Jan Virt takes a look at the life of a rising competition climbing star with a rich climbing heritage: Jenya Kazbekova.
In the increasingly popular world of competitive climbing, it is easy to get lost in the crowd, and rising to the top of the professional climbing world is a daunting task. The landscape is colourful and vast, and certain names are synonymous with the sport. There is the climbing prodigy known as Alex Megos, with his killer surfer looks seen more often at the sun-kissed coast of California than in Bavaria. Next, there is Ashima Shiraishi, who pushed through the climbing crowd not long after touching Rat Rock in New York City's Central Park for the first time. Then there is the young Ukrainian Jenya Kazbekova, a rising star with an ever-present smile and a deep pedigree in the sport of competitive climbing.
I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Jenya for the first time during the 2019 Chamonix World Cup and have a vivid memory of her standing proudly on the podium with the Ukrainian national flag in her hands at the official opening ceremony. Jenya gave me an insight into her story and where it all began and revealed what continues to push her to become one of the best professional climbers in the world. This is the tale of the warrior with a smile.
Ievgeniia, Zhenja, or Jenya, as most of her friends call her, was born to Nataliia Perlova and Serik Kazbekov. Both of Jenya's parents were professional climbers, winning the Masters of Sport International Class along with both being frequent Ukrainian National and World Cup Champions. There was no doubt that Jenya would follow in their footsteps.
As her mother recalls, Jenya first began to climb when she was only seven months old, as she accompanied her parents to the crag in Crimea, Ukraine. Jenya would climb the rocks around her during those trips. However, it would not be until the age of eight that Jenya would begin training for climbing properly. Ever since then, her performance has skyrocketed.
"When I first met Jenya during the competitions, she appeared to be a tranquil and shy girl, but while competing on the wall, she would fire up. Suddenly she became the most confident person out there, always smiling, no matter how the rest of the competition went."
When I ask where the motivation continues to come from, Jenya is quick to respond that her parents were the most significant motivation as well as her mentors at a young age. However, other big names fuelled her passion, such as Yuji Hirayama, with his fantastic technique combined with beautiful style. Jenya also recalls how Anna Stöhr was one of her female role models. She loved Anna's attitude during competitions, especially her endless smile that expressed her enjoyment for the whole process of climbing. She knows her influences are many, and she is simply blessed to be part of such a great community. "I thought that if I were able to choose a husband, he would be David Lama. So, yes, I grew up in a big family of climbers, and that's why I will probably keep climbing for the rest of my life."
Jenya was eight years old when she led her first route, which was a 7a+ called The Love Games at Nikita crag in Crimea. "I remember how I fought on it as if I was fighting for my life. That was the first time I realised how nice it is to top a route on which you've been working hard for so long."
At 11 years old, Jenya succeeded in sending her first 8a, Vremya CH. Serik and Nataliia would accompany her to the crag each time she would give it a try. But on the day she ticked it, they were both busy with work, so only a few of Jenya's friends were there.
Clipping the chains on Vremya CH was unforgettable, and immediately after she did, they decided to go for another 8a called Fiesta, which she ticked later that day, on her 4th attempt. She recalls, "I was thrilled and couldn't wait to tell everything to my mum and dad in the evening. So, when I returned from the crag and told them the news, they were ecstatic, but they said they still needed to film it, so I had to come back the next day and repeat the climb. That was a real challenge, I felt nervous because I was not sure if I would be able to climb it again. Eventually, everything went fine. The video is still available to watch on Vimeo. When I sent a route and my dad wouldn't see it in person, then I had to go back and climb it again with him behind my back as a witness. He would always use this trick as part of my training."
Jenya's mum Nataliia vividly recalls how in October 2011, Jenya had a fantastic trip to Kalymnos island in Greece, where she ticked a lot of hard routes and did her first 8a+ onsight. "I didn't concentrate on hard climbing and just tried to do a lot of routes. I remember the 8a+ that I onsighted, which was a 60m route called Super Priapos in the Grande Grotta sector and had a few cruxes and a beautiful slab at the top. The top part is a little bit sketchy because you are climbing at a crazy height, and it is important not to start panicking. Luckily, this has never been an issue for me as I am so profoundly involved in the process of climbing that I don't even notice what's going on around me."
