Stasa Gejo and the (almost) perfect season

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Poobjavljamo zelo zanimiv in obsežen intervju CTeam-ovke Staše Gejo, ki ga je naredila s stranjo climbingfamily.net. Staša se v intervjuju “dotakne” skoraj vsega s čimer se sreča na svoji plezalni poti, kot so prvi začetki, posamezne tekme, psihološke priprave in treningi, študij, žrtvovanje,…

Staša Gejo, Junior World bouldering champion. Does that still sound bizarre?
It took me a while, more than a month, to get used to the idea.

Especially at the time you didn’t think you had won it !
Yeah, I think I was actually the only person who didn’t know at the time!

Tim Hatch, the official judge, had called me for doping control, and I said ‘Can I just see the results board first?’ and he said ‘What for, you won!’ and I said ‘Yeah, shut up’. I was so sure I was second because I heard that Miho had sent the final boulder but I totally forgot to add up the attempts… Tim finally took out his smartphone and showed me the IFSC app. My jaw dropped, I couldn’t say anything and I just threw my arms around him. And then it was like a production line of hugs…!

First steps

So to get to be world champion you need to start somewhere…
I don’t know exactly when. I was really little (see photos borrowed from Stasa’s website), in fact I’ve been climbing as long as I can remember. Obviously when I started out it wasn’t serious at all. Then there was a period when I didn’t want to climb because I was scared of heights, so while the other kids were climbing on the outside wall, I would be in the playground playing football, skateboarding, anything except climbing basically. That lasted about a year or so. And then I decided to go back to it. Nobody made me, in fact they were pretty surprised. So then my parents would take me along to competitions, because basically they couldn’t leave me at home. We went to Bulgaria, and I won my first silver medal in lead and speed in an international competition there, I think it was in 2006.

And that was the start of my career really. We would travel to Austria where there were a lot of comps going on in the Tyrol. But I could never get on that damn podium… but we didn’t stop because we wanted to break down that barrier…

When you say we, you mean your family?
Yes, my parents and I were THE team, we called ourselves the Trio Fantastico, and we still are I guess! Then suddenly in 2010 I won the Colour Cup in Imst, Arco Rock Junior, the Petzl Climbing Trophy and… well it was a bit like this year, I won all the comps that were organized for my age group. Also that year I climbed my first 8b and at the time I was the youngest girl to do that.

Wait, I’m confused, this is bouldering?
No, no, I used to be a lead climber back then! When I went into Youth B, I didn’t boulder at all, it was just lead, then I got into bouldering the following year, and I did both disciplines for a couple of years. But puberty hit and my lead results started to fall away…. I grew a lot, and quickly, I couldn’t get any endurance, but I was able to maintain my power. Before the EYC in Laval, the last bouldering comp of the season, I started to work on power training: campus board, overhangs etc. and it really paid off. That time showed me what I was capable of, and how I could raise my level if I trained properly and listened to my body.

Like this year, I was in the 1st year of my category, up against the 1996 girls, which is one of the best generations ever, and that’s when I reckoned I was destined for bouldering.
In 2014 I continued with lead but I was literally sick of bad results. I can’t stand not being the best I can be. I’m a fighter that wants to compete, that’s how I was raised.
I often wonder if it’s a good thing or not, to have been raised to be so competitive. But when I look at my results and the prospect of a professional career that is opening up ahead of me, I reckon it was probably no bad thing.
Well, if you’re going to become a world champion, you have to be totally committed, right? And if it doesn’t matter to you whether you win or not, you’re not going to push yourself…
Exactly. I think it takes a certain type of personality.

Back to the beginning for a second, did your family climb and that’s why you started?
Yes, my father was a rock climber, an Alpine climber, he went to the Himalayas and all over the world, my mother started climbing when she met him, she was Balkan champion when she was competing. They built a wall in my home town and started a club in about 1999, and there’s still a youth and senior team there. (right and below Stasa at the European championships at Argentières-la-Bessée 2015, photos SMcC)

Can we talk about…
No wait, I have something to add about lead versus bouldering. I trained A LOT this autumn and I’ve really got back into it. I had
a bit of a crisis because I hadn’t touched a real rock since maybe April or something, there was bad weather and all, so I did some indoor lead climbing and it felt great. I think I might do both next year…

Something to do with the prospect of Tokyo 2020 perhaps where they seem to be talking about the combined event?
Ah now, wait a minute.I decided to go for the combined event BEFORE the announcement about Tokyo….

Because you were looking at the combined title inArco ?
Yes. Arco changed me (looks heavenwards, hand on heart, then laughs).
4 years on, I’ve finally got my endurance back, which is a completely new experience! One day in training I got to the top of quite a hard route and I wasn’t pumped, it was bizarre!

