Mia Krampl, a professional rock climber from Slovenia, was in tears when she stepped onto the podium in third place at an Olympic qualifying competition in Toulouse, France, in December.
The result qualified Krampl for the Tokyo Games, where climbing will make its debut as an Olympic sport next year, at the recently delayed Summer Games. But she wasn’t crying tears of joy. She was heartbroken. The moment Krampl punched her ticket to the Olympics, she deprived her best friend of the same dream.
With several new sports set to debut in Tokyo, athletes who never factored the Olympic Games into their career plans were suddenly experiencing the pull of the rings and the heartbreak that comes with missing the team, all of which runners and swimmers and gymnasts and table tennis players have experienced for decades. In surfing, the competition for America’s Olympic berths pitted a legend against his protégé. In rock climbing, two best friends from a former Yugoslav republic dueled in a way they never thought they would.
Slovenia, a nation of two million people in the Balkan Peninsula, has produced some of the world’s best competitive climbers, including Janja Garnbret, the top-ranked woman last year on the sport’s World Cup circuit.
Garnbret easily qualified for the Tokyo Games by winning the world championship in Hachioji, Japan, in August. That left just one spot for the rest of Slovenia’s female climbers, and the next best Slovene women with a chance were Krampl and Lucka Rakovec, her friend.
In Toulouse, Krampl, 19, and Rakovec, 18, made the final round, guaranteeing one of them their country’s last Olympic spot. For most of the contest, Rakovec appeared to have the edge. Then, in the final event, a competition to see who could go the farthest up a lead climbing wall before falling, Krampl reached one move higher than Rakovec to grab the final ticket to Tokyo.
“I was crying because I knew how much she wanted to go to the Olympics,” Krampl said of Rakovec and her own emotional outburst when the competition ended. “She was hugging me and congratulating me, and she said that I should stop crying because I have to go on the podium.”
Krampl and Rakovec have been nearly inseparable since their first international competition together in 2015. They became great friends and tough competition for each other. One is better one day, the other is the next. No matter what, they cheer each other on.
The past two months have created a new wrinkle in their relationship.
Krampl traveled to Tokyo to train at the Olympic facilities there at the beginning of March, just a few days before the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Slovenia became apparent. Her original plan was to stay in Tokyo for two weeks, but as circumstances at home became worse, she chose to stay in Japan with her boyfriend, who lives in Tokyo, where the training facilities stayed open. Rakovec was home in Slovenia, where the entire nation was locked down.
Then their fortunes switched. Krampl was no longer allowed to use the climbing facilities in Tokyo, and was restricted to exercises she could do at home, like hanging from her fingertips on a home training tool called a hangboard. In Slovenia, the gyms have opened exclusively for competitors, and Rakovec is training again. Krampl is the jealous one.
They chatter daily about how lazy they have been feeling, their diets and their sleep schedules. Krampl said her workouts had slowed, but she isn’t too worried because all international climbing competitions through July have been postponed.
Krampl and Rakovec said some members of their extended climbing clique expressed concern that they might have a falling-out in the lead-up to the qualifying competition in Toulouse. Competing against each other on the World Cup circuit was one thing. Challenging each other for the single remaining spot on the Olympic team was a different kind of pressure.
Their friendship never wavered. “We knew that only one could go,” Rakovec said. “We were just making fun of it all the time.”
“Everybody took it so seriously,” Krampl said. “Even during finals, we were laughing.”
Still, Rakovec’s dream disappeared by a margin of a single hold. It was so close. She felt the weight of failure, especially when her friends and family expressed sympathy. But she tried to focus on her happiness for Krampl.
Rakovec said she believes that all failures yield lessons, and that there were some tough but good lessons to come from this one.
“It’s definitely harder to compete against the person you really love,” Rakovec said. “But you definitely have to know if it’s a really good friend, you have to feel happy for them. Friendship is always more important than competitions or medals.”
After the Olympic trials, Krampl, with Rakovec’s help, stepped up her training. Five days each week, Rakovec met Krampl at the climbing gym in Kranj, Slovenia, Krampl’s hometown, so they could train together. They gave each other feedback on technique, and they motivated each other through workouts.
Krampl and Rakovec have very different climbing styles. Krampl is proficient on steep walls requiring tremendous strength and power to fight gravity. But Rakovec excels on balance climbs, which require high levels of coordination and flexibility to master particularly slippery holds.
In early February, Rakovec arrived at a training camp feeling ill. She tried some easy climbing to warm up, but began to feel worse. She realized she wouldn’t help herself by continuing to climb. Even though Rakovec was excused to rest, she chose to stick around to cheer her team on. While Krampl trained, Rakovec shared her expertise from the sideline.
When Krampl struggled with a climbing move that required her to span a sloped surface with steady footing and careful body position, Rakovec stepped in to direct Krampl’s hips, instructing her to turn them slightly to correct her balance.
One morning last spring, about a week before the World Cup in Munich, Krampl and Rakovec met for breakfast at a cafe in Kranj. They love the foam in cappuccinos, and it’s a tradition for them to try new coffee shops together in search of the deepest foam in Europe.
Krampl was grinding through a tough period, finishing up her last year of high school during the competition season. As she drowned in papers and exams, Krampl’s mind was scattered and her training took a dive. Her performance in the previous three World Cup competitions had been far below her expectations — she didn’t even make the semifinals. Between sips of foam, Krampl shared her trepidation about the coming Munich World Cup.
“You’ve got this,” Rakovec told her.
Krampl found her form and took third place.
Now the two friends are facing unexpected challenges, nearly 6,000 miles apart, with much uncertainty ahead. They have been messaging each other often, checking in to make sure they’re feeling well and staying focused. They don’t know when they’ll be able to meet up to train together again, so for now, like much of the world, they’re working together remotely.
On March 24, the International Olympic Committee announced its intention to postpone the Games until 2021, giving Krampl an extra year to prepare. Despite uncertainty about the 2020 World Cup climbing season, Krampl is remaining committed to her Olympic journey. She said this wasn’t the time to hesitate.
Rakovec said Krampl would need to work on improving her speed for the Olympics.
There will be three events. The speed event is a race up a 50-foot climbing wall. The bouldering event gives competitors a set time to perform a few extremely difficult moves — called boulder problems — up short walls no higher than 15 feet, with gymnastics mats to protect climbers if they fall. The lead climbing event requires athletes to scale long and steep routes, up to 60 feet high, with overhanging sections, using a safety rope to protect them if they lose their grip.
Scores from each event will be combined to determine the winner. Krampl is best at lead and bouldering, but she is deficient in speed. “I’m pretty sure she’ll be more than ready by Tokyo,” Rakovec said.
With the Olympics now more than a year away, Krampl will have to restructure her training plan. She will be in a gym as soon as one becomes available for her.
Rakovec hopes that she will be able to train alongside Krampl again soon. While she won’t be able to compete in Tokyo, Rakovec has big plans for the World Cup competitions when they start up again. She wants to stand on a podium, any international podium, with Krampl.