Ben Lepesant has interviewed Janja Garnbret, the brightest shining star on the competition scene. Although she is still only 18, and thus a junior, she is the reigning Lead World Champion and has already won the overall Lead World Cup. This year she finished 2nd overall in Bouldering, beaten only by Shauna Coxsey, and she is well on her way to defending her Lead title after three victories and one 3rd place.
She is also the title holder of both the La Sportiva Legends Only and the adidas Rockstars.
Janja hasn't climbed that much outdoors, but she has none the less redpointed 8c+ and flashed 8c.
Hi Janja. How did you start climbing?
I started climbing when I was 6 or 7 years old. Before that, I was climbing on trees, closets and doors… I got introduced to climbing not by my friends or my family, but by myself. I started climbing because of my own determination to do it.
Then there was a promotion wall in Slovenj Gradec, my hometown in Northern Slovenia. There, I was introduced to real climbing. The guys there were impressed and said I should join a club. My parents signed me up. A year later, I changed to the club in Velenje, where Gorazd Hren started working with me soon after.
Where do you train?
I still train in Velenje. It is a very small bouldering gym, the wall is not so great. I sometimes travel to Mitterdorf and Innsbruck for this reason.Did you climb outside from the start as well?
First, I got introduced to climbing in the gym. I didn't know about climbing on rock. The year I started training with Gorazd Hren, that changed. I really like rock climbing. You are in nature and you have so many different ways to do a route. When I am on rock I don't feel any pressure to climb well and to always feel strong. So I enjoy everything, but I still want to do something hard. Not for media, but just for me, for the soul.
Where do you usually go?
We have some good crags in Slovenia. Kotecnik, near my home, and Misja Pec. But I don't climb there so often because the competitions keep me busy throughout the season.
The competitions have priority?
Yes. Because I have always been in competitions, I didn't have much time to just go outside and enjoy. I want to climb more on rock in the future!
How is competing for you? You have almost always won when you were a kid. Does it ever become boring?
When I first started climbing in the youth competitions, it was not boring at all. I wanted to win, to give it all: 100%. After I started to compete in the World Cup, the youth comps started to be a bit boring, because it wasn't the same challenge. In the World Cups, I didn't know if I was going to be able to win, or enter finals. But when I got into my first finals in Chamonix, I knew the podium was possible. Then I decided to mostly train for the World Cups. I wanted to give everything I had for the World Cups.
Why do you think you are so strong, what is the difference between you and most of the others?
I don't know. I love climbing. It is not a load for me to train. In fact, I sometimes like training more than competitions. In training, I can relax and give 100%, even if my skin is bad, I really enjoy it. Sometimes, competitions are stressful for me. When there are five competitions in a row for example, and you have to be focused all the time. That can be hard sometimes.
What does being focused look like?
I am in a different world. If you asked me what I think then, I wouldn't know. I am completely absorbed by the task at hand: how to do the route, how to do the move. It is really cool. But it is also hard to maintain.
When do you start being so focused at a comp?
It starts in the isolation zone. For every route, it is the same. I need to be a little bit alone to pull myself together and I forget about everything around me.
You said competing can be stressful. How so?
Sometimes, I think: "I have to do the route". And not: "I want to do the route". I should climb more with my heart. When there are many competitions, this becomes more difficult. This year, I am trying to understand more about myself, about mental aspects of my climbing. Last year, that was a challenge. I learnt a lot and now, in my third year competing in the World Cup, it is getting better.
Was a lack of focus the problem at the European Championships in Campitello di Fassa this year?
I competed at the Bouldering World Cup in Vail two weeks before and wasn't confident in my lead performance. I think that in finals, I didn't believe in myself enough, that I could win or do the route. Maybe that was my mistake.
I am working on that this season. I still don't know if I should be totally focused and "angry" while climbing, or if I should be relaxed, thinking " it will be what it is meant to be". It's a tough question. I need to find the balance between being angry and being relaxed.
You have been going from success to success and you are still very young. Are you still hungry for more?
I won the World Championships last year, which was a lifetime goal, but like I said: I want to be strong all the time, I want to be better every year. So maybe I won't get tired of competitions. I will probably be more into bouldering, because I didn't compete in the World Championships in bouldering yet. The Bouldering World Championships are my goal.
What do you think about Innsbruck?
It is really cool. The gym is amazing, it is so big that you could get lost inside. There is every style. The bouldering wall is also really cool. You have a great variety of holds, every kind.
What do you think about the World Championships in Innsbruck?