By the time she turned 20, riding a consistent wave of success, Jenya would return to Crimea's Red Stone and redpoint The Güllich 8c+, a Red Stone testpiece; furthermore, it was the first female ascent, making it extra special for Jenya. It's a moment that remains vivid in Jenya's mind, marking a milestone in the young climbers' long list of accomplishments.
When the time came to transition to professional climbing, it happened naturally and with relative ease for Jenya. She began climbing and competing more frequently. By 14, Jenya found sponsors who supported her career. "I would always take climbing seriously, sometimes maybe a little too much. But what could I do? I was immersed in the sport too deeply to realise." The rest is history in the making, as she continues to progress through the international ranking.
"At one point, we had to step aside as coaches. Our persistence hurt Jenya. She wanted more support from her parents than our healthy critique, which caused arguments between us. Luckily, we were able to keep it together, and we went through this hard period as a family."
Looking back at 2019, it was an intense and hard period of Jenya's life. She had the most successful year in her climbing career, but also a very intense one, packed with competitions. Jenya competed in the more events in 2019 than any other year. However, most of us still remember that setback on boulder number one in the Toulouse 2019 Combined Qualifier event. As she attempted a difficult move to the final hold, everything suddenly stopped: Jenya came off the wall, and it became obvious that she had hurt her left knee. It was a sad moment watching her limp off the stage.
"I have always known Jenya to be an incredibly strong climber and kind person, but the moment that really stuck out for me was when she hurt her knee during the Toulouse qualifier. You could see how much her knee was hurting, yet she was still climbing her hardest and pushing through the pain. It was an incredibly inspiring moment and spoke volumes about Jenya as a climber."
Jenya is candid about her feelings during the season. "As far as I remember, I have always had that feeling of intense fatigue after every season of competitions; however, 2019 was even longer. The first competition I did was at the beginning of February, and the last one took place at the beginning of December. After the World Championship in Hachioji in August, I already felt tired from the ongoing comp season while still having three months ahead of me! All the qualification events for the Olympics were stressful, so when I ended up with the knee injury after Toulouse, I realised my body was depleted, both physically, emotionally, and mentally." It was a painful but valuable lesson for Jenya to learn. However, since then she has not only has recovered from her injury but she is also making progress.
Even with the ups and downs of 2019, Jenya decided that it was time for something new and exciting. She has always had a fascination with living abroad and learning a new language while being immersed in a different culture to her own. Craving adventures with new faces and places, she began to ask herself, "Can I leave my comfort zone and what will happen once I do?" Jenya has always been worried about spending the rest of her life in her comfort zone. To stop growing as a person. So, during the summer of 2019, she asked herself: "Am I living my life the way I want to live it? Am I doing everything I can within my abilities to reach my goals? Am I prioritising my own desires, or the wishes of others?"
As she shared her plans with her family and friends, everyone felt and saw the passion expressed by Jenya. She had their support. Everyone knew that climbing facilities in Germany were some of the best and that climbing was more accessible, and above all else, this was Jenya's dream. After all, any climber knows that the reason they climb is for the adventure and thrill. What is more thrilling than moving to another country to fuel your passion even further while living your dream at the same time? However, it would prove a bit more challenging than she anticipated.
As with all things in life, there comes a time when someone has to decide for themselves. Jenya explains how she missed her friends and family. Having travelled so much for competitions, she eventually found herself homesick. However, she realised that this was part of the dream she had always imagined, and she understands her sacrifice. Now living in Germany, Jenya looks back and realises that she would never change a thing because she is living her dream and is grateful for every day on her current path. One more chance for Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification remains in Moscow this November - COVID-19 situation permitting. Jenya has to win, or be the next-highest-placed eligible competitor. One thing is certain: she will put up a good fight, and whatever the outcome, she'll have a smile on her face.