost looks too "easy" - the same can be said about a clean and fast speed run. If you do everything correctly your hips barely deviate from the path to the buzzer and it looks "easy" if not even "slow". There is another factor that is unseen from a spectator's point of view. It's sort of the "x" factor that during a competition, or a high octane speed session, they hit a flow state and they're able to output more energy than they normally can. Get excited! Try hard!

I have a pipe dream of going to a sprinting-specific country like Jamaica and taking the "B" team sprinters and making them into the best speed climbers in the world.

Have you used any interesting technology or looked into the science of what makes a climber speedy?

I've tried using AI programs to track movements and splits to and from certain holds, but I've found that AI struggles to identify certain timing and movement patterns that a human can. Unless you're recording with an ultra high definition camera at 120 frames per second at multiple angles, an AI will always be worse than good human judgement. For example, I've been trying to create an AI to track exactly when a foot engages on a foothold and when a hand grabs a hold fully. The AI is great at identifying when the hand or foot is over the hold, but when it fully initiates contact and pull is almost impossible for an AI to judge right now.

I have my own spreadsheets in which I manually inputted splits, and came up with hypothetical times based off mathematic ratios to judge how fast someone has to do a single move to reach a desired time. It really all comes down to me watching literally any and all speed footage in the world from as far back as 2011 to just learn from every run. I think in the future when cameras and AI get better, 100% I would want to use those tools to my advantage.

How do you integrate strength and conditioning exercises into your training programs for speed climbers?

Strength and conditioning and speed climbing have a very harmonious marriage. One can't live without the other. It makes sense if you look at it from a bouldering perspective. In bouldering, to get better you do either harder moves, more moves, hangboard, spray wall, circuit, pull ups, conditioning, etc. Since we can't do as many runs as a boulderer would do in a long session, we have to supplement the stimulus of more volume by going off the wall and doing exercises that makes us stronger in the moves that we do on the wall.

Speed beta seems to be constantly evolving despite the route staying the same. What are some of the key developments in terms of new sequences over the years that have cut times down? (the Tomoa Skip, etc.!)

In 2018/19 you could name everyone doing the Tomoa Skip (bypassing the fourth handhold out left), now the opposite is true. I think the only people not doing the Tomoa Skip are very tall guys using the Vaichekowski (skipping hold number 5, the sequence Bassa Mawem is doing - I believe Bassa, Noah Bratschi, Danyil Boldyrev, Jan Criz are the main athletes doing this). However, for the men, everyone is doing some variation of the "Chinese Top" where you stay on the left side of the finish holds, creating a direct line to the buzzer. Last season Matteo Zurloni, Sam Watson, Ludovico Fossali, John Brosler, and later in the season Jianguo Long were using a "skip" variation omitting hold 14 on the left. This definitely levelled the playing field for taller athletes and is in my opinion the most difficult variation but the fastest.

The female betas are still wide open to advancement and it's so exciting! I have a strong belief that any of the female speed athletes can do the men's betas. You're already seeing Emma Hunt and Piper Kelly doing the men's beta from two seasons ago and lots of the taller female athletes switch to the one arm middle dyno that you see every male athlete do. I've been really pushing the female athletes I am working with to try the beta that men do, since they hopefully can start a trend!

How much does calculated risk come into speed climbing?

During the off season is where the most risk is taken. It's human nature to resist change. When the "Chinese Top" beta first became known in 2019, I tried to tell people about it but got a lot of backlash saying it was too risky and not efficient. Unless you come up with a beta that you can break a world record with, no one will believe that it is good. It is risky to change what you are comfortable with, but change and innovation has always led to success.

One of the ways Sam Watson and I mitigated risk for the Pan American Championship was to revert back to a slightly easier beta, since he didn't need to be the fastest in the world, but just the most consistent during the competition to win. The goal in speed climbing is always to calculate risks that you can control and to accept those which you can't. 

Who do you have amongst your global protégés at the moment? (I know you coach some GB Climbing athletes!)

Sam Watson and Piper Kelly are probably the most notable athletes that I work with, but I'm also really excited to see what the other athletes I've been working with during this off season can do. Isis Rothfork (USA) (technically the first athlete I began working with) has been making huge progress and even winning every national title last year including Youth Nationals, Collegiate Nationals, and Open Nationals.

