One household, two Tokyo Olympians. Austrian competition legend Jakob Schubert and world-class Italian rock and competition climber Michael Piccolruaz share more than just a living space — they have the same birthday (Dec 31 - Jakob 1990, Michael 1995) and they'll be competing together on the Olympic stage in Tokyo next month, with high hopes for making finals or even a podium place. Friends, training partners, rivals (mostly when it comes to chess) — what's it like to live and train together ahead of Sport Climbing's big debut?
The pair live in an Innsbruck flat alongside fellow climbers and training partners Alfons Dornauer and Lukas Köb. Jakob describes the household as 'tenacious'; the group train on a freestanding board mounted in their garden and climb together at Tirol's world-class bouldering and sport crags.
With 22 World Cup wins (19 Lead, 3 Boulder) 60 podiums (50 lead, 10 Boulder) and three World Championship titles - one of which in Combined - 30-year-old Innsbruck native Jakob is a strong contender for the Gold medal in Tokyo and arguably one of the best athletes in competition climbing history, if not the best. As his UKC Olympic profile describes him: 'He knows how to peak at the right time [...] Nobody is better at finding a way to win in the heat of the moment.' Many have their money on Jakob, so be sure to keep a close eye on this seasoned champion in Tokyo.
Born in the South Tyrol region of Italy, Michael grew up in a climbing family and began his competition career in 2009. Having started competing in Lead and Speed, he is now best known for his bouldering skills, but is evidently a strong all-rounder. His first big wins came in Boulder too, when he picked up a pair of European Youth Cup victories in 2013. As of 2021, he has one Boulder World Cup medal to his name (2nd place, Kazo 2016). Michael's route to Tokyo came as a surprise mid-lockdown, when the Tripartite Commission Place was reallocated to the highest-ranked eligible climber in Hachioji. 'Sometimes big dreams really do come true!' he wrote on Instagram at the time, just after Jakob - in his IFSC role as an athlete representative - had called him to break the news that they'd be going to Tokyo together.
Two competing nations, one household. So, what makes this duo tick as climbers and friends? We sent Jakob and Michael some questions to find out more...
How long have you guys known each other, and how did you meet?
Jakob: We've known each other for quite a while now. I'm not 100% sure of the very first time we met. Misha is a bit younger than me, but I remember one competition where I got to know him quite well, which was the European Championship in Eindhoven in 2013. He was very young back then, but already in finals in the European Championship and I was in the finals too, so we competed together there and I think that's when our friendship began, but we got to know each other much better when he moved to Innsbruck.
Michael: Jakob has been one of my idols basically since I started climbing. But if I remember correctly the first time we actually briefly talked was in 2010 in Massone, when Jakob did a quick second go ascent of Underground 9a and then asked me if I had a Mammut sticker as he needed some for a couple of pictures on the route.
What were your first impressions of one another?
Jakob: I was really fascinated and surprised at how talented he was at such a young age, especially in bouldering and I remember he was doing really well on technical boulders. I realised how friendly he was - he's the kind of guy that everyone likes, basically, because you can never fight with Misha. He's too nice a guy!
Michael: As I had been looking up to Jakob already as a kid, my impression of him was always that he is this super strong climber taking things super seriously. Looking back now I guess I was a bit blinded by this image of him being a star on the circuit. Now I know that Jakob is barely serious at all…
Jakob, you qualified in Hachioji. How did it feel to know you'd made the Games at the first opportunity?
Jakob: Yeah, obviously that felt great and that was a really big goal of mine in 2019, essentially my main goal. I knew that if I could do it at the first time of asking in Hachioji it would take a lot of pressure away, and I could have a much easier year ahead of the Games. I had already planned that if I managed it, I would not do any competitions in the autumn and I'd go and try Perfecto Mundo at Margalef instead, and I'm so happy it all worked out in the end. I sent Perfecto Mundo and yeah, that was a great year and it was only possible because I did well in Hachioji, so I was quite thankful!
Michael, you effectively qualified in Hachioji, but as a reallocated Tripartite quota place. What was it like waiting for Moscow to happen/not happen and then get the call out of the blue that you'd qualified? (you also had a bit of good fortune thanks to Ludo, right?)