Munich

So you’re saying Arco changed you but there were a couple of “minor “events just beforehand, one of which was your first ever senior World Cup final…
I don’t honestly know which was the bigger shock, winning Arco or getting into the final at Munich.
It was totally unexpected. I didn’t really have any expectations except maybe to make semis, because I had done that at Innsbruck in the European champs and I wasn’t satisfied with my performance there. So this time I wanted to climb well in all the rounds. Which I did, apart from the first boulder, when I was too nervous. It was just a basic jump and I couldn’t do it. It took me 3 attempts. And that’s the kind of mistake you just can’t get away with twice. (I get 1st boulder nerves in pretty much every event. I really need to overcome that.)
And then in the semis I REALLY climbed my best, it was absolutely amazing. I was proud of myself. I didn’t even need to be in finals, I was just happy I had done a great job, which was what I had come for. And then suddenly it’s like ‘OMG you’re in finals’, everybody’s going mental, my parents, my coach, the whole Slovenian team that I train with… it was great to have that huge support. The event was amazing, and the finals were fabulous.

The venue itself is outstanding, isn’t it? I imagine with the glass roof, all the noise is contained, so the atmosphere must be unique?
My ears hurt! You couldn’t hear yourself think! And you don’t know who they’re shouting for… Shauna Coxsey’s amazing, she seems to have this antenna back in isolation that picks up when they’re shouting for Adam or for Akiyo or whoever, it’s freaky. So she knows exactly what’s going on and who’s done what.

Something to learn from for next time! I do dream of going there, it looks fabulous.
Well come next year because you can bet I’ll be there!

Did you notice a real jump in level between the juniors and the seniors ?
Oh absolutely, especially in the finals. In the senior qualifiers, it’s a lot about power, to sift out the (relatively) weaker climbers. Then in the semis it’s more technical (balance, jumps, you need to be careful), and I found that the easiest round. But then in the final it’s both and it was my hardest final ever. First, I was tired just because of the whole competition, for example we don’t get semis in youth comps, so that’s an extra round, everything was so exhausting!

I couldn’t warm up properly, I just didn’t feel in good shape. My coach was telling me it would all be fine, and I so wanted to believe the hype (laughs), but deep down I knew it wasn’t the case. But I still enjoyed the finals, even though it was really hard and I was in bits afterwards. Physically and mentally.

Emotionally it must be massive. This huge high and then… bang, back down to earth… but in terms of self-confidence, were you buzzing after Munich? Or did you have to talk yourself down from being over-confident?
Yes that is the danger, for sure.

Generally, in a competition, I try to lower my expectations as much as possible. I treat each round as a new round. There are no prior victories, no medals, I start from zero each time. Semis are not a foregone conclusion, I need to make sure of qualification. I know when I feel strong, and I know the job I have to do.

Preparation and objectives

So in terms of preparation for your season, do you play these mind games with yourself? Do you set yourself low(ish) objectives and try to beat them or set them really high and maybe risk disappointment?
This season was like stairs. I started with the European cups, then the European championship, World Cup, World Championships. And each event was bigger than the previous one, which was a good thing for my progress through the season.
Back to objectives, last year in my home town I was nominated for young sports personality of the year. I’d won it two years before but last year I didn’t. And I said to myself, next year I’m going to take it home. For sure. 100%. So I’m going to win every single competition. ..
Basically I have two modes : training, and competition.
When I’m in training mode, I have the highest expectations possible, it’s about victory and nothing else exists. In competition mode I lower myself to zero and that’s how I function.

Well I’m listening to you and I know that what you say is true and yet it’s not (she smiles). Because even if you lower your expectations in competition, you know what you’re capable of … Also it’s interesting to watch you and other youth competitors around the competition area. You talk to people, you’re all smiles, others are in a bubble and really tense. So unless you have a potential future career in acting, and have me fooled… I know you’re aware of the pressures but you seem to be able to step away from it when it’s showtime.
Yeah, it’s fight mode. I put a smile on my face and try to enjoy myself. Tension kills me. This year I learned how to control myself, my thoughts, my feelings, including enthusiasm and euphoria.
When I heard I had got into finals at Munich I couldn’t let my emotions overwhelm me. I just accepted it: ok finals, great, let’s do it. I need to find internal balance, to suppress nerves. Lead climbing in Arco made me realize how nervous I get in bouldering. In fact, when I know I’m strong enough going into a competition it’s the only battle I need to win, to fight myself and the nervousness. It’s great to see the people I love out there in the crowd, smiling back and all the positive energy that gives.
I remember seeing you at the finals in Argentière-la-Bessée (European championships) and when there’s eye contact with someone who supports you, your friends and family, it just gives you more energy to fight better.

