Swiss athlete Petra Klingler is a pioneer in competitive climbing, having excelled in speed, boulder and lead in addition to mastering rock and ice climbing. Very few climbers, male or female, have ever competed at such high levels across so many disciplines. While her early successes were in lead climbing, she's gone on to become a world bouldering champion, world ice climbing champion, Swiss Champion in speed and bouldering and a European bronze medallist in bouldering. She also competed in the sport's Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games, finishing 16th.
A new adidas TERREX video follows Petra's last World Championship event which took place in her hometown of Bern, Switzerland. It dives into timely topics such as how to find strength under pressure, body image, and dealing with success and failure. it is also a celebration of Petra's long competitive career as she makes her final Olympic bid for Paris 2024.
To complement the film, we sent Petra some questions to find out more about her career highlights and the wisdom she's picked up along the way.
You enjoyed a sporty childhood. Tell us a bit about all the sports you have done!
As a child, I dabbled in various sports, mostly running wild in the woods and playing games like hide and seek. But alongside that, my deep-rooted passion was horse riding. I've always loved being around horses; there's something incredibly calming about them, and that connection remains to this day. Unfortunately, life's demands have made it challenging to pursue riding, but it's undeniably on my bucket list for the future.
In addition to horse riding, I had phases of engaging in gymnastics, athletics, and orienteering. However, as my commitment to climbing grew, I also ventured into boxing. I found that the boxing training significantly improved my general fitness and coordination, making it a valuable addition to my athletic journey.
How did you come to focus on climbing?
It was definitely a gradual process influenced by various factors at the time. Firstly, the stable where I used to ride relocated to a place quite far away, making it challenging for me to continue riding there. Joining another stable just didn't feel the same; it's like trying to replace a family.
Another significant factor was my brother, who began climbing regularly in a group. This meant that my mum had to drive to the climbing gym anyway, and so I started going with them. Spending more time at the gym, I realised I had a knack for climbing, which motivated me.
Then, one weekend, by sheer chance, we visited the gym and there happened to be a competition underway. My mum decided to sign up my brother and me, even though we didn't quite understand what was happening. In fact, I nearly missed the finals because we didn't realise that I had made it that far. Winning that first competition ignited a fire that continues to burn brightly until this day.
What was it like to grow up in a country like Switzerland, which has a lot of strong climbers? Who were your idols?
It never fully dawned on me just how special my journey was. My focus had always been on myself and my competition results. As a teenager, I watched Swiss climbers like Cedric Lachat, Daniel Winkler, Christina Schmid, and Nina Caprez excel in World Cups, which gave me the belief that I, too, could achieve such feats. Outdoor climbing didn't really pique my interest; my passion was firmly rooted in competition.
What I've cherished since childhood, though, is the privilege of having parents who climb and support me, along with the blessing of growing up in Switzerland. I always looked forward to returning home after a trip abroad, relishing the simple joy of drinking tap water.
What are your stand-out moments from your climbing career?
One of my earliest and most cherished memories takes me back to one of my first Swiss bouldering championships. The excitement of travelling with my team and best friends to a competition, even if it was within Switzerland, was nothing short of amazing. We embarked on a train journey that turned into an adventure in itself. We filled the train with laughter, playing cards, darting around the carriages, and even attempting to climb up into the baggage compartments.
My next incredible memory was created in Marseille during my first international lead event. France has always had a significant impact on me. This event took place on a school climbing wall, modest in size but overflowing with strong athletes. Names like Charlotte Durif, Thomas Ballet, Hélène Janicot (if my memory serves me right), and Gautier Supper were all there. They were names I had only heard of before, and being able to climb alongside them was mind-blowing. Winning the event in my category gave my self-confidence a massive boost. The only challenge was figuring out how to transport my trophy, which was too big to fit into any backpack or suitcase, but of course, I wanted to show it off to the world.
Then came my first World Cup experience, particularly my first boulder problem. Topping that boulder in the last seconds sent a rush of endorphins and adrenaline through me, and it was absolutely addictive.
I could reminisce about countless more memories, but I'll fast forward to the 2016 World Championships, which was a true fairy tale come to life. So much dedication and hard work had gone into my training. For the first time, I felt like a professional athlete, following a personal plan and working with dedicated coaches. The outcome was unbelievable. Many people supported me to reach this stage, helping me in numerous ways and pushing me to be my best. I felt immense gratitude and happiness, and I wanted to give back to them in my own way. This victory changed the course of my journey in the years to come, allowing me to focus more on training and maintain a professional approach, at least to some extent.
You have spoken out about body image issues in climbing and the corresponding health problems that climbers suffer from. What do you think needs to be done to resolve these issues?
Addressing body image issues in climbing is a crucial endeavour, but it's not limited to our sport alone. It's a challenge that affects athletes across various disciplines, from cycling and gymnastics to synchronised swimming. To resolve these issues, we must initiate a cross-sport dialogue and action plan.
Raising awareness about body image challenges in sports is a shared responsibility. We must openly discuss the adverse effects of unrealistic body standards. It's essential to collaborate with athletes, coaches and organisations in these other sports to promote understanding and inclusivity.
Diversity and inclusivity should be promoted universally. Celebrating athletes of all body types, genders, and backgrounds is a common goal. By showcasing a diverse range of athletes, we can challenge stereotypes and emphasise that success is not determined solely by appearance.
Sports organisations should implement policies and initiatives that encourage body-positive environments across the board. They can create safe spaces for athletes to discuss their experiences, provide resources for mental health support and actively combat discrimination and bias.
Coaches and mentors, in all sports, have a role in prioritising holistic athlete well-being. A balanced approach to training, nutrition, and rest should be the norm. They need to be aware of the harm unrealistic body expectations can cause and counteract them.
Lastly, individual athletes must prioritise their own health and well-being over external pressures. Seek help when needed, be it related to mental health, injuries, or body image issues. Let's collectively tackle this challenge by working together, breaking down boundaries between sports and creating supportive, empowering and diverse communities.
In summary, the body image issue is not exclusive to climbing but extends across many sports. Let's engage in a collaborative effort to address this challenge, drawing lessons from other sports, sharing experiences and working together to promote healthier and more inclusive sporting environments.
What is one piece of advice for young or new climbers that you have learned from your career and that you wish you had been told?
Embrace your love for climbing, not for the medals or recognition it may bring, but for the profound transformations it instills within you. Passion is a precious gift, a treasure not easily found in life. Protect it, nurture it, and ensure that its beauty outweighs the challenges.
What's next in your climbing life and non-climbing career?
That's a good question. In these challenging times, securing sponsors to support my transition to outdoor climbing and the pursuit of ambitious projects and difficult ascents is no simple task. Nevertheless, this is my dream, and I'm diligently striving towards it.