Michael: It was definitely a nerve-wracking period waiting for the European Championships to happen, preparing myself as best as I could and then learning that they would be postponed. So it was such a big relief when I finally and quite surprisingly got reallocated the Tripartite place last May. The best part though was that it was Jakob who called me and gave me the happy message that we would go to Tokyo together.
When did you guys start living together?
Michael: We started living together in September 2017.
Jakob: There's four of us - we're all really into climbing and we really enjoy the flatshare because we're basically best friends.
What are your individual strengths and weaknesses?
Jakob: It depends if it's about climbing or in general. In climbing I would say my strengths are physical boulders and my weaknesses are usually things like flexibility on slabs etc. I'm not sure about Misha, but his weakness is definitely not slabs. He says he has problems with his shoulder power occasionally. If it's about personal things, I think a strength of mine is that I'm a very confident person. A weakness would be that I might be a bit too stubborn and Misha, I think he has the same strength and weakness, which is that he's just too nice a guy. So that's definitely a strength, but sometimes it can be a weakness as well — but only if you're in contact with the wrong people, I guess.
Michael: My strengths are crimps, technical boulders, slabs, explosive power, coordination. Weaknesses are big open pinches, underclings, really steep and powerful boulders as well as endurance.
What's the best and worst thing about training together? Do you complement each other well as training partners?
Jakob: Yes, definitely I think so — I don't think there is a worst thing about training together. I've always grown up training with other people and I've always enjoyed it; I wouldn't function just by myself, because it just gives me so much more joy to climb together with friends. It's not only about training hard, it's also about spending time with your best friends and having fun, learning from each other and pushing each other to get stronger, and I'm very thankful that such a strong climber like Misha, who is also one of my best friends, is living here in Innsbruck as well and that I have the opportunity to train together with him all the time.
Michael: The best thing is for sure the fun we have in each session. Even if climbing-wise I have a really bad day, there is still plenty of laughter. Sometimes it can be hard though to see Jakob's insane level and know that I should be close to his ability, but in that moment I feel far away.
I think we do complement each other quite well in training because some of my strengths are Jakob's weaknesses and vice versa, so we can help each other to better understand certain moves or problems we are struggling on.
What's it like living together - is it intense when you are both focused on the Games?
Jakob: No, it's not intense at all. It's not like our minds are only on the Games all the time and even so, we're really good friends and I think we both hope for each other to achieve our goals. Obviously the biggest dream ever would be to fly back home with two medals for our flat.
But yeah, we're just training together and trying to help each other to reach our goals to get in the best form for the Games, and other than that we're just living together, living a normal life, I'd say. Cooking dinner together, well... mostly Misha because he's Italian, so he is the best cook! We never have any problems.
Michael: It's actually super chill living together. Obviously we talk about the Olympic Games a lot but it never gets intense. I think it actually helps that we both have the same big goal and can calm each other down if one of us should get nervous.
Tell us about your rest day chess matches...
Michael: If I said earlier that Jakob barely takes anything too seriously, chess is one of those things he does take seriously. I don't play that much, but if we are hanging out at the lake and Jakob needs a partner to play against I do enjoy it. Obviously I hardly stand a chance against Jakob, but according to him I play solidly and could become much better if I'd only play it a bit more.
Jakob: Misha wasn't into chess as much as I am, but I'm trying to get him more into it and he's definitely a talent, but he still has some things to learn. So, for now, it's an easy victory for me, but it really depends on how much time we will invest into the game in the future. I think he likes it and he has talent, so hopefully we can also push each other in chess too!
How did you feel about the delay to the Games? Jakob, as one of the older athletes, was this more of a concern to you?
Jakob: It wasn't a concern. I always tried to see it as an opportunity. Even though I'm an older athlete, I still feel like there are always things in climbing to improve on as it's so complex. There are always things that you can work on and you can get stronger, basically, maybe not physically, but you're becoming a smarter climber and that's how you end up stronger. I tried to see it as a chance to have another year to get into the shape of my life, basically. Soon enough we'll see how it pays off, but I don't think much has changed and I'll still be one of the favourites. I still think I have a good shot of getting a medal and right now I'm doing everything to maximise the chances to get one.
Michael: I wasn't too disappointed when the Games got postponed. I simply wanted to make use of the additional time to get into even better shape and get better prepared for the big day.
How did you make the most of training at home during lockdowns?
