Chaehyun Seo: Climbing to the top of the world

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Seo, a 17-year-old rock climbing sensation, came last during her first competition at elementary school, but now has her eyes set on creating history at Tokyo 2020.

Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo next year and will feature three disciplines: speed, bouldering and lead, with final rankings determined by multiplying athletes’ placements in each discipline. Climbers will therefore have to possess balanced skills and abilities in all three disciplines in order to secure the sport's first-ever Olympic medals.

Among those aiming to finish on the podium is 17-year-old Korean climber Chaehyun Seo.

Seo only made her senior debut last year but immediately attracted worldwide attention. She was ranked no.1 (in Women’s Lead) during her senior debut season and won the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) Lead World Cup overall title. Her achievement raised the possibility of Seo making her Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, and her dream became a reality when she topped the Asian rankings in March.

After the Asian qualifiers – originally scheduled to take place in April – were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Seo was handed her ticket to Tokyo based on her World Championship performance last year. However, just a few weeks later, her dream came crashing down when her qualification was scrapped following the postponement of Tokyo 2020.

She now has to compete at the Asian Championships this December in order to secure her place at Tokyo 2020 once again.

A general view of the venue during the Sports Climbing Tokyo 2020 Olympic test event at the Aomi Urban Sports Park
A general view of the venue during the Sports Climbing Tokyo 2020 Olympic test event at the Aomi Urban Sports Park
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Tokyo 2020: What did you think about the postponement of the Olympics?

Seo: I was shocked at first since I never imagined the Olympics could be postponed. But my thoughts have been changed since because it also looks like a good chance to improve my skills. Now, the postponement has become a motivation to me.

Your tentative qualification was cancelled in March. What’s your opinion about this?

It’s a shame, but at the same time, I felt uncomfortable because I thought I took other athletes’ chances without a competition. So, it’s a good thing that now I have to compete against other climbers in a competition.

Have your plans for the Games been changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

I should be training at the National Training Centre (sic.) with team mates. Now I am training alone since group training is not allowed. Also, it’s hard to climb outdoors for lead training since outdoor training centres are closed these days.

Your qualification depends on the results of the Asian qualifier in December. Any special preparations for the event?

I’m strong in the lead discipline so now I’m doing more training on bouldering and big movements. And speed is now constantly in my training regime. I used to train for two categories, lead and bouldering, but I am now spending much more time to improve my speed which I have not focused on so far.

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My first WC season is over😻💯 Last WC INZAI was 3rd🥉 I had great experience in this season and I made amazing season in this year😍🥰 Thank you for cheering me especially @jongkukseo @tanksoyoung 💕 And congrats to my teammate @allezjain 🥇 She is so amazing and I respect her! Real legend🤩 이번 시즌 무사히 마치고 귀국했습니다🛫 올 시즌 함께한 @allezjain @sasol_climber @kimlan_o3o_ 수고많으셨습니다아❤️ 상상도 못한 시즌 챔피언 타이틀, 자인언니와 함께한 마지막 포디움, 자인언니의 부상 회복 이후의 첫 우승 다 너무너무 행복했습니다😻👍 자인언니 너무너무 축하드리구 제가 1등했을때보다 더 감격이었어요😭😭 응원해주셔서 감사합니다💪🏻 @blackdiamondkr @blackdiamond @thenorthface_kr @umhonggil_humanfoundation @allthatsports.official #2019 #lead #WC #INZAI #🥉 #champion #🥈🥇🥇🥇🥇🥉 #KOREA #🇰🇷 #climbing

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You skipped youth competitions to compete at senior tournaments. You came in second at your first World Cup, and you won the next one. Were you nervous?

I’ve never been nervous because climbing is always fun to me, and I really enjoyed all the competitions.

Please tell us your thoughts when you topped the world rankings (in lead) following four straight gold medals at World Cups.

My initial goal was getting into a final, but I was able to manage this at my first attempt. Then I was ranked no.1 in the world. It’s like a dream. I was very excited about that because I had hoped it would happen for a long time.

How did you start sports climbing?

My parents are both climbers and my father owns a rock climbing facility. It was natural for me to climb rocks and walls from very young age. After I went to elementary school I became more interested and fell in love with the sport.

When did you decide to be a professional sports climber?

I didn’t make a ‘decision’ or have a specific desire for being a pro. At my first event, when I was in first grade at elementary school, I finished very bottom of the competition. But even with the bad result I found that I still loved climbing. So I just continued to do what I loved to do, climbing and keep taking part in competitions. I became a professional sports climber naturally.

What is your goal as a professional climber?

I want to win gold at the Olympics and become an all-round climber in all three disciplines.

What do you want to do after Tokyo 2020?

For now, I just want to climb natural rocks all around the world. There are specific rocks with certain difficulties which I have aimed to climb. But yes, [I want to travel] around the world to climb rocks.