Internationally, the OQS competitors Grace Crowley (AUS) and Tegwen Oates (RSA) are in Salt Lake now training for the upcoming competitions. Having the UK athletes (namely Matthew Fall, Ava Hamilton, and Rafe Stokes [ed: Rafe is now a USA Climbing athlete]) in Salt Lake was a really fun experience. We spent quite a bit of time building technique for the upcoming season, so hopefully you will see some big strides very soon from them!

Ok coaching an athlete remotely.  © Albert Ok
Ok coaching an athlete remotely.
© Albert Ok

Is it easier to coach speed remotely than boulder/lead to some extent?

Speed is by far one of the easier disciplines to coach online since the route never changes. I've seen so many runs with the camera directly behind the climber that I can instantly diagnose any issues from the movement shown from behind. As I'm writing this I'm on a coaching call with an Australian athlete—it's a country with no access to high level speed coaching, so it's nice that the internet can bridge the gaps of the world and facilitate accessibility.

The mental side of speed is really interesting and probably not appreciated by spectators...what are the challenges and how do you work on them in your coaching?

Speed is really aggressive in terms of training since the entire season you train to climb at a competition for a few seconds. I'm pretty much on speed dial and get called once a week by someone having a hard day. The best speed athletes are able to control as many external factors as possible during their training, and stay emotionally resilient and confident during a competition. There's a slang phrase many of the western speed climbers throw around: "I got that dog in me". It's a funny way to say that we're hungry to succeed and nothing will get in the way between us and the goals we have.

I end up often being more of an emotional support for these athletes as they often have no challenges putting in the physical work, but will struggle the most with the stress of having a bad training day or competition. At the end of the day there really is no correct way to tell someone that life is hard and it's up to you to push through the worst days, so taking the time to listen and cater to each athlete is the best thing I can do.

Paris 2024-qualified athlete Sam Watson (USA) with coach Albert.  © Albert Ok
Paris 2024-qualified athlete Sam Watson (USA) with coach Albert.
© Albert Ok

Speed has grown from being an Eastern European specialism to a more global discipline with a great sense of community and new nations such as Indonesia winning medals. How has this helped develop athletes and the sport in general?

For a long time Russia was known as the capital of speed climbing, but with new players in the field everything has changed. Like with anything that requires innovation, the more people collaborate with ideas, the more progress is made.

The 2020 Olympic Games was one of the greatest things that could have happened to speed climbing. It took a boulderer to look at the Speed route and create the eponymous Tomoa Skip, something I don't think the old school speed climbers would have had the guts to commit to. From there on we had so many leaps in betas and talent pools and I only see things getting bigger. I have a pipe dream of going to a sprinting-specific country like Jamaica and taking the "B" team sprinters and making them into the best speed climbers in the world.

There remains an access issue for many athletes in countries/areas without speed walls. Do you see this improving?

The best thing that happened to speed climbing was the introduction of auto belays, however it came with some tricky liability issues. Across America, legal lawsuits regarding auto belays in gyms keep the speed wall off limits to most everyday climbers. What I've seen in Europe and Asia is that the walls are often reserved for competition training only. l created my own recreational program that any member can use on the speed wall under supervision, which is not a perfect solution, but the only one I could come up with.

Speed in itself is so tricky to even open up to regular members, since the barrier to entry is so high. To even do the first move you have to be pretty dynamic or tall. I see so many people come and try it on my open class and never return because they get shut down so quickly. After the Olympics I have some interest in developing the sport for those interested, but who need prerequisite strength or technique. I'm not sure what that will look like yet, but I'll keep thinking!

As a single discipline in Paris, do you think this has helped produce faster times, since all Speed athletes can focus on one discipline? It seems like there's been a bit of a boom in fast WR times post-Tokyo?

Tokyo was 100% necessary to push the sport to where it was. I think we would be stuck in our old ways in terms of beta and training and our progress would be slowed. The transition to single discipline however was also necessary, since this is really the first era where there is a speed specialist coming from every country. Before, every speed climber had to participate in bouldering or lead climbing in some way.