Jakob: We were quite lucky in Austria: last year there were only about five weeks where we were really not able to climb at all. I built my own campus board in my garden and also our national team organised training sessions through a YouTube livestream. Not climbing training, but just CrossFit and things that we could do at home or in our garden. Then we were able to climb outside again and then soon enough, the national team was allowed to climb in the gym again, so I really can't complain. Since then we've had proper training conditions.
Michael: Because of the lockdown the gym in Innsbruck was closed, so I had to move back home to South Tyrol last December. Obviously I hoped that I wouldn't have to stay away from Innsbruck, but as the lockdown lasted until June I didn't get to train with Jakob for almost 6 months. That was definitely difficult and even though I had fairly good training options back home, I still missed Innsbruck and definitely could not get the quality training I would have been able to do in Innsbruck.
Michael, you had COVID. How has that affected your health and preparation?
Michael: My health wasn't affected by COVID too badly. I was sick for about three days but then quickly recovered and felt good pretty soon afterwards. The problem was that I had to stay quarantined for four weeks because my PCR tests continued to show as positive. So in those 4 weeks I lost a lot of training time. I tried to do some hangboarding, physical training with the rings and TRX, lots of stretching, but that couldn't make up for the time I lost on the climbing wall.
Where are your favourite places to train and climb near Innsbruck?
Jakob: For training, it's definitely the climbing gym in Innsbruck. We have amazing training conditions in all three disciplines, but if I have time to climb outside there are many, many great crags around Innsbruck. I really like going to Zillertal and Ötztal. It's especially good for sport climbing as there are so many great walls, like Achleiten and Schleierwasserfall.
Michael: We spend most of our time at the Kletterzentrum Innsbruck, but when we go rock climbing my favourite places are Zillertal, Ötztal and Schleierwasserfall.
It seems like you guys have been climbing on rock a lot more than some Tokyo athletes. Is this important to keep you both strong and motivated?
Jakob: Yes, I definitely think so. We both really love and enjoy climbing outside, and do it often. It's just refreshing and gives you motivation to train in the gym and it can also give you a lot of confidence. We spend weeks inside training really hard for a competition, and outside you see how much it paid off, you can see how strong you got through the training and achieve great things. It's not only about the achievements — it's just so much fun to have a little rock trip once in a while and just get out in nature and refuel the batteries for training inside.
Michael: Rock climbing is definitely an essential part of my life. It keeps me motivated, I get out into nature and away from the gym life. I find new goals and projects and sometimes I can push my limits more on the rock than in the gym.
What are your personal hopes and expectations (and for one another!) for Tokyo - it seems like it will be a very different Olympics! (you both did well in Salt Lake City [Jakob 3rd, Michael 12th] - that must be encouraging?)
Jakob: Yes, SLC was very encouraging. Especially because it was such a slabby wall and Tokyo will be slabby as well. This is usually a weakness of mine, so I was really happy that I could perform. It's just important to have a good result in bouldering during the season where you'll be competing in the most important competition of your life because bouldering is always a bit sketchy, so it feels good to get some confidence.
Training is going really well and I feel confident and my hopes are definitely to win an Olympic medal. I'm too old an athlete to go to the Olympics for anything other than that. I've achieved a lot of things in climbing but I have no Olympic medals, so obviously that's a big goal, but I know that the Combined discipline is a bit strange and might be more random than most competitions, so anything can happen. That's also why I think Misha and basically every athlete who will be there has a chance to win a medal if they just have a very good day. What I really hope for Misha is that he can climb to his full potential and reach finals together with me, and then we can just have a really good time in finals, and hopefully one of us can get that Olympic medal...that would be sick!
Michael: My goal for the Olympics is to make finals. That would definitely be a huge achievement for me and then in finals anything would be possible with this Combined format being such a gamble. For Jakob I know that his expectations will be higher and anything but a medal would be a disappointment. Personally, I obviously hope that he will bring the gold medal back home!
Jakob, you qualified as seed #2. Does this bring added pressure?
Jakob: No, not really. I mean, the pressure is there anyway, not just because of the seed or because of people expecting me to do well but because of myself — I expect myself to do well and I have high hopes. I've had many important events in my life and usually I know how to cope with the pressure, but it's a Combined event and like I said before, anything can happen but I think the most important thing for me is to do everything I can to maximise my chances now in training, and I think I'm doing that really well. I think I have a shot at achieving quite big, up quite high at the top, or with a medal, at least I hope so!