We recently did an interview with Sebastian Halenke and he mentioned the importance of his family too, but if we project (as I think we safely can) to future competitions in maybe Vail, Toronto or Asia… where maybe your usual fan club won’t be able to follow you, will you feel at a disadvantage?
Well my friends will also be competing, so no sweat! And if I have no friends somewhere, I’ll just make some new ones (laughs). That’s what happened in Arco with the volunteers, the judges, photographers (and right with Eddie Fowke at the European championships) … So even if I don’t have my closest people there, the others are still close to me.
We’re climbers, we’re a Family.
Funny you should say that, we think so too at Climbing Family… laughs.

Training, separation and sacrifices

So back to planning for the season. Do you plan the whole thing out : here’s what I need to do to be on form here, there, whenever? Also you need to balance between your studies and training… How does that all work?
Well, in terms of planning, we didn’t really discuss that in detail. I just let my coach do his job, which he does really well. We have a great relationship. I rely on his experience and believe that what he says is the best thing. If I have any doubts I ask him. So then we discuss it, he explains why. If I don’t agree I’ll tell him, and then we try to find the best solution. Either I convince him or he convinces me, but we work it out.

Who usually wins?
He does.I complain a lot, it’s my way of dealing with the pain of hard training sessions etc. but then I shut up after a while.

Are you a nightmare to train?
Ask him! (laughs) I think you can imagine what I’m like on a bad day, like today when everyone’s climbing and I’m just doing abs. I was in tears a couple of times… (Stasa is injured, more on that in a minute).
You were asking about the balance between school & training. My new coach coincided with me moving to Slovenia to school. It was REALLY hard at first. I didn’t have any energy for training. I’m pretty sure coach didn’t expect that… but then after the Christmas break, it was a new beginning. We started from scratch with physical preparations, then technique & everything that he had on his clipboard. And it worked out pretty well… (smiles)

When do you get to go home ?
We get about a week every 6 weeks, but sometimes there are competitions. I spent a total of 2 weeks at home this year, one in the spring, one in the summer! But my parents try to come over and are at competitions when they can. Obviously there’s a cost involved. But we’re used to it.

Well there are a lot of sacrifices to be made to get where you want to be, and that’s maybe the biggest? It must be tough on your parents to let you go too…
Sure, but if you really want something SO bad, you’ll sacrifice everything for it. My typical day for example, is to get up at 6:45, get ready, have breakfast, school is half an hour away, I’m at school until about 2:30, back to the dorm, have lunch, sleep for half an hour, then back for training near the school for at least 3 hours, come back to the dorm, study, sleep, repeat.
Oh and Skype in between 😉

So when you DO get some free time, what do you with it ?
Sleep! or sometimes play video games (8 ball pool on the computer, I was into online poker for a while, don’t ask me why) and recently I’ve started to go out for coffee more, I used to be pretty antisocial (laughs). I go for walks sometimes, but not too often.

Music ?
Yes I listen to music a lot on the way to school and back, I play the viola (I was in the school orchestra, I’ve been playing for about 8 years now).

And how does the viola work with your climbing fingers.
Usually ok until this injury… guess I’ll find out on Saturday.
I did a couple of years of music school in Serbia but now it’s just too complicated. But I do try to keep it up.

Balancing studies and training, career prospects and injury

Career wise, you want to be a pro climber but it’s hard to earn a living from climbing, so what are you studying to be?
Currently I’m in my last year of the International Baccalaureate, which is a pretty demanding program in English (her English is impressive – Ed.). When I’ve finished this, I plan to study electrotechnics, and specifically energetics here in Slovenia. I’m technically minded.

Are you going to try to combine a climbing career and a ‘proper job’?
While I’m at university at least yes, I’m going to try to do a Masters, I definitely want to finish that at least and get a job one
day. I don’t think I can live from climbing. I’m not sure I have the patience for coaching for example! You always need a backup. This is a sport. You’re completely reliant on your body, so if you get an injury that doesn’t heal and you don’t have a backup, you’re stuffed.

OK we’re going to have to talk about the finger injury…
Well it’s not 100% sure but the first diagnosis is that I have a ruptured pulley on my index finger.
It’s the A5 which is not good but it is the smallest one… but in any case it needs to heal, I’ve had MRI scans… an Austrian physio told me that after 2 weeks I should start climbing to build up the new ligaments because they won’t be strong enough for climbing and I could injure them again. It’s been a bit over a week now.

That’s exactly the opposite of the received wisdom isn’t it?
But now they say too much rest isn’t good, and it’s not good for your shape either. Coach and I are talking about it, he isn’t convinced it’s a rupture. We’re waiting for some new results. I was psyched for the World Cup in Kranj but … (sighs)
I think I’ll cut it off!
If Tommy Caldwell can climb with 9 fingers why can’t I? (laughs)

And on that note… Climbing Family thanks you for this peek into your life Stasa.
We’ll be hearing more from you in the future for sure, and we’d be happy to share your news with our readers !

vir: climbingfamily.net
foto: Bram Berkien / Adidas Rockstars

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