Everything combined definitely led to the boom of fast WR times. The COVID training really just forced everyone to put their head down and focus on training. People made huge jumps! The hungry athletes who are watching Paris will be ready to push the limits for 2028!

Speed climbing was undoubtedly the more popular discipline in Tokyo for the mainstream audience. Have you noticed an increased interest (from the general public, or from boulderers/route climbers) since its Olympic debut?

In a way, the annex of Boulder & Lead in the Olympics sort of separated the competition climbers fully from being interested in Speed. That being said, I've been meeting more and more specialists that want to only train speed. Lots of youth climbers have approached me for speed coaching and they only want to commit to speed. I feel like this was unheard of in America until maybe last year! Once the IFSC season kicks off and the Olympics happens, I think it might be one of the more popular disciplines. I'm expecting lots of people showing up to my Thursday open classes!

Albert with GB Climbing Speed team members Matthew Fall and Ava Hamilton.  © Albert Ok
Albert with GB Climbing Speed team members Matthew Fall and Ava Hamilton.
© Albert Ok

What do you make of the common comparison of speed to the 100m race...'the 100m of climbing' etc. Is it accurate/fair/stupid?

I kind of like the over simplification of the 100m race compared to speed climbing when describing it to the average spectator. I do try to improve on the idea by calling it vertical hurdles, since it's a bit more akin to the nature of it. Maybe there's a long future where Speed Climbing is considered Track and Field...and Wall?

How low do you think the times on this route can get, for both men and women? 

I really want to see the women try the men's beta. The top women are running 10m times that could theoretically have them recording under 6 seconds, but the beta for the last 5m is slower. I don't see a reason why women can't go well into the 5s. I can see 5.9 happening by the end of this year or early next year! For men, wow I mean 4.7 was just recorded by Sam in training and it wasn't a perfect run during an intense volume week [ed: since our interview, Sam set two world records at the IFSC World Cup in Wujiang last week, of 4.85 and 4.79 seconds]. 4.5 is easily possible. There was a video made by WIRED in which French scientist Pierre LeGreneur said that 4.5 was possible. I did think he was correct, but I didn't think it would happen this soon!

What would you say to someone who is cynical of speed as a discipline?

The irony is that a non-climber or a beginner climber almost always promotes speed climbing. They enjoy it and understand the simplicity of seeing who wins by a green time at the top. It's really the "seasoned veterans" or die hard old school climbers that give speed climbing hate. The irony is that back then they were advocating Hans Florine speed climbing on The Nose, and at some point they came into climbing as outcasts from other sports and activities. They experienced the same cynicism that they are now funnelling to us. It's a chance to give respect to a discipline in climbing that they wished they had received when they first started climbing. At the end of the day, if I'm not going to change the minds of others who dislike the discipline, at least appreciate the raw athleticism and work ethic of the athletes that try hard. 

Albert has helped build a global Speed climbing community.  © Albert Ok
Albert has helped build a global Speed climbing community.
© Albert Ok

What are your hopes for your athletes (pre-Paris, during the Games and beyond?)

Obviously having a podium finish—or even better, a champion—would be something I hope for in Paris. However, everyone wants that and all the coaches want it for their athletes, so it'll be up to who shows up on the day! There's a lot of excitement for my athletes going into World Cups this season! I think there is a chance that I will have up to five of my athletes in finals at once, which would be a first. I have a few youth athletes and I hope the world will see what they're capable of during youth nationals and youth worlds (I have a secret weapon U16 kid who I think has a chance to be record breaking fast!). I dream that this season, everyone in finals will look around and realise that across many nations I'm the coach for everyone!

What do you hope viewers take away from watching Speed in Paris as a stand-alone event?

Be inspired! The Olympics is the highest form of sport. It's truly beautiful to see the best of the best in the world. Whether it's speed, track, gymnastics, etc., be inspired to dream big. We're going to try and go fast and break world records, but that's just in the spirit of the Olympics and putting it all out there. Be curious, ask about speed, DM me questions, ask others, and cheer loud!

Visit Albert's website, follow him on Instagram and subscribe to his YouTube channel.

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