I think this place is perfect for the World Championships, the outdoor wall is huge and amazing. They can set a really good route, and it could be great to watch. Plus, there is lots of room for spectators!
Will you be at the Youth World Championships in Innsbruck this year?
Unfortunately not! I had a lot of competitions this year and I started to feel a little bit tired. So in order to get some rest and prepare well for the rest of the Lead World Cup season I decided to skip the Youth World Championships.
Will you do both lead and bouldering in Innsbruck in 2018?
Yes, hopefully. If bouldering and lead are separated in the schedule, then I will do both.
How about the Olympics?
Like for every athlete, this is a big goal for me, too.
Have you already started training in speed?
I climbed the route just a few times. Just for the feeling. No training so far.
You will soon finish high school. Do you think that it will difficult when all you have to do is climb?
I don't know, but I want to be a professional climber. Later, when I finish my career, I want to stay involved with climbing, to have my own club, to train other kids, to be a coach.
You want to be a coach as well?
Yeah! It would be a shame if I wouldn't share my knowledge about climbing to other climbers.
You know story of Lynn Hill, who after climbing the Nose on El Cap said "it goes boys"?
Something similar must happen to you when you climb with boys, no?
When I climb with boys, maybe they take it too seriously sometimes. On crimps in particular, I am sometimes better than them. Then they get frustrated. But this is not my intention. I don't want to compare with them, but just to try how they do the moves. And I am learning from them!
Not yet! I tried one time, but I didn't take it seriously. I had one day in Misja Pec. I tried Martin Krpan and Xadid Hostel, but I need more time. I really want to go to Céüse to try Biographie. Not because it is a 9a+, but because it is such a great line. I have wanted to do it since I saw the film of Chris Sharma when I was nine years old.
Margo (Hayes) is an inspiration for me. All the girls who are trying 9a+, actually!
Do you think you will continue to climb after you are finished competing?
Yeah, for sure!
What kind of mind-space do you have to be in to train? What's on your mind when you wake up?
When I wake up, I am always motivated to train. Actually, rest days are harder!
Sometimes, I don't feel very good on the wall when I start training, then it is hard. Then, I have to push myself to train. I practically always want to do my best, even though sometimes my skin is bad, I am bleeding and it hurts, because I know that someday, it will pay off.
I always tell myself: Pain is just temporary. It will go away. When I am in the route and really pumped, I tell this to myself, push myself a little, and go beyond my limits.
How much are you improving because of experience?
People always say to me: now you have experience. But I don't know. I always just climb, a large part of that is not about experience. The mental part is where it is important to have experience.
When I was 16 or 17, I had this problem: if I didn't top the first boulder in a competition, I'd get really frustrated. But now I am more experienced and know: if I don't top the first boulder, I always have the next three boulders. That is the sort of thing where experience helps.
No, actually they are easier. I also like bouldering comps more. Maybe because I am more relaxed. And I have more boulders, so I can improve throughout the comp. When you are in lead World Cup, you have one try, where you have to give it all. In bouldering, you feel like every boulder is another opportunity for you.
Are you more motivated in bouldering because you have taken less titles in this discipline?
Yeah, maybe that is a reason. I know I can improve a lot in bouldering. When I am in Lead World Cups, I have the feeling that people are thinking, "Janja will definetely win, I don't have to watch", and then I feel the pressure to win. In bouldering, everything can change from one round to the next. I think I can prove more in bouldering.
Do you feel a lot of pressure?
In bouldering: no. In lead: yes.
Is that hard for you?
I learnt to manage the pressure really well. I manage to focus well. I love climbing so much that I forget about everything.
What are your strengths and your weaknesses in climbing?
My weakness might be that I need more tries in jumps and funky moves. My coach knows more. [Laughs]. My strengths are crimps and lock-offs.
Have you been naturally strong from the start, or is it all from training?
I was quite strong from the start. Most importantly however, I was extremely motivated and able to move quite well and dynamically. But all that was just a talent! Hard work is much more important. I am a really hard working person. I want to train. I want to be the best.
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Mountains or beach? Beach
Ceüse or Misja pec? I haven't been yet, but still… Céüse.
Overall world cup winner or world champion? World champion!
The most impressive competitor ever is... Jain Kim for the girls and for the boys, of course Domen! [Smiles]. If I have to say someone else, it will be Adam!
The best route in the world is... Illusia 8c in Kotecnik.
My favourite moment as a climber was... the feeling when I clipped the top in Paris and became the world champion ->
Thanks for your time!
Janja Garnbret is sponsored by: C.A.M.P and Five Ten