Kim Ja-in was born to climb.
Her parents met and fell in love in the mountains. Her mother climbed, her father climbed, both her older brothers climbed, all before she first chalked up her hands. It was, she explained, only natural that she would join them. But while she was the last to start, Kim outclimbed her family a long time ago – in fact, few others can claim to have scaled the same heights.
Kim, 30, is a superstar of the sport climbing world. A previous world champion, she has clinched a heap of world cup titles and Asian championships since entering competitive climbing in 2004. Now she faces a new challenge: the Olympics.
At Tokyo 2020, sport climbing makes its debut. The competition will be run across the three disciplines of bouldering, lead and speed climbing, each with their own techniques and format.
Bouldering involves navigating as many fixed routes as possible in four minutes on a wall four meters high with no safety ropes. Lead climbing requires athletes climb as high as possible on a 15-meter plus wall in six minutes using safety ropes, without reclimbs. Speed climbing has two climbers ascend a parallel route at the same time on a 15-meter wall set at 95 degrees – sometimes doing so in under 8 seconds. Combined results will determine medalists.
Kim has already qualified for the South Korean national team, and the team begins its Olympic qualification efforts later this summer.
Lead climbing is Kim’s specialty, but Tokyo 2020’s format is throwing up new challenges. “I had to do speed climbing, which I’ve never done before,” she explained. “It’s been hard recently because of that.”
Kim is no stranger to adversity. “Physically, I’m not so gifted for climbing,” she explained. “I’m quite small compared to other players.” Standing five foot tall, she’s stepped up her physical conditioning to meet the demands of speed climbing.
“Nowadays the style of the climbing course itself has changed a lot; it’s become very powerful,” Kim said. “I usually work out for two days on, one day off, with climbing five days a week. I practice climbing first and then do physical training, finishing off with running. Sometimes I also swim in the morning.”
As an ambassador for the sport, she’s gone to extreme lengths to raise climbing’s profile in South Korea.
In 2017, Kim scaled the 555-meter Lotte World Tower in Seoul – the fifth tallest completed building in the world – on live television. Unlike the attempt to climb the tower in 2018 by the so-called “French Spider-Man” Alain Robert, Kim’s effort was officially sanctioned and she used safety ropes.
“I thought it would be a good way to introduce sports climbing to the public,” Kim said. The climb itself wasn’t technically difficult, she explained, but the heat of the building’s 123-story framework proved a little tricky. She climbed the skyscraper in two and a half hours.
“It was endless,” she added. “People asked if it wasn’t scary to climb that high. Once you are at a certain level, the height becomes unrealistic in a way, (rather) than being scary… To see a helicopter flying lower than me was really memorable.”
After 19 years of climbing and 15 years on the professional circuit, Kim has little left to prove. But ask any athlete and they’ll tell you an Olympic gold medal remains among the pinnacles of sporting achievement.
The road to Tokyo became a little bumpier in early July when Kim sustained a finger injury while competing at a world cup event in Switzerland. A representative told CNN her recovery time is estimated at five weeks, adding that Kim still plans to compete in the first Olympic qualifying event in August, with more events to follow.
However the future unfolds, Kim, speaking before her injury, said that her love of the sport is not reliant upon medals. She just relishes the chance to stand in front of a new wall and climb it for the first time.
“When I finish a climb with all my might, that sense of achievement and joy are the biggest attraction when it comes to climbing,” she explained. “Climbing is everything to me.”